Sometimes it takes a newcomer to conceive fresh ideas. At the house of Givenchy, it took the new kid to dream up an old idea. Riccardo Tisci, plucked in March out of the Milanese fashion scene with no couture experience and just three eponymous ready-to-wear collections under his belt to head up the beleaguered house, wants to return Givenchy to its historical roots. "We went back to the archives to look at the old way of making couture dresses," said the designer, 30, as he welcomed guests to his fall–winter couture show last week. "Everyone basically thinks Audrey Hepburn when they think of Givenchy, but there is so much more. There is a hardness and a romanticism to his work."
To showcase those signature qualities, many designers would have recreated the kind of 1950s couture salon setting that recalled the glory days of founder Hubert de Givenchy. Tisci's return to what he called classics went further, banishing scenery, seating, even the runway. A throng of fashion press and buyers meandered through the dusty salons of Givenchy's Paris headquarters to view models in chiffon dresses and embroidered fur jackets posing as if in an avant-garde art installation.
Tisci may be haute couture's most recent inductee, but he is clearly plugged into the same collective unconscious that informs his long-established colleagues and rivals. Restraint, romanticism and rediscovery were the recurring themes at many of the Paris shows, with designers as diverse as Karl Lagerfeld and John Galliano plundering the archives of the brands they helm: Chanel and Dior respectively. What they found was that by concentrating on fabric and stitches and the genius of couture's petits mains (seamstresses), they could revive the sense of drama and romance that once made French fashion so special.
At Dior's show, that drama was scripted by the life of the fashion house's founder, Christian Dior. In preparation, Galliano and his team spent hours poring over sketches at the couturier's historic home in Granville in Normandy. The resulting show, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Dior's birth, started with two black stallions and a turn-of-the-century carriage that deposited a glorious Edwardian vision in gray tulle onto the runway. The audience was treated to a fashion history lesson, the postwar full-skirted New Look that put Dior on
the map giving way to a series of 1950s-style debutante gowns and finally a parade of Hollywood-inspired entrancemakers all deconstructed to look like works in process and thus demonstrate the skills of
There were lessons to be learned at Karl Lagerfeld's Chanel show, too. He presided over a confident master class in craftsmanship, which opened with a procession of models in long black coats with feathers peeking out of hems and collars. All at once, they removed the coats to reveal striking evening dresses in fuchsia, pale pink and black-and-white embroidered to look like tweed, and classic tweed suits in dragée pastels embellished with jeweled chains. Giorgio Armani displayed a similar penchant for the somber and the serious with heavily beaded and embellished all-black evening gowns. This is only Armani's second couture season in Paris, but he has infiltrated the ranks with ease, bringing with him devoted fans including Tina Turner and Tom Hanks' wife, Rita Wilson.
Yet even as designers such as Armani and Tisci make their mark on the Paris couture scene, some old masters have been reasserting their influence. Over dinner in his château outside Paris, Valentino confirmed that he and his business partner, Giancarlo Giametti, had renewed their contracts with their owners the Italian textile group Marzotto after rumors last season that the Roman couturier would soon retire. Last week, Valentino showed no sign of quitting anytime soon, as he showed an ever-rich collection of velvet suits beaded in jet, topaz and crystal, and point d'esprit gowns in solemn black or graphic black-and-white. Even with the newcomers in Paris this season, it was the old guard who triumphed in their sobriety and skill.