Paris Couture Week 2018: Lessons In Female Empowerment

Rebecca Anne Proctor, Paris Haute Couture 2018, France
Courtesy of Viktor & Rolf
The finale of the Viktor & Rolf show
This Paris Haute Couture season, designs on female power ushered in a new era on aesthetic refinement and fury, writes Rebecca Anne Proctor

A woman in a bright orange dress rolls down the aisle of the American Church in Paris. As she dances in front of intrigued onlookers—writhing her body and swaying her arms with passion—an older woman with grey hair taps her gently as if empathising with her dramatic movements—her agony and sorrow. She then too proceeds down the length of the church with her head high and lifts her arms up as if in victory. The dancer is the famed ballerina Marie-Agnès Gillot who is to retire from the Paris Opera this year and the older woman is the renowned French writer Sophie Fontanel and the show, none other than that of Lebanese maestro Rabih Kayrouz for his Fall 2018 ready-to-wear collection. The designer’s presentation, revealed through long unicolour coats flowing around the body, smooth planes, fancy brocades and avant-garde cuts, portrayed the powerful, determined female and her je ne sais quoi attitude that is all the rage these days.

Kayrouz Haute Couture

Rabih Kayrouz & Marie-Agnes Gillot walk down the American Church in Paris

Just as the lavish ceremonial three-day marathon of Paris Haute Couture week began thousands of women descended on New York to participate in the 2018 Women’s March. While many chants and songs were lifted from last year’s historic demonstration, this year’s organisers created a new banner called “Power to the Polls” that aims to elect more women and candidates worldwide. Just a few weeks prior, Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Millet, alongside more than 100 women, penned an open letter in Le Monde suggesting that the #MeToo movement had gone too far. Women also took centre stage at the 24th Screen Actors Guild awards Power with all-female cast of presenters. Empowerment is certainly the name of the game and designers undoubtedly had this in mind as they crafted the intricate garments presented at the most lavish fashion shows of the season.

Iris Van Herpen Haute Couture

Model in the S/S18 Iris van Herpen collection

In the surreal times that we live in, owning up to a fantasy seems to be second nature. It’s about redefining one’s sensuality and wearing it openly on one’s sleeve and perhaps, given the Instagram obsessed culture that we live in, forging new rules for the art of dress. But how does one balance fantasy and reality? Haute Couture is a dream world—a place where beauty exalts all things—the good and the bad. And while this week is always a treat to view, a new attitude seemed omnipresent. The haute couture woman of this season is one who transcends the blows of misfortune with grace and fortitude. One who remains slightly detached in the face of uncertainty and who powers through daily strife with a deity-like demeanour, rising about society’s little upsets with a hard but tender core.

Dior Haute Couture

Models round off Dior's Alice in Wonderland-themed show

Case in point is Maria Grazia Chiuri’s work for Dior. For her first ready-to-wear collection in 2016 she created a T-shirt with the message “We Should All Be Feminists.” The female is still her muse. For her latest couture collection Chiuri was inspired by Leonor Fini, an avant-garde painter of the early 20th century that Monsieur Dior showed in former life as a gallerist. Fini’s seemingly ironic message states that really it is more fake to be natural for it is about the clothes that we wear, our adornment, which reveals our true inner persona. And Chiuri did exactly this: created a surrealist fiesta of sorts revealing long chequered gowns, princess coats, trails of white feathers and mysterious masks so that one really did not know who was wearing what. Like a trip down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, this collection as ostentatious as it was refined.

Ralph & Russo Haute Couture

Model draped in bright red at Ralph & Russo show 

At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld created a French garden evoking the grandeur of the Tuileries, replete with climbing roses as well as a central fountain. Models dressed in pretty bouclé suits and gowns as well as the maison’s signature tweed renditions, paraded around the garden like little sugar plum fairies, sweet and spirited, and donning a slew of feathers and little sheaths with shimmery embellishments for evening attire. An empowered statement was made at Giambattista Valli through the inclusion of over-the-knee vinyl boots the he paired with his signature trademark lace dresses. His to-be-expected voluminous tulle gowns were this time found in an electric candy green hue as if to say that it was time for a change. Then at Ralph & Russo, the British duo explored the Far East through the fast-paced nature of Las Vegas where Asian decoration was punctuated by imperial red silk crêpe, acid green gazar and canary yellow silk and lots of fringe for a magnificent party.

Giambattista Valli Haute Couture

Giambattista Valli's electric green gown

We nod again to the glitzy era of 1920s Paris at Elie Saab where the designer celebrated this “artistic paradise” in a show entitled Paris est une Fête. A slew of party dresses in the designer’s sparkling embellishments interpreted with contemporary flair paraded forth with conviction and a seductive air. Art Décor references, lots of embroidery, feathers and the cool shades reminiscent of an afternoon in Beirut. Lebanese Rani Zakhem seemed to agree with a show titled “Ode to a Volcanic Woman.” The designer’s first couture show in Paris, Zakhem celebrated the occasion through explosions of incandescent metaphors—embroideries of arachnoid crystals of lava on the back of sheath with a long V-shaped necklines, lots of sequins, silk and geometric cuts.

Elie Saab Haute Couture

A timeless gown designed by Elie Saab 

Trust Iris van Herpen to always break the rules. The Dutch fashion designer creates using 3D-printing, laser cutting and heat bonding to create her garments, which this season were found in shimmery vines that snaked around the model’s body, perforated leather and even liquid fabric that was bonded to Mylar in order to form gowns resembling clouds—perhaps someday the designer will allow us to fly. Stephane Rolland also presented a more daring show. The couturier presented in a theater — Paris' Théâtre National de l'Opéra Comique — in collaboration with artists François Salque and jeweler Albert Boghossian and showcasing this magnificent gowns with a touch of dramatic detailing—an orchid-like form protruding from the shoulder or the long, white one-sleeved column dress that garnered so much praise while live musicians played in the background. 

Valentino Haute Couture

Pierpaolo Piccioli’s grand headdress in the Valentino show

And then there was Valentino. Pierpaolo Piccioli’s collection was akin to spiritual transcendence, otherworldly and unabashedly a little rebellious. His women were like angels descended on earth donning operatic shapes and grand bows—Renaissance lines with a contemporary spin. Magnificent headgear took us to another level of mystical voyeurism. Grandeur with purity and power that’s Piccioli’s tune as it was for many this haute couture.

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Rebecca Anne Proctor, Paris Haute Couture 2018, France
Courtesy of Viktor & Rolf
The finale of the Viktor & Rolf show