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Paris Couture: Wild or Mild

The Paris fall couture shows began with John Galliano's grand-scale collection for Dior and Giorgio Armani's Hollywood looks at Armani Prive.

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Dior: The stage set for John Galliano’s Christian Dior collection sent expectations sky-high: the ruins of a once-glorious garden, grand iron gate overrun with vines, paths strewn with toppled statuary and discarded, cobweb-covered chandeliers. Somehow, this made the perfect backdrop against which he would celebrate the house founder in typically complicated fashion. In this centennial year of Dior’s birth, Galliano riffed wildly on his body of work — as previously interpreted by Rene Gruau, Christian Bérard and Cecil Beaton — while folding in a soupçon of Peruvian pep because, why not?

Galliano billed the show as “an interesting exploration into the construction of Haute Couture,” and if it didn’t fulfill that promise exactly, it did make a joyful argument for an element of evening fashion too often ignored these days — diversity. At a time when dressing up has, despite the publicity it generates, become something of a rote affair, Galliano dared to put the grand scale back into grand events. And if not a single one of his remarkably embellished tulle-over-corset creations was client/celebrity-ready per se, each offered the overstated germ of an idea ripe for reality mining. The siren may be swell — Galliano dedicated a section to her, engaging the iconic likes of Linda, Shalom, Naomi and other supermodels to play Rita, Ginger, Ava et al — but she’s hardly the only one invited to John’s party. His is an open-door policy, welcoming in the Edwardian ladies of Dior’s early childhood, his extravagant New Look mannequins and glorious debs à la Princess Margaret in full-on ballroom regalia. (Calling all Lindsay and Scarlett types: Why not ditch the diva trappings in favor of some young-girl party clothes while the window’s still open?) And because, in Galliano’s tome, no history is sacrosanct, he Dior-ified traditional Peruvian garb in an imagined ballet choreographed by Margot Fonteyn.

What Galliano did not do was run as far as he might have with his haute construction exposé, content instead to build each look in a similar fashion — that is, in see-through tulle over nude corsets — albeit with very different effects. Nor did he deliver that one longed-for couture look that was, well, ready to wear. But just as he did last season with his Josephine-cum-Edie Sedgwick stunner, Galliano once again focused on the glorious possibilities inherent in daring to be different.

Armani Privé: Giorgio Armani’s Armani Privé was launched with a roar last season, becoming an instant red-carpet regular on women such as Katie Holmes, Beyoncé and Cate Blanchett. Now, having established the label’s profile, for fall Armani decided to invest in a larger collection (from about 20 looks last season to 51), rather than “buy a painting,” he said during the men’s shows in Milan. The result played genuine chic against a high-gloss, borderline-kitsch homage (the antenna hat, the lacy gloves) to the haute of yore.

Armani started with daytime glam, his droopy furs outshone by exquisite tailoring. Despite too-sharp shoulders, tiny peplumed jackets detailed with rosette closures or finely ruched waists looked terrific over fluid trousers or skirts with siren curves. But rich-lady suits notwithstanding, couture today is ultimately about evening, targeted ever more acutely to that endless schedule of high-profile celebrity events, from which visuals are played around the globe ad infinitum. In that world, it’s the actresses (or their stylists), rather than the designers, who call the shots. Thus, while the au courant cliché bills the Oscars as the world’s biggest fashion show, it’s not true. Because most of what’s on the red carpet is not real fashion, but rather a series of task-specific clothes that fit certain criteria: Dresses that photograph well, that highlight rather than hide or distort the thinness of the wearer, that appeal to mainstream notions of chic.

On that scale, Privé works beautifully. The gowns were glamorous in the siren sense, most looks hugging every curve — or lack of them — and ending in a pose-worthy mermaid flounce. Yet overall repetition deflated individual appeal in Armani’s parade of one ultralean dress after another, strapless morphing into halter into one-shoulder with little obvious distinction, the sea of irritating blackness offset not at all by a splash of dark brown, and not enough by a few pale embroideries. Still, these are the kind of evening clothes, as the saying goes, a woman can’t go wrong in, which, for the red carpet, means no major faux pas to be rehashed through eternity.

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