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Nonchalance, escapism and denim at Haute Couture Week in Paris

By Jule Scott


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Jean Paul Gaultier Fall 2023 Couture. Credits: Spotlight Launchmetrics

Couture as a cure-all for everyday use appeared to be the motto of the Haute Couture Fall 2023 season in Paris. While fatal police shootings of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk triggered a wave of partially violent protests in the French capital, fashion's elite indulged in the finer things of life and high tailoring.

Some collections seemed to mirror what was happening in the real world, not that they could have foreseen the cultural moment in which their collections would see the light of day as they had been in the works for months in advance. Nonetheless, some shows showed surprising restraint and a touch of casual, a word rarely associated with Haute Couture, while for others, opulent surrealism and idealised worldviews took centre stage.

Restrained surrealism and a touch of realism

Current Master of Surrealism, Daniel Roseberry for Schiaparelli, took after Elsa Schiaparelli herself and looked to artists for inspiration. His collection, certainly less controversial but no less masterful than last season's faux taxidermy lion heads, held traces of Yves Klein and Lucian Freud and was, fittingly, titled “...and the artist”. Notably, according to the New York Times’s chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman, this had been a last-minute change from “Purgatorio”, part two of a show trilogy inspired by Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, an Italian narrative poem.

Schiaparelli Fall 2023 Couture Credits: Spotlight Launchmetrics

There were fluid but exaggerated black and white coats with experimental shapes, a hint of sheer corsetry and garments reminiscent of an artist's colour palette, as well as sleek black looks that were contrasted by vibrant Yves Klein Blue and the brands' trademark gold. Of course, there were the odd ones out – wooden arms and caterpillar silhouettes included – but while surrealism still reigned supreme on the Schiaparelli runway the collection leaned, for the brands' standards, on the quiet side and made it possible to take in its mastery without too many gimmicks or distractions.

Schiaparelli Fall 2023 Couture Credits: Spotlight Launchmetrics

No gimmicks or distractions carried on and over to Dior, where creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri presented a collection that was as simplistic as it was delicate. The designer drew inspiration from muses – both Greek and Roman – and dressed them in delicate white silks, and sheer gowns fit for nymphs and minimalistic tunics. Most noteworthy perhaps, were the flat shoes that carried the models over the runway, a trend that would continue to run throughout couture week where sky-high heels were replaced by ballet flats and their contemporaries. As contradictory as it might seem to the age-old “high heel index” that suggests that the lower the economy the higher the heel, practicality in footwear seemed to be at the forefront for fall 2023, even if the shoes were paired with humongous taffeta and lace ball gowns as was the case at Giambattista Valli.

Flats as the common denominator at Dior and Giambattista Valli Fall 2023 Couture. Credits: Spotlight Launchmetrics

Prêt-à-porter or Haute Couture?

Thom Browne brought the drama to his couture debut, however, it was the choreography of the show and its storytelling that spoke much louder than his signature grey suits that were rather reminiscent of his ready-to-wear collections, which in turn have always had a couture feel to them. Perhaps it is just that at which Giorgio Armani took offence, telling the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that “it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between high fashion and prêt-à-porter, because the former is increasingly normal, and the latter is always more elevated” – reason enough for the couturier to consider a move back to Milan to show his Armani Privé collections in his Italian hometown in future seasons.

Armani’s words rang true, just like his collection stood out. Whether it is because he continues to present couture in its truest form, heavily embroidered evening wear that most mortals would have a hard time finding an occasion for, or because many designers have since redefined the true meaning of the word, remains open for interpretation, however, it is undeniable that this couture season had an unusually casual air to it.

Armani Privé and Thom Browne Fall 2023 Couture. Credits: Spotlight Launchmetrics

Models at Chanel took a stroll along the Seine, exchanging the halls of the Grand Palais for the cobblestone streets of Paris. Designer Virginie Viard presented a collection that felt like an idealised version of Frenchness – wicker bags, flowers and dog-walking included. Coincidentally the show was opened by model Caroline de Maigret who penned the best-selling book “How to be Parisian Wherever You Are” a few years back, and henceforth inspired parades of women to emulate an presence that, in essence, is inherited rather than imitated. The collection for the most part consisted of daywear, possibly much to Armani’s chagrin, and even Chanel’s famed bride wore a calf-length dress that was remarkably plain.

Chanel models take a stroll along the Seine for Fall 2023 Couture Credits: Spotlight Launchmetrics

Casual couture and archive pieces

At Balenciaga, Demna seemed to have been in two minds about the current state of couture, creating both, what he considered to be “casual couture” as he called it according to the New York Times, and a replica of an archive from Cristobal Balenciaga himself, with which he opened the show – donned by Danielle Slavik, a model that once worked as a fit model for the original maestro. There was black, lots of it, evening wear as well as streetwear – most notably what appeared to be a double-denim moment and a red puffer – a dress reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s famous hot pink “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” ensemble and then there were chainmail dresses and a 3-D printed “Joan of Arc”-armour worn by artist Eliza Douglas.

Balenciaga Couture Fall 2023. Credits: Spotlight Launchmetrics

Chainmail and armoury did not only make an appearance at Balenciaga but also played a part in Paco Rabanne designer Julien Dossena’s guest appearance on the Jean Paul Gaultier runway. The French designer is the latest to create a couture collection for the house of Gaultier after its namesake designer stepped away from couture a few years back, and he unsurprisingly looked to the archive for inspiration. Dossena, who has been at the helm of the newly renamed Rabanne for the past decade, paid homage to both Gaultier and Rabanne with a pointy-bra dress from Gaultier’s first collection in 1984 which he chose to replicate in silver chainmail. There were plenty of references to the archives: blue and white striped Marinière dresses, a reworked Naked Dress - fake pubic hair and all - and pinstripe suits. The collection was arguably the most lavish of them all, even though Valentino invited the fashionable guests of Couture Week to the Château de Chantilly.

Jean Paul Gaultier Fall 2023 Couture. Credits: Spotlight Launchmetrics

Valentino's Pierpaolo Piccioli show sums up the entire couture week in many ways. The designer decided to open his show with an ensemble of blue jeans, a white shirt and flat shoes, admittedly with earrings that could easily be mistaken for the Château’s chandeliers. At first glance the look was a stark contrast to the pompous backdrop, but the trousers turned out to be trompe-l'œil. In place of denim, silk fabric was embroidered with microbeads to resemble the workwear look, something that conspicuously was also seen on Jean Paul Gaultier's runway, though Valentino’s seemed to have garnered much more attention. Piccioli’s Couture collection, for all its splendour, felt casual, be that the attitude of the models and their notably flat shoes or the relaxed fit of crystal embroidered trousers. The collection had both – simplicity and grandeur – in what may have been the most modern take on contemporary couture of the season. One that earned the Italian designer a standing ovation as he took a bow with his atelier in tow.

Valentino Fall 2023 Couture. Credits: Spotlight Launchmetrics

As the fall 2023 season comes to a close one thing remains. Couture is, in itself, an indulgence, a distant dream for most and a reality for only a very few – and so perhaps it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise that most designers chose to stay oblivious to Paris' current reality and rather indulge in fantasy, even if it seemed deceptively realistic for the coming season. While Marie Antoinette is said to have suggested that the people of France eat cake during the French Revolution, this revolution is apparently fuelled not by delicate sweets but by haute couture made to look like everyday clothes.

Read more about the difference between the haute couture and ready-to-wear fashion segments in this explainer article here.

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Paris Haute Couture Week