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Who is couture for?

If I had a penny for every time someone has commented “This isn’t couture!” whenever I’ve posted a haute couture show on Instagram, I’d be a very rich woman. Perhaps even rich enough to go sniffing around a haute couture salon, asking a vendeuse to start the hallowed process of procuring a one-off, made-only-pour-moi look from, say, Dior or Chanel. What is and isn’t couture has become something of a cynical debate among online armchair fashion critics, rearing its head every time the haute couture shows come around. It prompts further questioning: Who is haute couture really for? The general audience from afar that demands dramatic ball gowns, intricate embroidery, and unadulterated lavishness? Or the client, who actually has upward of £100,000 to spend on an ensemble? And what, then, is haute couture’s larger resonance and relevance when it can be afforded only by a fortunate few?

celebrity sightings paris fashion week haute couture spring summer 2024 day one
Zendaya and her swishy satin Schiaparelli horsetail trainClaudio Lavenia - Getty Images

As a publicity exercise, haute couture is a rarified opportunity to really flex some brand muscle during a week when there are fewer shows compared to the ready-to-wear schedules in March and September. Thanks to the viral moments Daniel Roseberry has steered Schiaparelli toward, the once moribund house is very much alive now, and kicked off this month’s Haute Couture Week in Paris with a rumination on pre-internet tech. Schiaparelli is never short on star power, but even Zendaya and her swishy satin horsetail train were eclipsed by model Maggie Maurer carrying a robot baby encrusted with old computer chips, CDs, and antiquated cell phones. Turns out Roseberry has been contemplating our inevitable AI-fuelled near-future and how machine learning might yield the extreme sculptural pieces the designer has become known for.

a model in a white dress holding a robot baby
Schiaparelli’s robot babyCourtesy of Schiaparelli

I saw it and thought of the industry’s weird relationship with motherhood. Fashion is both kind and punishing to working moms — it might be an industry full of women, but after the child is here, we’re also expected to get back on the fashion cycle and look fabulous instantly. Guess a robot baby will have to suffice for those who can’t or choose not to child-rear. In the broader conversation about artificial intelligence versus humanity, haute couture holds perhaps the biggest trump card: For now, the handiwork of those petites mains can’t be automated.

At Dior, haute couture is client-centric. The house’s show last week was teeming with loyal fans. That’s likely down to Maria Grazia Chiuri’s championing of a decidedly pragmatic approach toward couture — solid clothes that will actually be worn day to day — which perhaps invites naysaying hot takes online.

a model walks the runway in a red moire suit
A red moiré suit at DiorDaniele Oberrauch

This season, Chiuri was fixated by the storied fabric moiré: silk embedded with a wavelike pattern, once considered a mark of royalty and nobility, and now more commonly seen in stuffy interiors. She was looking at Monsieur Dior’s 1952 La Cigale dress, which subsequently became a style democratised through department-store Dior lines. The designer sent this austere-looking fabric down the runway in shades of blue, champagne, and burgundy alongside trench coat iterations that fit the daywear bill.

I thought it was canny for Chiuri to take a more archival turn and reference La Cigale. Dior’s La Galerie museum, attached to its 30 Avenue Montaigne store, has very long queues. Heritage sells, and haute couture, after all, communicates the roots of these storied houses. No doubt interest in the new spate of fashion biopic series — like Cristóbal Balenciaga on Disney+ and The New Look, the forthcoming Dior series on Apple TV+ — will filter down into sales.

a model wears a long coat and a chartreuse bubble skirt
Valentino’s worldly take on luxuryAlessandro Lucioni

Chiuri’s former design partner Pierpaolo Piccioli was also thinking about a more grounded vision of haute couture. That’s why there were practical pockets aplenty at the Valentino show, held in the intimate salons at Place Vendôme. Against a heady backdrop of an aubergine carpet and burnt-orange stools, Piccioli went to town with his deliciously genius colour combinations. Chartreuse with aqua blue? Why not? Light sherbet green with a shot of tomato red? Yes, please.

a model wearing a garment
Alessandro Lucioni

But among the taffeta gowns, sheer negligee trailing dresses, and tinsel embellishment was a utilitarian ease. Evening skirts often came with giant cargo pockets.

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Victor VIRGILE - Getty Images

A parka with stiffened organza feathers on the hood (no real feathers were present, save for Kylie Jenner and daughter Stormi’s matching feathered ensembles) was just one of the many practical outerwear options flooding the collection.

kylie jenner and her daughter stormi arrive at the valentino show
Kylie and Stormi arrive at Valentino.Jacopo Raule

Some guests might have been able to brave the cold outside in strappy dresses and bare legs, but let’s be real — we all need good coats, even if it is cocktail hour.

valentino  runway paris fashion week haute couture springsummer 2024
A great coat from Valentino’s couture show Marc Piasecki - Getty Images

What has become something of a Valentino tradition is that every artisan and seamstress in the atelier takes a bow at the end of the show. They practically outnumbered the models. Of course, it takes a super-skilled village to make a double-faced cashmere coat that hangs off the shoulders just so.

Kylie and Stormi aside, this week wasn’t about big celebrity moments. Instead, technique prevailed, bringing haute couture back to its roots as a place where newness and innovation are born and then filter out into the fashion ether.

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Photo: Filippo Fior / Gorunway.com

Pieter Mulier asked a very small number of people to sit very close to one another on marshmallowlike Philippe Malouin sofas in Alaïa’s store space for his pre autumn/winter 2024 collection, which was shown during Couture Fashion Week, and take a close look at one singular yarn. As in: Mulier developed the yarn, which was then manipulated into a multitude of forms: Looped and draped directly on the body. Shaped into bulbous spherical skirts. It wrapped itself around the body like a coiled snake. Wool pieces were cut on the bias and layered up like fabric topiary. It was all mesmerising to watch and made you stop and think: I have not seen it done like that before. Which in itself is a rarity in fashion these days. Treating his collections like an ideas laboratory is yielding dividends for Mulier.

margaret qualley wears a white ruff suit at the chanel couture show
Margaret Qualley makes us want white tights at Chanel.Carlo Scarpato

At Chanel, Virginie Viard honed in on balletcore. The outside world’s heaviness and instability begone — in the cosseted world of couture, we need escapism too. Viard went for light, froth, and froufrou dresses in tulle and organza. It was like a very elevated vision of dolly kei (a Japanese street-style subculture) with the abundance of white tights, fondant fancy pastels, and crinoline skirts.

a woman wearing a white dress
Carlo Scarpato
a woman wearing a dress
Carlo Scarpato

Despite the frivolity, there was also an approachability to the clothes. The distinction between day and night was blurred; you could imagine many of the looks worn by girlhood aficionados. There is, of course, a young couture customer too, and Margaret Qualley in an all-white tweed mini suit with a Pierrot ruff (a reference to a 1937 Gabrielle Chanel photograph) and a finale bride in puff-sleeved mini with a nonchalant bow in her hair are bound to be inspo points for the girlcore demographic.

a model wearing a ribbon take on jean paul gaultier's sailor look
Simone Rocha reinterpreted the house codes at Jean Paul Gaultierlaunchmetrics.com/spotlight

For those who expect haute couture to be a “dream,” perhaps the show that fit that opulent bill was Simone Rocha’s guest designer turn at Jean-Paul Gaultier. Gaultier himself has retired, and currently oversees the house’s newfound dialogue with a string of younger designers. (Charlotte Knowles, Glenn Martens of Y/Project, and Sacai have all previously guest-designed for Gaultier.) On paper, the synergy between the Chinese-Irish Rocha, known for ethereal romantics, and the former enfant terrible of fashion might not have been obvious. But when the show unfolded, there was real fashion kismet happening. Rocha took Gaultier’s iconic corsetry and loosened it up. JPG’s marinière stripes were rendered in ribbon. The cone bra was placed on a prim black suit, or in Victoriana two-tone taffeta. Every look took your breath away as it made its way down the silver-covered runway.

a person wearing a dress and walking on ice
Launchmetrics.com/spotlight
a person wearing a dress
Launchmetrics.com/spotlight

But underlying the intense beauty and sublime show, there was a more pertinent point to be made. Last season, following the departure of Sarah Burton from Alexander McQueen, the internet asked, “Why are most fashion houses currently designed by white men?” When you witness visions like Rocha’s, you wonder where she could be placed. It keyed into wider shouts of misogyny just as Greta Gerwig, Margot Robbie, Greta Lee, and Celine Song were snubbed at the Oscar nominations. Immediately after Rocha’s Gaultier show on Instagram, there was a comment chorus line of “Give her a house!” Haute couture might feature some wildly talented female designers, but in the wider ecosystem of fashion houses, there is still a gender imbalance that needs to be rectified. Time will tell.

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