Day 1 of couture

When your collection notes read like an abbreviated history of the art, architecture and fashion design of the 20th century, you know you’ve got a problem.

PARIS — When your collection notes read like an abbreviated history of the art, architecture and fashion design of the 20th century, you know you’ve got a problem.

Such was the case at Dior’s first show in 15 years without its disgraced former creative director John Galliano.

The British designer was fired in March amid a scandal over alleged anti-Semitic remarks, and his former right-hand man stepped in Monday, fielding a fall-winter 2011-12 haute couture collection that cited as influences interior designer Jean-Michel Frank, architects Ettore Sottsass and Frank Gehry, graphic designer Jean Paul Gouda, watchmaker Jean Dunned and fashion designer Marc Bohan.

It was as if Bill Gaytten — who took a bow at Monday’s show, though Dior executives were quick to stress he has not officially taken over the reins at the house — were trying to prove his cultural erudition by shoving all those disparate influences into a single show.

In the days following Galliano’s firing — which came right before the house’s ready-to-wear show after a video showing the designer praising Adolf Hitler went viral on the internet — Dior executives handled the sticky situation with aplomb. Four months on, the same cannot be said.

While Dior was a disappointment, delights abounded at day one of Paris’ rarified haute couture displays — the three-day-long extravaganza where 23 cherry-picked labels showcase their savoir faire by creating wildly expensive made-to-measure garments for the world’s wealthiest women.

Two newcomers to the elite cadre of approved couture purveyors, dramatic Italian Giambattista Valli and Dutch wunderkind Iris Van Herpen each fielded jaw-dropping collections that suggested that despite the dwindling numbers of buyers, couture still has brilliant days ahead.

Displays enter day two on Tuesday with shows by Chanel, Givenchy and Giorgio Armani — the man behind the clean, graphic gown Princess Charlene wore to the wedding that saw her transformed from commoner into Grace Kelly’s successor as the princess of Monaco.

CHRISTIAN DIOR

Four months after Galliano was fired, and with no successor yet appointed, it was with bated breath that the small audience of fashion insiders waited to see how whoever was filling Galliano’s immense shoes would fare.

The reaction was underwhelming: Hoots and thunderous applause erupted from backstage, but the audience greeted the show with a short-lived flurry of halfhearted claps.

The collection simply lacked cohesion. With sections that channeled the fluorescent pop esthetic of the 1980s, a sort of 1970s Marrakech bohemian vibe, and shiny modernist architecture, the show felt like a bunch of ideas thrown almost randomly together. It was like watching three shows in one — and not a particularly inspiring three shows, at that.

The nipped jackets and pouffy skirts were embellished with the sort of amoeba-shaped appliques in eyepopping shades that were last seen on the costumes of 1987 teen pop sensation Tiffany and worn with oversized plastic cubes or spheres in the guise of hats. Oversized ballgowns made from petals of delicate chiffon were accessorized with the kinds of cheap glitter-covered novelty headbands you might wear to ring in the New Year, and you couldn’t quite tell if sparkly bits on the bodices were part of the dresses or just shreds of confetti.

Gaytten was named creative director at Galliano’s signature line, John Galliano, last month, but Dior executives were quick to point out that he hadn’t taken the reins at Dior, one of the world’s top brands and the jewel in the crown of luxury giant LVMH.

“Mr. Gaytten has done this collection but he is not artistic director.” Dior president Sidney Toledano told journalists backstage in a post-show interview. “We are taking our time because we want to find a long-term solution, and many hypotheses are being explored.”

Given the audience’s tepid reaction to Monday’s show, it seemed likely that Gaytten would prove more of a stopgap measure. Fashion insiders were hoping Monday’s uneven results would push Dior to end the suspense already and designate an official successor to a man who is nothing if not a hard act to follow.

GIAMBATTISTA VALLI

Talk about making an entrance. Valli fairly erupted onto the haute couture calendar Monday with a collection of glamorous sheath dresses and evening gowns that dripped drama.

Valli’s signature retro bourgeois dresses have made his pret-a-porter line a favourite among jet-setting It Girls, and dedicated fans like socialite Bianca Brandolini turned out to support his debut among the elite cadre of Paris couturiers.

With his penchant for beadwork and feathers — which he uses with abandon in ready-to-wear — Valli is a natural for couture.

On Monday, the cap-sleeved sheath dresses sparkled with strips of flower-shaped sequins at the neckline, and their hemlines were densely feathered in black or white ostrich. A cropped jacket was a reef of tiny pieces of Capri coral, and a bustier dress was but the lightest cloud of white tulle.

The flowing chiffon capes that topped off the goddess gowns brushed over the guests’ feet as the models walked, looking like modern day superwomen.

“How glamorous was that show?” gushed Brazilian-born socialite and longtime Valli supporter, Andrea Dellal. “It’s like Valli, but with more of everything.”

The sole flaw in the otherwise stunning collection were the shoes: heels so high they crippled two of the models, who barely made it up the endless catwalk and back.

IRIS VAN HERPEN

The stuff of nightmares became a fashionista’s dream. The Dutch designer plumbed the depths of darkness, spinning it Rumpelstiltskin-style into concoctions of a rare and delicate beauty.

Abbreviated cocktail dresses sprouted an armour of Stegosaurus plates in clear plastic. A halterdress was made from what appeared to be a distended skeleton. Shiny black tubes completely enveloped another minidress, as if the model had been swallowed whole by a vacuum cleaner gone mad, or was being constricted by a luminous ebony boa.

A dress had an oversized skirt that was made entirely out of twisted coils of metal wire. A plastic collar like a giant drop of water hitting a hard surface topped a tiny bustier dress made of leather laces.

The show — which channeled much of the dark creativity of the late Alexander McQueen, for whom Van Herpen once interned — was nothing short of a tour de force. Born in 1984 in Wamel, the Netherlands, she’s among the youngest designers on the official couture calendar — not to mention among the most promising.

BOUCHRA JARRAR

Two very different cultures united by a common sense of esthetic refinement, the Japanese and the French have long exercised a mutual fascination for one another. So it was fitting that Jarrar, one of the most Parisienne of French designers, should look to Japan to expand the horizons of her graphic, pared-down style.

Jarrar’s sheath dresses and clean-lined pantsuits breathe an effortless elegance that has hit a chord with the French fashion set, and the creme de la creme of the fashion glitteratti here, including the new editor-in-chief of French Vogue, Emmanuelle Alt, turned out for Monday’s show.

You could imagine Alt and others who channel her casually stylish, tres Parisienne esthetic wearing just about every piece in the collection, from the bustier dress whose only assets were its perfect cut and graphic patent leather piping to the razor-cut pleated trousers, worn with cropped jackets. In fact, it looked like the trousers Alt was wearing to the show, with stilettos and a blue men’s button-down shirt, might just have been Jarrar.

Whereas haute couture tends to be about excess — throw on the sequins, slap on the rhinestones — Jarrar is all restrained sobriety with a hidden dose of kinkiness.

With the Japanese undercurrent running through this season — palpable in the kimono-like closures on the dresses, the belts that looked like modified Obi belts and its silks printed with black and white stripes — the collection was more elaborate and worldly than in seasons past.

But it was still an exercise in perfectly calibrated minimalism, in a reduced palette of grey, black, white and electric blue.

ANNE VALERIE HASH

After a brief absence from couture to focus on her ready-to-wear line, Paris’ Anne Valerie Hash delivered a collection of quietly sophisticated luxury. The hybrid show-cum-presentation — with 10 looks shown both on live models and wooden mannequins in honour of the label’s tenth anniversary — was held in the gilded salon of a Paris hotel, and the clothes were perfectly adapted to their surroundings.

The pantsuits and dropped-waisted dresses in artfully draped buff-colored silks faintly dripped Parisian elegance. With their asymmetrical, plunging waists and single-strap tops, the ravishing dresses had a vaguely flapperish air about them.

ALEXIS MABILLE

The bourgeois wardrobe got in touch with its animal instincts at Mabille, with a fur and feathered collection of bustier gowns and abbreviated cocktail dresses.

A strapless gown in white leopard print sprouted little tufts of fur, while a short little number in brown jersey had oversized fox sleeves and raccoon tails that dangled from a tie-belt at the waist.

Feathers that looked like they came from some oversized bird of prey poked out of the tops of the bustier dresses and shot through the models’ bouffant hairdos.

ADELINE ANDRE

Adeline Andre is fashion stripped of pretense, ego and (bad) attitude, just flattering, beautifully made clothes, themselves stripped of such extraneous elements as buttons, zippers or other closures. This season, Andre served up straight-lined wrap coats in citrus shades of boiled wool and long-sleeved kaftans in translucent silk.

Models of different ages and sizes emerged from backstage two by two, walking slowly up a catwalk illuminated by the afternoon sun streaming in through the windows.

They gazed shyly at each other and smiled. When a Japanese photographer shouted at them to “stop in the light of day,” they complied, posing in the patches of streaming sunlight.

The meditative pacing and gentle sweetness of the show were a welcome change from the booming soundtracks and wilful hardness of most of today’s hyper-produced fashion shows.

And sweetness begot sweetness: Instead of beating a hasty exit, the crowd clapped in unison for several minutes, demanding an encore bow from Andre.

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