True Romance: Love Was In the Air at Paris Couture

True Romance: Love Was In the Air at Paris Couture
(l-r) Dior, Chanel, Maison Martin Margiela, Valentino couture spring 2013
((l-r) GUILLAUME BAPTISTE/AFP/Getty Images, Julien M. Hekimian/Getty Images, MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images, PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images)

Perhaps not surprisingly, florals and romanticism emerged as the dominant themes of the couture spring '13 collections, which closed yesterday. The Paris catwalks all but bloomed, but not everything was sun-kissed and Holly-Golightly. Darker moments crept in, such as Giambattista Valli's burnt-looking croc treatments and Valentino's diaphanous black ballgowns. Here, a recap of the shows, from Ulyana Sergeenko's southern belles and saloon gals, by way of St. Petersburg, to Karl Lagerfeld's Bavarian wood-nymphs at Chanel.

There was a sheen of tentativeness wrapped around Raf Simons mostly clean and airy aesthetic at Dior for his sophomore couture collection at the fabled house. Where the label's dynamic-yet-disgraced previous designer John Galliano was a flame-thrower, Simons is more like a Gerhard Richter candle — beautiful, but flickering and transparent. However, the missteps in this collection, small though they may be, weren’t big enough to damage it. Lime-green tights under a jet coat, with pink wildflowers embroidered on the nude lapel, and a full-bodied mauve skirt ribbed in free-form piping and wrapped in pink pansy appliqués felt just the slightest bit under-conceived, despite the major-league stage. Yet where Simons had a surer hand, the results were exceptional — achingly romantic reminders of springtime meadows so very far away from New York’s current deep freeze, such as with tangerine baby’s breath sewn like stardust across an otherwise crisp white dress and jacket combo. Simons is growing on us, and there’s a ways to go, but he will get there.

Giambattista Valli's spring ‘13 couture collection was an exercise in true, and more importantly, original beauty. The show started with a marked black-and-white scheme, ranging from a snow leopard-motif coat dress (snow leopard is having a moment, no?) to a racy evening number, cut and flared at the waist and croc-scaled down the middle. The show then progressed into familiar Valli territory, at least in terms of hue, with rich dusty pinks and lavenders aplenty. A major highlight here was the designer’s bronze-colored bows, belts and floral necklaces — evoking something Grecian, in addition to the Italianate grandiosity and overall modernity of the collection.

Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Picciolo have, by now, firmly established themselves as worthy and innovative successors at Valentino. Spring radiated from the catwalk as the duo sent forth ornate, diaphanous, and flower-embroidered gowns, in tandem with slick minimal sheaths in cloud white and house red. Rolled crepe formed a cage around a majority of the frocks (and even shoes, in some instances), evoking first-thaw vines sprouting from the ground, as well as wrought-iron gates guarding some baroque church garden. That piping took five hundred combined man-hours to roll. Yet it wasn’t all bright and breezy — Chiuri and Picciolo interspersed the love story with darker options, including a sheer-sleeved black and vermillion dress with red notches along its mini-V collar. So even though this collection captured the season’s cues, the otherwise overdone inspiration felt new, and it felt like magic — a secret garden Parisienne.

Karl Lagerfeld often overproduces, and he clearly enjoys indulging in Chanel's seemingly limitless budget. For spring ‘13 couture, Herr Karl brought us deep into a German forest, by way of Paris’ Grand Palais. Essentially, Lagerfeld was channeling nature, both spatially (with each tree and shrub individually placed — a curated thicket, if you will) and sartorially (a veritable garden of graphic floral prints and embroideries). It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Lagerfeld a god of sorts, creating this micro-world with such astute thought and process. In his Bavarian Eden, there were pieces that surely held as much temptation as Eve’s fateful fruit, such as a sequined funnel-shouldered evening coat twinkling with embroideries of stringy petals, like amoebic birds-of-paradise, over a taffeta and black-crystal-trimmed skirt. Lagerfeld closed the show with two hand-holding brides (he traditionally finishes couture with a wedding gown), reportedly as a comment on France’s same-sex marriage controversy. 

For Ulyana Sergeenko’s second collection, the Russian street-style darling-turned-rookie couturier shifted her narrative from the baroque heights of the Russian Empire to the Wild West, recasting her haute babushka heroine with a crinoline-clad Gibson girl. Her histrionic vision of the American West — complete with exaggerated ballroom skirts, bustles, breathless corsetry, and enough fringe to deck the halls of a boarder-town bordello — walks the line between fashion, costume, and farce. Sergeenko’s pageantry isn’t for fashion purists — and, at times she is vulnerable to accusations of undiscerning and unserious showmanship  — but she nevertheless realizes the full extent of the full-blown, unchained fantasy that fashion offers.

Also a Couture Week sophmore, Maison Martin Margiela's Artisanal Collection, Margiela's special line of one-off pieces created from upcycled vintage clothing, injected a dose of Eco-consciousness into the indulgent confectionery of Couture week, balancing exquisite clothes and conceptual play in equal measure. The refreshing anonymity of the designer(s) allowed the collection — a breviloquent and tightly-edited sequence of 19 looks painstakingly cobbled together from found materials — to speak for themselves. Also incognito were the models, whose faces (as per the house's tradition) were shrouded behind intricately patterned balaclava emblazoned with deco beading. In an alchemical coup, the collection's remixed tuxedo dresses, bedizened Poiret-like frocks, and Félix González-Torres inspired candy wrapper dresses managed to recycle the past without succumbing to nostalgia.

Jean Paul Gaultier's woman for spring ‘13 couture is, apparently, the sort of client who favors the conscious celebration of bad taste — think western fringed jackets, bra-revealing bombers, and gilded snakeskin trenches. Where Gaultier has so often taken the louche and the decadent and spun them with elegant, eccentric, only-in-Paris effect, this time his effort fell flat — its joie de vivre eviscerated by its aimlessness. Gaultier invoked a bit of Arabia, with richly hued headscarves, and mixed in a bit of India, with the subcontinent’s sartorial maximization of color and adornment. But there was little coherence, making the collection feel choppy, as if the designer were distracted. Look no further than an obsidian-black coat, fringed in chocolate-brown leather along the lapel, its skirt tiered in fabric swaths in colors resembling badly-dyed easter eggs — a disaster, for all intents and purposes. The show’s closing look, a wide-hooped dress patch-worked in matte gold bits with a harness across its chiffon-sleeved midriff top, sealed the sloppiness — especially when the model lifted it to reveal four small Indian children underneath.

Lastly, Georgio Armani showed a loosely Middle Eastern-inspired collection for his Armani Prive line  complete with (slightly odd) baton-like elements knotted and woven into silk tops and skinny-blazer lapels. Alexis Mabille and Elie Saab stuck to their guns, with red-carpet friendly gowns in colors pink and glacial, via materials translucent and sparkly — and frankly, both read a little boring, despite the hyper-femininity and of-a-certain-bracket appeal of the designs. In an adjacent neighborhood of tasteful yet dull, Bouchra Jarrar stuck to a chic diet of tapered pants and luxurious outerwear. Turned out in a  sumptuous palette of royal blue and burnt sienna, Jarrar's clothes make for reliable and timeless investment pieces, but the overall presentation lacked the wow quotient demanded by couture. And Versace was well... Versace. Donatella toed the line with pinstripe suits tricked out with 24-carat gold, shiny blazers worn without pants, and sheer minidresses in various shades of neon — all of it heavy on glitz and questionable in taste.