Sunday afternoon, I started my adventure through the spring couture collections of Paris not in a gilded salon among the world’s wealthiest collectors of fashion, but in the backrooms of Chanel, watching the designs as they were made. Seeing the the highly-skilled craftswomen in action allows a very different perspective on the whole decadent couture affair, which, despite all the media attention the shows are given this week, remains a bit of a mystery to the majority of the world.
At the shows of storied French houses like Chanel and Dior, there are A-list celebrities and a small parade of clients who are able to afford these almost unfathomably expensive handmade designs, but to see the work taking place behind the scenes is to better understand what makes them exceptional. On the rue Cambon, where Gabrielle Chanel, nearly a century ago, acquired a row of buildings to house what would become her iconic atelier and boutique with its famous mirrored stairway, there are today four studios constantly at work. Two specialize in tailoring, and two in softer dressmaking techniques called flou. And despite the pressure of the spring couture show happening only two days away, there was a calmness that pervaded every aspect of the space, and the roughly 40 people working there. The model Lindsey Wixson was waiting at the door downstairs.
On the third floor, in a brightly lit atelier, a long pink gown with a bib and trim of lavish mirrored embroidery, was spread out on a table as pins were placed to create the effect of a finished design so that it could be shown to Karl Lagerfeld, who was beginning the process of “accessorization” one floor above. That is when he selects the bags, shoes, jewelry, hats, and even the order in which the completed looks will be shown.
“They’re running late, which is good, because we’re not ready,” said one of the women who was working on the pink dress, which had already logged hundreds of hours to translate from sketch to toile to gown. “We’ll do the same thing three or four times to make sure it’s perfect.”
Couture, for all of its excesses, speaks quietly when you see it up close. The details and handwork, and the commitment to maintaining traditions, are remarkable in a fashion world that today thrives on speed and technology, in which so much is conceived to be consumed primarily in a digital format. Who wants to go to a fashion show anymore?
VIDEO: 21 Unforgettable Looks from the Chanel Spring 2017 Couture Collection
Well, I do, and despite the sense of gloom in the face of terrorism alerts and political turmoil, the artistry remains. There were, undoubtedly, two major highlights this week, Lagerfeld’s glamorous and glittering display for Chanel, and Valentino, where Pierpaolo Piccioli showed his first collection as solo creative director with phenomenal pleated dresses and capes. Lagerfeld, in fact, recalled the mirrored prism effect of Chanel’s original staircase in his set design, albeit on an even grander scale. And his collection of glittering dresses, some detailed with thousands of individually sewn feathers, others with possibly billions of mirrored beads, was beyond dazzling.
Valentino, too, was persuasive both in terms of the individual dresses, in tones from soft sherbet to red, some as complex as a fluted column, and the overall emotional sensation that this was the result of incredibly attention to detail by dozens of petites mains.
The best party of the week, meanwhile, belonged to Piccioli’s former design partner, Maria Grazia Chiuri, who transformed the grounds of the Rodin Museum from a daytime fairy tale garden for her first couture collection as artistic director of Dior, into a nighttime bacchanal, complete with horses dressed as unicorns, an indoor/outdoor labyrinth of boxwood hedges, tarot card readers and, or course, handsome boys bearing champagne. It was the sort of party where one would, if one could, wear a couture dress such as Chiuri’s madcap parade of pastels, well, that would be enough.