PARIS — Last week, at the opening of the haute couture season, in the gardens of Les Invalides, the gold-domed monument to France’s military history where Napoleon is buried, Christian Dior created the world yet to be explored: Wooden crocodiles roamed over arid earth; giraffes through stands of bamboo; and eagles soared overhead beneath the canopy of a suspended map by the artist Pietro Ruffo.
The next day, in the Grand Palais, Chanel rebuilt the Eiffel Tower, its girders plunging upward toward the glass ceiling, while in the shade of the structure’s enormous metal limbs were assorted potted trees and green folding chairs meant to mimic Paris’s most famous parks.
And the day after that Jean Paul Gaultier ended his show with a model riding a bicycle chariot festooned with lace and feathers down the runway as snow fell behind and on either side the video lights of hundreds of iPhones illuminated her way.
We live in a world of public performance, where every moment is recorded, shared and assessed, only to disappear seconds later under an avalanche of new posts. When even the White House is not immune to the siren call of social media, how can fashion resist?
Yet by definition couture — clothes that take a seamstress hundreds and even thousands of hours to make by hand, which are meant to last over decades and made for a single individual, to her body and her specifications — derives its worth from the experience of intimacy. The tension between value systems was the subtext of the week.
This particular discipline may be the most inaccessible of the whole clothing world, but it’s a microcosm for a debate over an issue to which we can all, on some level, relate. Whether we can wear the stuff or not.
There were other concerns, of course, running through the collections: the pulling down of borders and the lowering of barriers to entry, as the couture welcomed the American ready-to-wear labels Proenza Schouler and Rodarte, who merged their signature conceptual urbanity and twisted prettiness with the discipline of craft and classicism, and were the better for it. Not to mention the emergence of Wonder Woman as something of a muse of the season, complete with gold-sequined catsuits and leather-molded minidresses at Versace, and a tweedy Diana Prince influence almost across the board. (The 1940s and ’50s are back, silhouettewise, as are suits.)
But as Pierpaolo Piccioli, creative director of Valentino, said before a breakthrough couture show, “We are in a moment where everything is visible, where everything is said, so what becomes special is what you don’t see.” That was his theory anyway. He was not alone.
Indeed, Giorgio Armani’s entire collection was practically a metaphor for the idea. Entitled “Mystery,” it featured layers of veiling over embroidery, shadowing painterly prints and creating a scrim of evening promise. Though the rationale behind some looks, especially the hobble skirts, was too much of a mystery to understand.
What you don’t see is, after all, what the couture is really good at: the painstaking stitches required to encrust every inch of an otherwise simple little Giambattista Valli 1960s minidress with paillettes of flowers (better than his overblown ball gown finales, which resemble the Titanic made tulle); the wearable sound waves of Iris Van Herpen’s marriage of technology and craft.
Even the inside of the Maison Margiela atelier, which guests were invited to enter after the label lost its previous site to a memorial for the French politician and feminist champion Simone Veil. It turned out to be a lucky accident, as the inside-out nature of the designer John Galliano’s clothes, which focused on the basic building blocks of glamour — the corset, the nylon stocking, the trench coat — and then combined them with the everyday (Fair Isle knits, tweeds) to elevate their essence, demanded attention. The better to realize that a belted corset composed of stalagmitelike shades of corrugated cardboard was actually organza, for example.