The return of one very distinctive Manhattan bob to the Paris front row sent a strong message before the Dior couture catwalk even started. If American Vogue editor Anna Wintour is attending international shows again, then fashion is back.
After a year of digital catwalks, this week’s haute couture shows are pivoting back to live events. Dior and Chanel are among the brands hosting international audiences in Paris. With Asian and Middle Eastern editors and clients still absent, the shows are modest in size, but attenders have travelled from the US and around Europe, alongside a small number from the UK. The Dior audience included the actors Jessica Chastain and Monica Bellucci. Some of the front row greeted each other with air kisses.
But Maria Grazia Chiuri, designer of Dior, was aware that an ostentatious display of the world’s most expensive dresses would be a dangerously tone-deaf move for fashion. After a year in which glamour and new trends have felt largely irrelevant, fashion needs to find a new voice if it is to stay relevant to popular culture.
“Couture is not just about the Avenue Montaigne,” Chiuri said in a video call before the show. “The pandemic has been very difficult for many people, and they are mostly women, working in the fashion industry all over the world. Fashion is not about sketches, it is about people and their livelihoods. The Indian embroidery industry is very much connected to the clothes people buy for events – it has been much easier to sell knitwear than to sell embroidery. The last year has been a real crisis for them.”
To give this message a platform that was bigger than the clothes, the 350 sq metres of wall space in the show venue, constructed in the garden of the Musée Rodin, were entirely embroidered to create a room frescoed in silk thread. Entitled Silk Room, the installation was a collaboration between the French artist Eva Jospin and the Chanakya school of craft, a Mumbai embroidery school for women that Dior supports.
“Embroidery has often been domestic, and so it has been easy to ignore,” said Chiuri. “Couture is a way for us to talk about it.” Chiuri said she had been galvanised into championing these vulnerable garment workers by reading Threads of Life: a History of the World through the Eye of the Needle, a sociopolitical history of sewing by British artist and curator Clare Hunter.
But while the message of the show was inclusion and solidarity, the clothes on the catwalk were true to the ultra-exclusive traditions of haute couture, which is the most expensive stratum of fashion. The house’s signature Bar jacket, recognisable by its sloping shoulders, high buttons, cinched waist and bell-shaped peplum, came matched with full skirts or with immaculately tailored trousers. Fluid silk plissé gowns were trimmed with feathers or topped with capes.
“Now we have hope for the future,” said Chiuri. “Having a fashion show in real life again helps reminds us about human touch. What matters at this time is being present.”