Fashion Week

Couture Fall 2021: Paris takes a new aim at "normality"

For the first time in a long time, the greats of the fashion industry met in Paris to present expertise, extravagance and evolution. The collections are the answer to one question – what is couture today?
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Photo: Balenciaga, David Prutting, Alessandro Lucioni

It did not matter if you were right there on location or still watching from at home, seeing the who's who of fashion gather in Paris for Couture Week marked the end of hope and the beginning of a new kind of familiar normality. 

For many, it was probably a kind of reunion, a coming together after a long winter in front of screens. The sheer joy and enthusiasm of being able to participate in the spectacle that is fashion gave the Fall 2021 shows a special meaning. This time, the collections of the world's most prestigious houses were more than "just" proof of their tailoring skills or innovative spirit. Rather, they are the materialised processing of those emotions and thoughts that the pandemic has caused. 

The Fall 2021 Couture collections tell stories of the past just as much as of the present and future. They are like signposts that show where couture is today, without forgetting where it once was and where it will be next. These textile stories are products of renowned masters and emerging talents, and show what fashion can move not only within us, but also change around us.

Floral themes in Autumn? However, the choice seemed fitting given that this time feels like a true blossoming. After a period of caution and uncertainty, spring has finally arrived. French designer Alexis Mabille, once at Dior with Galliano and praised for his designs by Lagerfeld, drew inspiration from the iconography of the femme fleur. This was translated literally as sculpturally draped flowers run through the entire collection. An emerald green mermaid dress has cuffs in the shape of pale pink roses made of satin. You see something similar at Daniel Roseberry's Schiaparelli. Here, red iridescent petals gather on the front of a black, figure-hugging off-shoulder dress.

At Chanel, it's just as floral, but in a more subtle way. Inspired by early 20th century Impressionist and Pointillist artists, complete gardens are found on garments such as a black tweed coat with bright chiffon flowers worn with a densely floral patterned sequinned skirt.

While sequins made just a few appearances at Chanel, glitter was in abundance elsewhere. Our regained freedom must be celebrated, and what better way than with pieces that catch everyone's eye and reflect the light in every direction imaginable. Zuhair Murad has long been known for his extravagant creations. This time it was Venice with its ability to be unsinkable and unforgettable that inspired the designer to create voluminous as well as fitted pieces to make women feel just as magnificent. A bodysuit covered in an intricately woven pattern of crystals and beaded chains, with reinforced shoulders and an elongated neckline, exuded pure glamour.

Azzaro also had power dressing to offer. A tuxedo suit full of silver sequins is the perfect choice for nights out. Simultaneously, it is the perfect tribute by creative director Olivier Theyskens to Loris Azzaro, who dressed It-girls like Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin during the disco era of the 70s.

After his hiatus, everyone was happy to see Giorgio Armani at the Armani Privé show. In his pastel-coloured collection called "Shine" he made sure to have his designs do just that with dresses and suits made of silk organza. A jacket with fine feathers and glass pearls over a pink two-piece further enhanced the hologram effect that is prevalent throughout the collection.

It wouldn't be couture in Paris without big gowns. Giambattista Valli, expert for ruffles and tulle, wanted to capture the flair of the modern la vie parisienne. Uncertain but always full of expectations, life goes on in Paris, as everywhere else, because after all, you only live once. This resonates with Valli's collection, which is an extravaganza of metre-long trains and bows which are contrasted with clean cuts and monochrome looks.

Dutch designer Iris van Herpen takes it from the city to the sky. Always innovative, she designed a couture dress for French skydiver Domitille Kiger, who tested the creation at lofty heights. "Earthrise" features a palette of blues and greens broken up by pure white. The dresses are typically sculptural, full of geometric shapes reminiscent of flora and fauna. Transparent fabric is stretched through round hoops, mimicking the wings of a butterfly, where each movement triggers a new one.

For his second couture collection for Fendi, Kim Jones has incorporated the materials, colours and shapes of Rome, the birthplace of the House of Fendi, into his creations. In a short film by Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino, 90s supermodels Kate Moss, Christy Turlington and Amber Valetta walk through a minimalist stone building. The wide A-line gown in mint with a high-necked collar and long sleeves is lavished with the finest feathers and represents just about everything you would expect couture to be.

The highest form of fashion design may be bound to tradition and expression, but it also allows for fantasy. Some collections take you to other worlds and tell their own stories. One of the youngest designers of the week, 24-year-old Charles de Vilmorin, presented his second couture collection, which is almost entirely in black compared to his first very colourful one. In a short film by Colin Solal Cardo, models are seen in the wilderness of the desert dressed in crinolines, draped in feathers and sporting eye patches. Fashion meets Mad Max. One black number fits the silhouette of the body perfectly and gives the impression of being surrounded by flames.

At Viktor & Rolf, things are more colourful and bold. In tune with the hype surrounding Bridgerton, the designer duo shows its pompously royal creations against a fairytale background. Plastic crowns and sashes with contemporary pop culture references make it timely and social media appropriate.

John Galliano likes to draw inspiration from the past to explain the present. Just like in "A Folk Horror Tale", an over an hour-long film showing the creation and presentation of the Artisanal Collection of Maison Margiela. An isolated community of fishermen struggle to survive against the elements in patchwork jumpers, fitted jacquard jackets and costumes with frayed seams. The story is a metaphor for the struggles young people experience in regard to mental health issues and prejudice surrounding them. Everything is made from finds from vintage stores and charity shops and has been altered using a variety of techniques, as Galliano explains in the film.

The show on everybody’s mind was Balenciaga. The house founded by the greatest couturier of the 20th century, Cristóbal Balenciaga, presented a couture collection after 53 years. The salons of the atelier at 10 Avenue George V were decorated exactly as they had looked on the day of their closure. Curtains bleached by the sun, carpets with stains, walls with cracks in them. Without any music, only the footsteps of the models could be heard as Demna’s couture debut was presented to the amazed masses. Like no other, he skilfully combined Balenciaga's codes, silhouettes and techniques with his personal forte – streetwear. Blue jeans, tote bags and oversized parkas meet concentric hats, evening gloves, exalted silhouettes and dramatic gowns.

Jean Paul Gaultier collaborated with Japanese designer Chitose Abe of Sacai, showing that collaboration is not only a recipe for Ready-To-Wear success. An admirer of Gaultier herself, it came naturally to the Japanese designer to combine the characteristics of her brand – deconstruction and fusion of different pieces into a new one – with the French brand’s classics. The perfect example of this is the cobalt blue boiler suit with a bustier in the style of the iconic cone bra and flared skirt combined with sneakers typical of Sacai and a second-skin mesh top with a tattoo print designed by celebrity tattoo artist Dr Woo.

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Photo: David Prutting

However, it was Kerby Jean-Raymond, creative director of the American label Pyer Moss, who demonstrated what couture can and should be in our age. Originally scheduled for Thursday evening, he postponed his show to Saturday due to a tropical storm. But, it was well worth the wait. As the first Black designer at Couture Week, he chose an equally historic location. At the estate of Madam C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire of African-American descent, Kerby Jean-Raymond presented a collection that serves as a highly expressive social commentary on Black life in the US. His pieces tell stories of strength and success, as well as racism and injustice experienced on the daily.

While many looks were reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, it was the orange morning coat with quilted lapels and turquoise seams worn with a cape made out of an abundance of hair rollers which is all over the Internet today. Not much of a surprise, considering that the opening look was a tribute to the owner of the estate and her beauty empire. It is probably safe to say that  Pyer Moss’ first couture collection “WAT U IZ” is the best answer to the question of what couture means today. 



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