The New York Times
Ending on a Grace Note
By SUZY MENKES
July 5, 2012
PARISâ€” A Renaissance Madonna, a medieval princess, an Art Deco beauty â€” all those references were on the backstage billboard at Valentino. Seen through the eyes of historic painters but transferred to today, the Roman house helped the winter 2012 couture collections to end on a grace note.
For all the flesh still flashed on the red carpet, there is a change of mood on the runways. And even if Jean Paul Gaultier still showed sexy pieces in a chaotic collection of his greatest hits, even Elie Saab, famous for his fancy gowns, opted for a more discreet style.
Perhaps the change can best be seen in the long-sleeved dresses with hemlines at shoe level that have taken over for the once-prevalent winter bare-the- body look.
A typical gesture at Valentino from the designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli was to cocoon a model in a tight egg-shaped cloak, perhaps decorated with the tree of life, which was one of the designersâ€™ symbols of the season.
â€œLike a Madonna of the 14th century â€” and we like a regal look,â€ said Mr. Piccioli, explaining how they wanted to absorb the culture, as well as the craftsmanship, of master painting in Italy.
But the art of modernity lies in turning those historical references and ancient crafts into something as vibrant as a gilded unicorn embroidery on a jump suit, which the program notes listed as having 900 hours of handwork. The duo also had to balance the rich prints and appliquÃ©d patterns of thistles or flowers with the simplicity of ink blue tones.
Front row were not just the usual young Valentino clients but also high-octane celebrities, from the model Jessica Stam, Nicky Hilton with her mother, Kathy, and Kim Kardashian with her beau Kanye West â€” all dressed in Valentino. They will have plenty of choice for future appearances: from the innocent modesty of the long-sleeved, floor-sweeping tree of life gown, through a sophisticated black lace dress, a sports jacket smothered with gold embroidery, rivulets of rose pink ruffles and that famous Valentino red as a cascade of frills.
Despite their long service absorbing the spirit of the founder, Ms. Chiuri and Mr. Piccioli may not get everything perfect. Their clothes may sometimes seem too prim and covered up for the modern world. But there is nothing that sticks out as disrespect to the founder â€” nor a slavish attention to what he did. Their focus on craft and Rome is paying off, according to Stefano Sassi, the brandâ€™s chief executive, who said that couture orders are back to â€” and even surpassing â€” the volume in 2008 when Valentino Garavani retired.
What was the Jean Paul Gaultier message, and was it so vital that it required a one and a half hour wait, whipping the audience into a frenzy of excitement or rage?
Nothing much really. To Bette Midler, a loyal Gaultier client seeing her first show, it might have been exciting to view all those old Gaultier tricks: the mincing male models in fancy pants and top hats and stylish jackets curving at the hips; or the women in some familiar corset cage. There were a few lovely moments, like the chiffon dress tattooed in blue and worn with a jacket that was a meld of pastel fur.
In fact, there was a theme. Mr. Gaultier said backstage that his stint on the jury at this springâ€™s Cannes Film Festival introduced him to the movie of the French author Alfred de Mussetâ€™s â€œConfessions of a Child of the Century.â€ Its protagonists, Charlotte Gainsbourg and the wide- and wild-eyed singer Pete Doherty, were his inspiration â€” along with the centuryâ€™s progress. (Hence, graphically beaded Art Deco dresses.)
The quirky versions of the tuxedo that gave the show an all-black opening were superbly cut and elegantly done. Throughout, those masterpieces would pop up and then disappear in a welter of fancy boleros, obi motifs, kimono bathrobes and toreador pants.
Mr. Gaultier is a man of many talents. But the audience does not need to see all of them â€” especially after so long a wait.
The Elie Saab show opened with a black lace coverall caftan, followed by long-hemmed and long-sleeved dresses, showing how the new art of grace has affected even a designer wedded to the red carpet.
Of course lace has its own peekaboo quality and there were flashes of bared leg and curvy views at the rear. Yet the effect for long or short dresses was still relatively sober, a feeling underscored by braids worn around the top of the head.
The designerâ€™s inspiration was from the Ottoman Empire, and that gilded glory on the Bosporus might be a good fit with international clients, invited to enter the grand location by one door, while the press was herded in a different direction.
But everyone got a view of the collection which, without much variety, showed the designerâ€™s looks: long and slim, long and full skirted and ditto for shorter dresses. There were still plenty of trains, either for the awards ceremonies or perhaps to turn into the wedding gowns for which Mr. Saabâ€™s clients clamor.
The change was in color, as blushed pink, blue and finally a deep turquoise were all set off by gilded and silver embellishment right down to the shoes.
The brief winter 2012 couture season in Paris has definitely shown a change of pace, and the arrival of Raf Simons at Dior, with his architectural view of fashion, has taken some of the froth out of high fashion â€” revealing a draft of purer luxury.
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