Despite the fact that many couturiers have closed their doors and shuttered their ateliers, the spirit of haute couture is alive and well in Paris this season. From Valentino's exquisite beadwork to Christian Lacroix's trademark mix of bold colors and patterns, the shows thus far have been truly spectacular.
Armani Privé: Giorgio Armani's first attempt at couture was exactly what one would expect from him: simple, wearable suits, graceful column dresses, and lots of beige. There were some fantastic jackets and gorgeous beadwork, but most of it looked like slightly more expensive versions of his ready to wear. Armani did go out on a limb with a few dresses composed of layered ruffles and his "visionary"curlicue headpieces, however. Still, there's no doubt that it will please his loyal clients, and some of these dresses will definitely end up on the red carpets.
Valentino: ethereal, lightweight dresses fit for a princess. Valentino was inspired by the colors and mood of desert, and he showed his collection against a backdrop of the desert landscape, making the models look modern Cleopatras (the dramatic makeup didn't hurt, either). The clothes were almost entirely done in whites and shades of sand, except for his trademark red dress at the end, of course. Although it was beautiful (Valentino has a master hand with embellishment), this collection didn't quite capture the magic of couture - many of the clothes were unflattering and like Armani, it could have been ready to wear with more expensive details.
Chanel: Karl Lagerfield is an old hand at couture, and it showed with his Mlle. Coco inspired collection. This was a softer version of the classic Coco look, with lots of ruffles and lace, but it was grounded with flat black and white boots paired with almost everything to excellent effect. The presentation itself was absolutely stunning, with the models coming down a stark white staircase in the center of the Petit Palais - echoes of Coco's atelier in a intriguingly modern space.
Christian Dior: John Galliano is a mad genius who, if he wasn't in fashion, would probably be in a padded room somewhere. At his collection for Dior, the ghosts of the French Revolution haunted the catwalk wearing billowing skirts, corsets, and complicated jackets spattered in embroidery. Accessorized by massive crosses, crocodile boots, and the year "1789" (the year of the French Revolution) stenciled on their bodies, his eerily made-up models stalked down the runway to the sounds of Madonna's new album. Theatrical and over-the-top, the show was fantastic and completely Galliano to the very end, when he came out dressed in torn leather and brandishing a rapier. Love him or hate him, you have to admit Galliano is nothing if not daring. As for the Kiffen, j'dore Dior!
Christian Lacroix: This is what couture should be: a fantasy world populated by extraordinary characters wearing amazing costumes. Lacroix's collection was definitely not ready to wear in any sense of the phrase, but that is point of couture. He is a master at mixing color, pattern and texture, resulting in controlled chaos that is closer to art than clothing. Inspired by his native Arles, this collection mixed the Mediteranean with French baroque for a sublime result.
In the end, haute couture is art, not fashion. It's meant to be a designer's fantasy - not to be wearable (the designs are always adjusted to client's specifications, and generally toned down). It also serves as advertising; the more over-the-top, the more attention a show attracts. And attention is what drives fashion.