In a world first, this summer’s Haute Couture shows aren’t being held on the catwalks in Paris but are instead appearing digitally, with the top couture houses including Dior, Chanel and Valentino having to find innovative new ways to share their latest collections. Conjuring up mesmerising fashion films and elaborate back-stories to bring their creations to life, the new move has revolutionised the way we experience Couture, perhaps forever. Here we take a look at the show’s highlights, rounding up the most magnificent and spellbinding looks and campaigns from the Autumn/Winter 2020-2021 collections.
“I was thinking about a punk princess coming out of ‘Le Palace’ at dawn,” reveals Chanel’s creative director Virginie Viard on the inspiration behind her new collection. “With a taffeta dress, big hair, feathers and lots of jewellery.” In stark opposition to the simplicity and rigour of her spring Haute Couture pieces, which were inspired by Coco Chanel’s schoolgirl uniforms at the Aubazine convent, the 30 looks on display for Autumn/Winter shimmer with an understated opulence. “I like working like this, going in the opposite direction of what I did last time. I wanted complexity, sophistication,” shares Viard.
Full-skirted retro cocktail dresses and tweed tunics embellished with sequins are teamed with glittering jewels from the Chanel High Jewellery collections, while punk mohawk hairstyles top off many of the looks. Alongside this there are some subtler, more elegant pieces, like silk velvet evening gowns and inky sheaths. “This collection is more inspired by Karl Lagerfeld than Gabrielle Chanel,” says Viard. “Karl would go to ‘Le Palace’, he would accompany these very sophisticated and very dressed up women, who were very eccentric too. I really had Karl’s world in mind.”
This season, Dior’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri drew her inspiration from the surrealist art movement for her A/W Haute Couture collection, turning to the work of artists such as Lee Miller and Dora Maar to embrace a different kind of femininity. Statuesque gowns in muted neutral tones and striking black are juxtaposed with bold of pops of colour like coral red, taken from the bright hues found in Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning’s paintings.
To coincide with the collection, Chiuri also released a enchanting fashion film, Le Mythe Dior, to reveal some of the more whimsical ideas behind the pieces. Opening in a Parisian atelier, we see a team of dressmakers hard at work on a series of miniature versions of the Couture pieces, which are then transported to a magical forest, filled with nymphs, mermaids and tree-people, for whom these tiny delicate gowns have been created. “Surrealist images manage to make visible what is in itself invisible,” says Chiuri on the collection. “I’m interested in mystery and magic, which are also a way of exorcising uncertainty about the future.”
Ralph & Russo
London-based Couture house Ralph & Russo took a thoroughly modern approach when it came to showcasing their latest Haute Couture collection, creating a unique digital avatar to model their show-stopping gowns. Their virtual muse, Hauli – whose name means ‘strength and power’ in traditional Swahili – is rooted in African origins and acts “as a reflection of womankind, of the beautiful and inspiring women bringing courage and positive change to all four corners of the world.”
Depicted posing against the Seven Wonders of the World, including the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China, the pieces Hauli models display several of the maison’s signatures, with outsized ruffles and exaggerated silhouettes in vibrant golds, sky blues and lavender. The aim for the collection, according to creative director Tamara Ralph, was to present something “infused with wonder. Reflecting on the far-reaching beauty of our natural world and the digitally charged future, [we’re] encouraging all to take refuge during this difficult time in the world of fantasy, to look beyond and to dream.”
Presented as a love letter to Paris and its ateliers, Giambattista Valli kept things simple with his digital Haute Couture presentation, with a video starring supermodel Joan Smalls wearing a variety of looks while in a split-screen next to her, scenes of a wintry Paris, from the Eiffel Tower to the Seine, flash by. In homage to the craft of the traditional ateliers, the collection celebrates everything that’s integral to the DNA of Couture, with a focus on volumes and extraordinary shapes and silhouettes.
There are frothy tulle tiers and enormous taffeta bows, worn alongside a black chiffon face-covering mask that can be seen as a nod to the pandemic. As for the colour palette, Valli drew his inspiration from the city of lights itself, using “red like the lipstick marks often found on empty cups on the tables of the Parisian cafés, black like the notorious ‘Petite Robe Noire’, pink like the wild roses growing in the city’s gardens and ivories like the moulures that adorn windows and ceilings.”
While this may have been the first digital Haute Couture Week, the AW20 season actually kicked off with a physical event on Sunday, hosted by Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, who turned a barge on the Seine into his runway for the afternoon. Using the hashtag #BalmainSurSeine, Rousteing climbed aboard with a host of models, including Cindy Bruna, wearing a range of voluminous velvet gowns and elbow-length opera gloves, many of which were rare creations by the founding couturier from the house’s archives, to sail from the Eiffel Tower eastwards, pausing only for a performance featuring French pop singer Yseult beside the Pont des Arts footbridge.
Rousteing referenced Joni Mitchell’s line from her hit Big Yellow Taxi, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”, in his show notes, writing about the need for friends, solidarity and community during these difficult times. He certainly treated locals to a show, and Rousteing described the two-hour spectacle as “our gift to Paris, the City of Light.” The event was live-streamed on TikTok, a first for the platform, but you can catch it again on the FHCM’s site this Saturday at 20:30 Paris time.
Presented through a series of sketches depicting tailored power suits and fluid gowns alongside more avant-garde outfits including opera gloves paired with back to front denim trousers and barely-there bodysuits, Schiaparelli’s A/W Haute Couture collection currently exists only on paper. In lieu of their usual show – which will instead be held in Los Angeles in December – the French fashion house has released a film entitled Collection Imaginaire, which follows creative director Daniel Roseberry as he dons a face mask and leaves his apartment in New York, where he has been marooned for the last few months in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, to head to a bench in Washington Square Park, where he proceeds to sketch out the entire Couture collection in one sitting.
“Life today is lived according to opposites; the pandemic has inverted everything we knew,” says Roseberry. “Now, instead of a team to execute this collection, I just have my own imagination. Instead of the Place Vendome in Paris, it’s been designed and sketched on a park bench. Everything has changed, but imagination, and the drive to create, has never been more relevant, or more profound. This collection is a tribute to that impulse to create.”
Viktor & Rolf
When it comes to Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren’s designs, you can always expect the unexpected. And in these strange and uncertain times that was truer than ever for their AW20 collection, as the eccentric duo addressed Haute Couture in the coronavirus age with a series of three mini wardrobes – comprised of a nightdress, a dressing gown and a coat – each symbolising a different state of mind.
Presented in a video with a quirky, scripted voiceover by singer Mika, the looks move from a sombre raincloud motif and socially distanced fabric spikes, meant to embody “a feeling of sadness and anger, familiar to many these days”, to a series of outfits signalling our conflicting emotions, with a gown covered in lace-encrusted emojis the standout piece. The final ensembles “radiate love”, with the show-stopping finale piece, a white faux leather coat (the duo use sustainable fabrics wherever possible in their collections) covered in dozens of glittering hearts. “[It illustrates] that we all deserve to be loved, regardless of age, colour, gender, race, religion or sexuality,” reads a statement from the designers.
While Valentino may have been the last to present at the FHCM’s digital Haute Couture Week, the season won’t officially end until 21 July, when the Italian maison’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli debuts his collection in Rome. As a precursor of what’s to come, the house offered up a one-minute teaser video entitled “Grace and Light”. Directed by Nick Knight and with a haunting soundtrack by FKA Twigs, the film shows an abstract figure draped in fabric that billows and ripples in the air, illuminated by a metallic light. While the figure in the video doesn’t seem quite human, and we never see their face, it nevertheless conveys a powerful sense of emotion.
Knight cites American actress and dancer Loie Fuller and her influence on the Art Nouveau movement as a key inspiration, “which in turn is reflected in the freedom, elegance, and the grace in this collection,” he says. “A couture creation comes to life only through movement, light, colours, and music, but mostly through the human being beneath it, wrapped in it, welcomed by its fabric,” Piccioli adds. “The one who dances and the one who dreams. Couture is alive, and so is the dream.”