With Versace, the Paris haute couture season sparked to life.
Make that the Italian couture shows, for the French seem to be letting go of their fashion crown jewels.
Donatella Versace announced backstage that her inspiration for streamlined designs, in black or ink blue, laced with white and embossed with shiny vinyl straps, was the 1950s and the glory days of couture.
What Donatella counts as discreet is still ‘sexpot’ glamour for the audience, sitting on purple chairs against a furry floor. The glamour touches were futuristic: crystal metal mesh, metallic buckles and silk coated with silicon.
With fringes swinging, skirts were narrow or ultimately cut in a sweeping ballroom style, but they all showed slithers of flesh. The single trouser leg may not catch on. But this was a controlled performance and probably the nearest to French high fashion that the designer has yet achieved.
Could it be that Donatella has swallowed the belief that less is more? ‘V’ for vulgarity had been removed from the Versace agenda. A bared back and a curve at the front chest was a sophisticated way of revealing a new geometry. And with ruler and compass following the structure of corsets, the show had a subtle retro glam brought up to date.
What do the Italians know that the French don’t?
This week’s programme is an Italian deluge, from Miuccia Prada’s resort show for Miu Miu to the revival of Schiaparelli by Italian entrepreneur Diego Della Valle.
As with established houses like Armani Privé and Valentino, there seems to be an innate Italian understanding of fashion craft.
But there is now a change of guard at French fashion’s governing body, as Didier Grumbach, president since 1998, hands over the reins to Ralph Toledano, president of the fashion division of Spanish fragrance giant Puig.
I have always admired the energetic outreach of the previous executives, who, since the 1970s have aimed to make Paris the worldwide international centre of fashion.
But while ready-to-wear shows from British, Belgian or Japanese designers have made the Paris ready-to-wear season hyper-international, the same cannot be said for haute couture.
The French houses have fallen one by one, with only Chanel and Dior left standing at the couture peak.
Even at Givenchy, where I was fascinated by the exquisite handwork from Riccardo Tisci, commerce has wiped out couture.
As I watched Raf Simons walk through the Dior ateliers, his fingers stroking the embroideries edging court jackets, he explained today’s reality. ‘Runway wise, as a 21st century PR tool, we have to be honest,’ he said. ‘There are not enough women in the world to make couture work in the same way as ready-to-wear. It’s about protecting its beauty.’
But Karl Lagerfeld, over 30 years at Chanel, told a different truth. ‘Couture has to be flawless – and most houses don’t have the workers we have,’ he said. ‘To move forward you have to have the techniques. And, in couture, Chanel is like a war machine.’