From the muscular lines at Schiaparelli, the high emotion of Kim Jones’ Fendi couture debut to Rahul Mishra’s ode to mushrooms, 2021’s showcase brought relevance back to haute couture

Perhaps it was the acceptance of lowered retail targets during the Covid-19 pandemic, or the space and time that were forced upon designers during the lockdowns, but the one category that has undoubtedly benefited from it all is haute couture. This month’s showcases at Paris Couture Week attest to this new resurgence in creativity, conceptualisation, and more importantly, magnificence.

In no way did seeing the shows on my small phone screen from my small flat in Delhi diminish the designers’ message or the experience. After a long time, I was moved: to tears by Daniel Roseberry’s Schiaparelli, to high emotion by Kim Jones’ couture debut for Fendi, to fantastic worlds by Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Valentino, to serenity by Rahul Mishra, and to catharsis at Giorgio Armani Privé.

It seems that haute couture has found its meaning and relevance in the fashion ecosystem once again, after years of wandering aimlessly amid an unfamiliar landscape of multiple drops, high-street collabs, performative slow-fashion launches, online deals, destination shows, and social media onslaught. The couture outings of January 2021 mark a significant milestone for all who took part in Paris Couture Week; they will never think of haute couture the same, which had been the real problem to begin with.

Rahul Mishra’s ‘The Dawn’ collection

Flexing their muscles

Let us divide the timeline: BC and PC — Before Covid and Post-Covid (a general temporal term with the understanding that the pandemic is, in reality, far from over). In the BC world, haute couture as practised by European fashion houses fulfilled a symbolic role. It was through couture that they signalled their savoir faire, a white elephant to glorify their splendiferous past. Some labels, like Chanel, tied their idea of couture to their work with heritage firms and factories, creating stories about reviving and safeguarding their country’s artisanal patrimony. Hence, the Chanel Métiers d’Art shows.

Others, like Dior, under Maria Grazia Chiuri, went deep into the house’s fabled archives to plumb the depths of nostalgia, relying on the fashion media to retell forgotten stories of the founding designer’s favourite gardens and iconic silhouettes.

What was missing in them all was a voice — the one clear note that rings out, over and above the well-rehearsed and otherwise beautiful symphony — that makes the composition something to be felt in your bones. This time, with the PC version of couture, I did.

Daniel Roseberry’s Schiaparelli collection

Daniel Roseberry’s Schiaparelli collection

Look at the irreverent, muscular lines at Schiaparelli, highlighted by teeth-inspired jewellery and an infusion of founder Elsa Schiaparelli’s shocking pink. Enter the magical world of Valentino where storybook characters come alive in neon shades and hard-hitting broderies on larger-than-life designs. At Rahul Mishra, one of the oldest species of vegetation on the planet, mushrooms, become an explosion of texture, colour and craft in what is perhaps his finest collection yet — a worthy representation of India at a respected worldwide forum for haute couture. At Giorgio Armani, one of the few established Italian houses that is still fully owned by the man whose name it bears, the 86-year-old designer presented an homage to Milan, one of the biggest centres of textile and fashion retail in the world, and also one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. For his Privé line, the magic emanated from his deep understanding of luxury in construction, cut, and freedom of movement.

Many of the shows also included men on the runway, an idea that today seems perfectly logical and normal. BC, pearls would have been clutched.

Kim Jones’s Fendi debut

Kim Jones’s Fendi debut

Showing the way

The one show that spoke for the collective — in all its depth of referencing history, culture, gender fluidity, its hybrid silhouettes, techniques and craft, and in the presentation itself — was Kim Jones’ debut haute couture outing for Fendi. The Italian house had, till now, clung on to their ‘haute fourrure’ tag, harking back to their founding as a fur business in 1925.

Almost a century later, here is a designer who has never designed a full women’s collection, let alone haute couture, and took on the heavy mantle that his predecessor Karl Lagerfeld wore so easily for 54 years. What pressure. And what a chance to change history. Which is exactly what Jones did.

Through their designs for Spring 2021, the Paris Couture Week designers have reclaimed the space for haute couture to be an instigator of dreams, an inspiration, and a vehicle for artistic glory. And in becoming so, it may also show the way for future efforts towards real sustainability in the processes of design, production, and retail.

The beacons are lit, let us hope that the faithful follow.

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