A few hours before the Atelier Versace show, I went for the third time to see the wardrobe treasures of the Countess Greffulhe. I am enchanted by this exhibition, La Mode Retrouvée, at the Palais Galliera in Paris, with fuzzy grey film capturing the charmed life of a grand lady whom Marcel Proust worshipped and couturiers adored.
I have looked at the delicate workmanship of dresses laid flat in glass cases and studied the early photographs that bring the art loving, über-wealthy aristocrat from history to life. And I have stood and stared at this figure of eternal elegance, photographed in a Worth velvet gown, embroidered with metallic and pearl lilies that puddle into a train behind her feet.
It is not exactly Donatella Versace’s fault that fashion historian Olivier Saillard’s delicately and deftly curated exhibition won me over far more than her Atelier show. Backstage, Donatella told me her inspirations were strong women and mountain sport, which translated as a model in a snowy-white pant suit with neon straps, mountaineering clips and enough bare flesh to catch your death on the snowy Alps.
This sporting life was swiftly swapped for those familiar Versace dresses, split down one side for a bare leg to stride, or with short hemlines as brief dresses with inserts of mesh, as if for a sexed-up mermaid. As front row celebrity, Rita Ora’s red mesh dress revealed her tattooed flesh. Last couture season, fresh air seemed to have blown through this Atelier collection.
But for summer 2016 it was back to a world of eternal “events”, where everything from those crystal ropes to the slits and cut-outs called for attention. Even checkerboard patterns, feeding the sport theme, were mini length with the bust area cut away for flashes of flesh. The soundtrack was about a body empowered, suggesting a woman in control. But the models emanated “Oscars!” from every pore.
The show was all “celeb wear”, which really is a 21st-century clothing category, along with “selfie shoulders”, to look good in mobile phone head shots. It would be a fashion crime if these Versace gowns did not appear on the red carpet at the Academy Awards.
How can I even suggest a link between the Countess Greffulhe’s eternal elegance, rooted in 19th-century haute society, and today’s show-off couture? Because the two separate worlds and the yawning gulf between them — in style, taste, and workmanship — explains how difficult it is to identify or even to believe in haute couture as a 21st-century way of life.
“La Mode Retrouvée: Les robes trésors de la comtesse Greffulhe”, curated by Olivier Saillard, is at the Palais Galliera, Paris until 20th March.