Haute-couture week used to be fashion's time-out. The pace was leisurely, leaving lots of opportunities for the ladies who lunch to get plenty to eat. The clothes were elegant, the kind of things one wears to the Paris Ritz, darling. The salons were small and intimate, the better to see the craftsmanship. But the gradual rotation of the old guard (out last season, Yves Saint Laurent; out this season, Oscar de la Renta at the house of Pierre Balmain) to the new (first John Galliano at Christian Dior, most recently Julien Macdonald at Givenchy) has transformed the week to one of pop stars, parties and product launches.
The new-generation shows this season were full-fledged extravaganzas. John Galliano's platform shoes tripped up more than one model and with Indian-like feather headdresses towering above them, the slightest twist of an ankle caused audible gasps in the audience. The clothes were packed with Galliano's notoriously wide-ranging references from punk to pregnant Kate Moss to Marilyn Monroe (a New York city-sidewalk grate blew air up from below to recreate the Marilyn effect).
Before putting pen to sketch pad, Julien Macdonald had a long conversation with Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH, and Yves Carcelle, the man in charge of its fashion brands. "We decided it was time to explore new territory," said Carcelle. That meant Macdonald could break away from Givenchy traditions and do his own thing. Before the backdrop of a city skyline, Macdonald showed off couture versions of dresses from his popular ready-to-wear line. Shiny, strappy and asymmetrical, the frocks were a drastic switch from the Givenchy heritage he'd been mining with little success in previous seasons.
With the departure of Saint Laurent, Valentino became the last couturier of his generation to design in his own name. The collection he showed clearly demonstrated why, despite his years, he's still the designer of choice for the junior socialite set, many of whom the Hilton sisters, Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece joined him for dinner and dancing in his Place Vendôme studio afterward. Also present: the consummate Hollywood clotheshorse Gwyneth Paltrow, to better impress Valentino's new owners from Marzotto, including Michele Norsa, the man in charge of the group's fashion brands.
At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld dropped the rock'n'roll of his last ready-to-wear show and instead invited intimate groups of 140 to two viewings in Coco Chanel's original showroom. The clothes studies in contrasts with tweed jackets over tulle skirts harked back to those elegance-first days.
Sandwiched between the classic old guard and flashy new are the middle-aged guard, who first made their mark in the 1980s. Christian Lacroix, recently named designer of the Pucci label, showed a collection brimming with confidence. Feathers, sequins, fur, leather as one fashion editor said, it was "like the model walked through the studio and everything stuck to her." But there was discipline to the decoration, and the result was a show to out-haute the best of them.
Like Lacroix, Gaultier mixes age-old techniques embroidery, appliqué, draping with New-Age ideas. His client needs a sense of humor to wear his dress with printed pearls, his feather harness top or his short crocodile jacket, with tail. Indeed, humor might be the salvation of haute couture. After all, if you can afford a $20,000 dress these days, you should be laughing.
Yohji Yamamoto showed his ready-to-wear collection during haute- couture week, months ahead of October's prêt-a-porter shows. It's the latest in a string of avant-garde moves from a very avant-garde designer. He also announced he'd be designing a line of clothing to go with the shoes he produces for Adidas. No wonder the party to celebrate his new book, Talking to Myself, was packed with admiring designers.
For the last 10 years the haute-couture collection for the house of Pierre Balmain, established in 1945, has been designed by Oscar de la Renta. But no more. De la Renta will now spend more time on his own collection. Balmain will announce a successor this fall.
Less than a year after her appointment as creative director, London-based jeweler Solange Azagury-Partridge was ready to present her first show for the Gucci Group jeweler Boucheron. The collection was diverse featuring Art Deco-like earrings, a shimmering gold scarf and an attention-grabbing snake choker but far more traditional than what she sells at her eclectic London boutique.