PARIS — Let’s party. That message is at the heart of haute couture, a bacchanalian fest of longing and fantasy, of temptation and indulgence. Once sleepy as an old dog, couture has been resurrected with the economy, and in recent seasons, its ascent has seemed limitless: more hype, more frenzy, more extravaganzas and, along the way, more clients willing to lay out beaucoup bucks for the highest ticket prices in haute history. After all, it’s only money, and there’s plenty of that these days. Why not celebrate?
In some ways, the opening weekend of the fall season strengthened this notion. Fashion’s premier party girl Donatella Versace once again roped in the stars for her front row and post-show bash at Bon. At Givenchy, Alexander McQueen faked a big, boisterous party, complete with a New York apartment set, a bounty of dancing boys and a Willie Nelson lookalike. Along the way, both designers showed what they view as real client clothes, as did Jean Paul Gaultier. (Some in the audience, however, questioned McQueen’s devotion to that goal.) Earlier, in an irritatingly dark outing for Christian Dior, John Galliano also started out in a festive mode — with a wedding party. He then explored life after the party, behind closed doors, when things can get kinky, really kinky.
Yet despite all the festivities, real and staged, a tentative aura underscored the weekend, as if not enough had happened. Whether that feeling sprang merely from the schedule’s leisurely pace, or indicates the start of a new, transition phase for the couture, remains to be seen.
There was nothing tentative about Donatella Versace’s stance. Like her runway, Versace is rockin’ — back-to-back smash hits in ready-to-wear, and now, her best couture ever. Donatella’s recent success clearly stems from an ever-strengthening confidence, and the fact that her sensibility is perfect for the moment, including her penchant for celebrity-flaunting. Let naysayers criticize the approach, Versace nevertheless ropes in the kind of names who get even the most jaded fashion types straining their necks for a better view. Sassy girl Jennifer and her man, Puffy, good girl Gwyneth and her brother Jake, the happy Spielberg couple, Milla Jovovich, Stephen Dorff and Billy Zane.
What they saw for fall was classic Donatella: fun, feisty, flamboyant, and always super-sexy. If it had a bit of a luxe ready-to-wear aura to it, that just offered welcomed relief after the onslaught of S&M imagery at Dior. But then, low-key is relative. Backstage before her show, Donatella pointed to a lime green curly-feathered chubby, and said, “That’s for day, for the shopping.” Exaggeration, perhaps, but people will wear these clothes. The house, in fact, reports that couture sales are at their highest point ever, and that sales doubled from last fall to spring.
Couture has been so elaborate for so long that it’s easy to forget there can be another side to it, or that there is one that doesn’t have to mean suits, although certainly Versace showed her share, one in a cashmere-croc combo. But she also took another practical notion and made it sizzle, going for mix-and-match with fabulous embellished blouses over tight, sexy pants. Another hit: the plunging-neck cocktail dress done up with thousands of minute golden sequins. For bigger evenings — and the Versace woman has plenty — there were gently colored draped gowns of the Grecian sexpot variety. As for Donatella’s mile-long sable, it might not be a bestseller, but for the woman with a zillion bucks, it’s the ultimate indulgence.
Of all the couturiers in Paris, none shows greater reverence for the great French institution of couture than one-time renegade Jean Paul Gaultier, perhaps because he’s one of the few who are genuinely French. Whatever the reason, Gaultier shuns circus couture in favor of old-style presentations, and if the pace can get the fashionably antsy a bit agitated, it keeps their focus on the clothes.
For fall, Gaultier started with the promise of perfection, real clothes of the chicest variety for women of the same mien. His first exit, a knockout: a black and white tweed dress with a likeness of Kiki de Montparnasse worked ingeniously into the tweed. This portraiture became a motif, as Gaultier repeated it for day and evening, focusing on icons Kiki and Edith Piaf. Clients, however, can feel free to digress. “It can be anyone — this is couture!” Gaultier noted before his show. “For Mouna [Ayoub], I can do Mouna!”
He then turned to suits, and as always, they drew gasps, perfectly cut and imaginatively detailed. Throughout, Gaultier flaunted his status as a creative classicist, with a sable-lined jeans jacket, a glittery twinset, an inventive trench-kilt hybrid.
Unlike past seasons, however, when Gaultier allowed his distinctive take on Parisian chic to present itself in cut and attitude, this time he announced it more overtly, scripting “J’adore Paris” in rolled fabric as part of bodices. In addition, what started as an amusing detail — the Eiffel Tower etched on the back of hosiery — became a full-blown theme in a number of evening dresses, including, you guessed it, a battery-operated twinkling Tower. Amusing once or twice, but by the third time, trite.
Yet there was no dearth of luxe for the rich and glamorous at night. From curvy mermaid sheaths to an aged velvet scarf gown with miles of fringe, Gaultier kept them curvy, sexy and dripping with sophistication.
Party time at Givenchy? At least on the runway. Off the runway, however, rumors continue to swirl about Alexander McQueen’s future at the house, despite management’s constant denials that it’s fishing for his replacement. What guy wouldn’t want to forget his woes at a big bash? And besides, McQueen noted that clients “from Dubai to Los Angeles” wanted party clothes. “The real millennium,” he said, “doesn’t start until 2001.” So McQueen staged a bash. And it looked so real, at least one security guard didn’t realize that two women in sharply tailored suits done up with flashing lights weren’t show crashers but models, the first guests to arrive outside the imaginary red apartment building. Then, the walls fell to the floor, unmasking a scene of drinking, posing and a lot of male gyrating.
Into this scene sauntered McQueen’s legions, parading the kind of notice-me chic that runs from slick to tough. And if they were almost always out of sync with the half-naked dancers, who cares? Everyone knows that a good party’s in the mix.
Diversity, in fact, was just the point, since McQueen said he wanted to deliver the individuality his clients demand. And so he did, just as long as they’re not looking for shoulder options; McQueen likes them strong and pointed. Otherwise, he turned his sartorial skill on a motley cast of characters, from proper matrons to perky Penelope Pitstop, done up in flower-power leather and a huge matching helmet. In between there were lots of angular power suits, bold, beautiful and definitely not for everyone.
Yet despite his hard-edged reputation, McQueen has a soft side which he flagged to perfection in, for example, a fabulous lace Union Jack dress, a canary ballgown, and, because some girls have a sassy side, a richly embroidered kimono over a Vegas showgirl sizzler.
Throughout, McQueen piled on the accoutrements of showmanship, most notably a series of increasingly odd headdresses. The most bizarre: a giant tulle ball totally covering a girl’s head. While these added nothing to the fashion, they were occasionally amusing, and, mercifully, the clothes usually outshone the folly.
As for McQueen’s party itself, as with many fetes — not to mention many fashion show themes — the novelty had worn off before the dancing stopped and the guests bolted. But through most of the affair at least, a good time was had by all.
Whips, chains, heavy breathing and lots of lavish embroideries. Midnight in the garden of the Marquis de Sade? No, just another John Galliano spectacle for Christian Dior. And despite the characteristic moments of great beauty, in the end, it was a painful mistake.
A reputation can be a heavy albatross. Only Galliano knows if the pressure to maintain his image as the madman of fashion too powerfully impacts his decisions; he may feel duty-bound to outdo past spectacles time and again. Certainly this season, he was faced with the issue: After haute homelessness — the most talked-about couture show in many years — what do you do for an encore? Galliano chose to spin a dark fable of S&M lust and luxury which he pretended was rooted in the house’s history. “For me, Christian Dior was the first fetishist designer,” Galliano proclaimed. “With the New Look, and even before, he was in complete awe of his mother, and that’s when Oedipus raises his gorgeous head!”
Maybe it was old Oeddie who led Galliano astray from his embrace of romance, a ploy which has worked in even in his most out-there collections, including the homeless couture and the insane ode to childhood from the last Galliano ready-to-wear. But here, Galliano shackled romance and whipped it to death, to the point where S&M became an audience participation event, at least the M part.
Galliano told a family tale, beginning with the wedding — a high-glam affair with some of the most exquisite evening looks around (along with a haute lineup of relatives, including Aunt Marisa Berenson and Grandmama Carmen Dell’Orefice). The bride was glorious in curvaceous white with an endless veil; her very young husband, in white tie and tails. (Throughout, Galliano showed quite a bit of men’s wear, and one couldn’t help thinking that perhaps he was sending a message to new Dior colleague Hedi Slimane.) There were frilled bridesmaids and elaborately done-up guests, including Anh Duong in a fabulous asymmetric mink jacket. But as James Goldman’s Eleanor of Aquitaine, who knew a thing or two about bondage in marriage, once said, “Every family has its ups and downs.” If you didn’t follow the bride and groom all the way down the runway, you might have missed that the groom’s hand were bound behind his back in strands of diamonds and pearls.
Harbinger? And how! Out came the whips, the chains, the buckles, the distressed and distraught accoutrement, not to mention everybody’s dark side. Along the way, there were military personnel wearing fab coats and grim countenances, a ghastly figure with bound lips and head surgically wrapped in plastic, a Marie Antoinette wind-up doll, her dress lavishly embroidered with prettily rendered guillotine imagery and a marionette in richly embroidered Chinese robes, her controlling crossbars positioned to mimic Christ carrying the cross. In fact, the erotic religious imagery continued, as Galliano was inspired by the paintings of Clovis Trouille.
To drive home the universal bondage motif, everyone wore a corset, from the bishop who opened the show to the little flower girls. Throughout, the point got stronger, the onslaught tougher to take until the end, when a new bride in a wedding dress made of deconstructed tuxedos now secured her female groom, decked in a red tuxedo, on a leash. The relentless message had long since turned distasteful. But the real torture was that Galliano chose to deliberately mask the beauty of his clothes.

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