It’s that time of year again, the depths of winter in Paris, gray and snowy. And as I write this, it has snowed for the past 3 days, and although snow is a nuisance in any city, it is beautiful here, and I love it. And it has been VERY cold!!!
As I’ve written to you before in previous years, in January, there are the Haute Couture fashion shows. In years past, Haute Couture was a VERY big deal, the shows lasted for a week, there were many “Haute Couture” houses, and there were four or five shows a day to show the creations of the various houses. It was a flurry of fun activity running from one show to the next, with movie stars and presidential wives present, well known women on the best dressed list, and a glittering crowd with invitations to see the show. (Even now, you can only go by invitation). What distinguishes Haute Couture from other kinds of fashion is that every single item is handmade. EVERY stitch, hundreds if not thousands of hours go into the embroideries, the sequins, the construction of the clothes, exquisitely made, the samples are shown on the runway by models, and everything has to be special ordered, what you see is only a sample of the dress, and the samples usually go into the archives and museums of each designer, and are rarely sold. The people who work on these clothes do 12 years of apprenticeship before they are allowed to work on the clothes. It is a dying art. Now most of the houses that made these clothes have disappeared, one by one (St. Laurent, Balmain, and others), and there are really only two Haute Couture houses left: Dior and Chanel. Both make ready to wear clothes too (shown during Fashion week in February/March), but these two houses still create these remarkable clothes that are truly part of a dying art. The clients of the past have vanished, the prices are exorbitant because of the intense workmanship involved, and there is very little market for them, but putting on these shows twice a year still showcases the remarkable skill involved, pays homage to the best of French fashion, and is wonderful publicity for the houses that make them. Millions of dollars are involved in the production of these events, both to create the setting, and produce the clothes. And it is a treat to be there to see it. You can look up these shows on style.com to get a feeling of it. I have gone to see them since I was a very young girl, and still find it exciting to see what they’ll come up with every season.
In January, they show summer clothes, and at the July show, they show their winter collection.
I saw the Dior show first, on a snowy evening, with snow and ice on the ground, a tent had been set up in the garden of the Tuileries, entering off the Place de la Concorde, in front of the famous Louvre museum. And it was about a two block hike, slipping and sliding to reach the tent, which was comfortable and well heated, with bleachers for everyone to sit. This was the second collection by Raf Simmons, the new designer at Dior. His first was last July in an extraordinary setting in a house, where each room was ‘tapestried’ with flowers, as though the walls were made of flowers, each room in a different color, pink, white, blue, etc. It was amazing. This time, there was a garden effect, with bushes that had been planted in a kind of maze pattern, where the models walked around so everyone could see the clothes, and they were very pretty. The models are very tall, frighteningly thin, and walk past expressionlessly (by tradition) so as not to distract from the clothes. They stare straight ahead, walk in towering high heels, and the models at Dior yesterday had a thick layer of red glitter on their lipstick, which made them look almost like dolls. And the clothes were very summery and kind of ‘dreamy’, in pastel colors, flowing fabrics, a lot of strapless dresses, and a very summery look. The collection struck me as very young looking, all of it would have looked gorgeous on my 4 daughters in their 20’s, but none of it would have looked great on me. It looked like a collection for young girls. The new designer for Dior is Belgian, and has been there for less than a year. Previously he designed for Jil Sander, a German designer, where he did strong ready-to-wear clothes which I loved, wonderful basics, good colors, and terrific clothes for every day. Now he is designing Dior’s ready to wear, and the Haute Couture, and I’m sure it is very difficult to enter a new design firm, at a very old established house which has its own style. He is emerging gently into the world of Dior, without making a bold statement. The clothes were really lovely and delicate, and looked beautiful on the models. Traditionally, there is always a wedding dress at the end of an Haute Couture show, and this time there were four, one more beautiful than the other, mostly white with touches of the palest pink. The wedding dresses were truly gorgeous!!!
The show that Chanel put on today for their Haute Couture collection was entirely different. Chanel makes a big splash with every show they put on, whether for ready to wear or Haute Couture, sometimes literally in terms of the ‘splash’ (A few years ago, they flew in an iceberg from Sweden as part of the decor, and kept the building bitter cold to preserve it before they flew it back to Sweden the next day. I can’t even imagine how you fly an iceberg anywhere!!! The base of the iceberg melted a little during the show, and the models paraded around the iceberg in 6 inches of icy water in high heels, many of them losing shoes, and never missing a beat, a step, or batting an eye. It was quite a show!!) Chanel’s decor for their shows is always amazing. An uninhabited ‘planet’ a year ago, with volcanic rock everywhere and a look of desolation with giant crystals standing in sand, an enormous gold lion one year, last winter the entire interior of the setting was made to look like an airplane with videos of clouds, drifting past the ‘windows’, totally amazing. This time, they had set up a summer forest, that looked like it might have been near a beach. You walked in among live trees (to the recorded sound of birds) and the models walked through sand beneath the trees. It was a beautiful fantasy that set the tone for the summer collection. And the dresses were spectacular, lots of black and white, and color, incredible beading and sequins, with clothes that would look gorgeous on women of every age. There was something for everyone in the Chanel collection, there always is. The designer leaves no one out, and everyone sat dreamy eyed as they watched it, especially knowing the workmanship that went into it. There were roughly 60 or 70 outfits shown, each one complete with jewels and accessories.
Chanel is designed by a remarkable man, Karl Lagerfeld, he is German, and has designed for Chanel for many years. Somewhere around 80 years old, he also designs for his own label, also for Fendi, does museum quality photography, and designs Chanel both ready-to-wear and Haute Couture, several collections a year. His clothes are fabulous and his talent immeasurable, as witnessed yet again by the show I just saw in the tree-lined beach setting at the Grand Palais. It was a truly beautiful show, with a little twist for the wedding dress in his show too. Two identical wedding gowns were worn by two beautiful models, with a 5 or 6 year old boy in a white satin suit walking with them, so the impression was that of twin brides, which was a very pretty closing for the show. Mr. Lagerfeld came out briefly at the end of the show, with his snow white hair tied in the ponytail he always wears with a black ribbon. And as always, he delivered a fabulous show!!!
Another element struck me this time, as I watched both shows, and it’s not a new concept, but I thought about it more than previously. Many French men (and Europeans) have had mistresses as far back as the court of Louis the Fourteenth and long before. Divorce was impossible in European (Catholic) countries (France, Italy, Spain, and others) until recent years, so men stayed married and had mistresses. And even some allegedly ‘happily’ married men had mistresses as well, often much younger than they. And the trend of much older men, with very young pretty women is not new either, even in the States. Hugh Hefner, at 86, recently married a 26 year old woman, a 60 year age span between bride and groom, unusual perhaps, but variations on the theme are prevalent these days, and perhaps always were among successful men who have much to offer a young woman materially. There are no more expensive clothes than Haute Couture, and designing them for very young women is a big statement on the customs of our times. Some designers of Haute Couture design for very young girls, who can’t possibly afford the clothes, which leads one to believe that older men allied with very young women are buying those clothes—they are surely not buying them for their middle aged wives, if the clothes are geared mostly to young girls. Designers like Lagerfeld, on the other hand, are designing for those lucky young women who have older, substantial men to buy clothes for them, and for a more mature client who can afford those clothes as well. There are not a lot of clients for Haute Couture these days, but it’s nice to see collections that everyone can wear, at a broader range of ages. In any case, as always, I thoroughly enjoyed the shows, the workmanship, the beauty of what are really works of art, and at the same time, in some ways, reflect the customs and mores of our times. In its own subtle way, fashion has always reflected what is going on in the world. Take a look at style.com if you want to see the clothes. They are truly beautiful!!!