Paris Couture: Brandishing Both Confidence and Confusion


Robb Young | July 11, 2011

Critics singled out two extreme themes from this season's roster of fall/winter collections and they say a lot about the business of couture

Azzedine Alaïa (two outfits on left) and Christian Dior (two outfits on right)

Just a few years ago, couture was facing what many pundits called an ‘identity crisis’. Before that, it seemed that the entire world was predicting its imminent extinction – and the ultimate demise of the expertise personified by the ‘petits mains’ who make couture garments so extraordinary.

But in the past couple of seasons, a new consensus has emerged. Many of those same experts and industry insiders are now facing the uncomfortable reality of having to eat their words. Couture, they decree, is not only relevant again but it also appears to be thriving – thanks to the triumvirate of new markets, new clients and, some say, even a new collective vision for the industry.

The handful of major maisons still operating made-to-measure services for a separate couture collection have tightened the reins on pure fantasy and settled instead for a more rational interpretation of luxury – though certainly not without the requisite extravagance.

“ Many industry insiders are now having to eat their words. Couture is not only relevant again but it also appears to be thriving. ”

(L to R) Armani Prive, Chanel, Bouchra Jarrar

The fall/winter 2011-12 season that concluded on Thursday was a case in point. Hence, the romantic opulence that enveloped the shows of Givenchy, Valentino and Elie Saab and the savage beauty which framed collections by Jean Paul Gaultier, Giambattista Valli and Alexis Mabille. Or the discreet daywear favoured by the likes of Armani Prive, Chanel and Bouchra Jarrar.

But for all the lavish detail and dramatic cuts that occupied this season’s wide spectrum of design, there were two which clearly stood out from the crowd.

The houses of Azzedine Alaïa and Christian Dior sat on either end of the spectrum, representing two extremes of couture’s evolving identity. Or, as a few of the more blunt critics have suggested, they embodied the best and the worst that contemporary couture has to offer.

(L to R) Givenchy, Valentino, Elie Saab

The fashion editor of the Financial Times, Vanessa Friedman, explained why Alaïa was considered a resounding success by so many of her peers:

“Returning to the fashion calendar after eight years, he produced a no-frills (well, not literally; there were frills, tiers of them — but no bells and whistles) couture collection… [Alaia] demonstrated pretty effectively that couture is above all about the clothes, as opposed to concept or image or branding. It’s an argument he has been making, and creating, in private for years, but this season he did it publicly. Given what’s going on in fashion, and the arguments over “is it all too much,” and so on, it was about time.”

In his review, Tim Blanks from went even further in his praise of the seminal show:

“Azzedine Alaïa inspires devotion like no other designer in fashion, so it was small wonder that his first show in eight years should end with applause that went on and on… and on, until French Minister of Culture Frédéric Mitterrand scooted backstage and coaxed the famously shy designer out to face a rapturous standing ovation,” he wrote. “And that was the only logical climax to a presentation that was punctuated throughout by involuntary squeaks of appreciation from [the] front row…”

Adding some colourful commentary to the chorus of approval was Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune who painted a picture of Alaïa quite literally standing head and shoulders above his couture contemporaries.

“The track of Josephine Baker singing “Je suis snob” summed up perfectly what makes Mr. Alaïa stand out — and stand apart — from the rest of fashion. His clear vision, his precise cut and remarkable workmanship… If the designer is a snob, it is only by looking down from his commanding position at the flat plain of global luxury.”

(L to R) Jean Paul Gaultier, Giambattista Valli, Alexis Mabille

On the other side of the great divide stood the team at Christian Dior which the Vanessa Friedman said made her wonder, “Goodness! What were they thinking?”

Victoria Gallagher from the Draper’s Record explained further:
“Studio director Bill Gaytten and first assistant Susanna Venegas temporary stepped into Galliano’s shoes, however it seems the boots were a little big to fill and many were left disappointed by Dior’s latest line-up…Galliano’s successor is yet to be announced but it seems the designer has left a gaping hole to be filled.

At the New York Times, fashion critic Cathy Horyn seemed equally as disappointed calling the collection “strange”.
“For some reason I had the idea that this collection would be an interim deal until Dior could hire a successor to John Galliano. Not having a show would have been unthinkable because the Dior machinery has other products, like fine jewelry, to keep promoting, and the hoopla of a couture show, small or not, is a good way to keep distracted people at least little interested,” she wrote.

“I like Mr. Gaytten. He’s a sweetheart, but he is not a designer…. If Dior is an historic house, a piece of French history (and I think it is), then Dior needs to find a designer who can lay down an aesthetic vision for the next decade or so. And then they need to let him or her do the job with full support.”

Lucinda Chambers, British Vogue’s fashion director told the online edition of the magazine that “every house needs a point of view and it has to come from the designer – sadly that’s what was lacking in today’s show.”

And so the bad reviews came in thick and fast, suggesting either that Dior executives hadn’t given Gaytten free rein or that he is simply not suited to take the reins at all. But, ironically, now that the spectacular drama surrounding John Galliano’s unceremonious departure is finally beginning to fade, it appears even more critical for Dior to find a permanent and powerful designer replacement, lest the house’s grand image fade along with it.