vivoboard July 4, 2018

PARIS — Currently the Dior boutique on Avenue Montaigne is wrapped in a brightly colored mural of raw-edged 1960s protest posters emblazoned with “Women empowerment” and “C’est non, non et non.” They are unexpected rallying cries in the midst of the Eighth Arrondissement’s luxury shopping thoroughfare; a jarring sight on an ornate temple of consumerism.

Created to reflect the brand’s last women’s ready-to-wear collection by its designer, Maria Grazia Chiuri, the display is symptomatic of an approach that has put feminism at the heart of the maison, to the delight of some and the discomfort of others. Since her appointment as the first female artistic director of the house, Ms. Chiuri has stubbornly insisted on forcing a debate over whether activism of any kind belongs in an arena classically reserved for the haute and heeled.

Sometimes to the detriment of her collections, but other times — such as this time — in a more productive way. In part because she moved away from overt proselytizing to more discreet statement-making. Which didn’t make her message any less subversive.

In short: There’s a war going on for the soul of couture.

Instead of women’s rights, her cause this season was the pressures of the internet age, with its focus on the “now,” as she said at a preview, and the need to create clothes that demand attention on the social media circus. “Now, if it’s not visible in a picture, we are not interested in it,” she said. And then, with a couture collection so impeccably invisible it whispered its way down the runway, she dared everyone to prove her wrong.

Shawl-collared jackets, for example, turned out not to be a single enveloping piece but rather a sleeveless belted tailleur under a fringed shrug. Day dresses were pleated and seamed in an exacting arithmetic to ensure they fell just so on the body. Grecian goddess dresses featured interlocking sections made from yards of silk plissé (if there is a trend in couture, it’s plissé), and ornate lace gowns were hand-pieced on tulle. One strapless tapestry number had been woven to order, then the monkeys and flowers brushed by hand to render them three-dimensional.

Primarily in shades of nude and navy, and the nipped-waist, narrow-shouldered, full-skirted 1940s and ’50s silhouettes Ms. Chiuri favors for Dior, the collection was inspired, the designer said, by a book called “Atelier” by Elisabetta Orsini. It made her think about Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” and the fact that the atelier was, for a designer, the equivalent (“a place you can reflect, a place you can take care of your self”) with the petites mains — the human element — as the heroes.

The show room was lined with dressmakers’ busts displaying the white toiles that were the base of the collection, and on each seat was a booklet created by the house with meditations on the production of couture (also its meaning, in an unnecessarily pretentious Lacan/Duchamp-quoting way).

It’s a risky thing to deliberately fly in the face of digital culture and insist on the value of manual artistry and that which cannot be shared or liked en masse, especially at a time when fashion seems to measure its worth by numbers of followers.

There’s no question the result was less photographically gripping than, say, Giambattista Valli’s maximalist couture youthquake of bustiers-with-trains over high-waisted full trousers; his high/low frothing baby dolls of tulle and Chantilly lace, and neon pink entrance-makers, which are like candy for the selfie set. (Many of whom, such as Derek Blasberg, newly installed at YouTube as a connector between the tech giant and the fashion world, were sitting front row and amusing themselves preshow by taking — you guessed it — selfies.)

By contrast, the Dior clothes came dangerously close to boring. But then, as Ms. Chiuri pointed out, “You can’t buy couture online.”

The issue is one of values: Do you want your clothes to be a public performance piece? Or an intimate conversation between you and yourself? They are legitimate questions, though, as Karl Lagerfeld proved at Chanel, the divide does not always have to be so stark.

Against a backdrop of the Institut de France — the 18th-century building facing the Pont des Arts that is home to the Académie Française — and along a runway built to resemble the sidewalks by the Seine, complete with bouquinistes (the sellers of vintage books and magazines) and a sprinkling of observers (men and boys wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan “Institut Chanel”), Mr. Lagerfeld unveiled a meditation on the underneath, as well as the streets of the city.

Attenuated ankle-length skirts and long-sleeved peplumed jackets in stony, concrete shades of tweed unzipped along side seams to reveal elbow-length leather gloves and thigh-grazing miniskirts: first from wrist to elbow, then from ankle to waist, then hip to ribs. Chiffon and tulle evening dresses created a peekaboo effect atop silver sequined spaghetti-strap minidresses. A Mylar quilted balloon skirt was belted over a velvet minidress finished in oily feathers. A mint green bouclé wedding suit hammered home the limb-framing effect. Some of the layering was too heavy, in both idea and execution, but the concept was cool.

As Ms. Chiuri argued, couture has traditionally been about what you don’t see; what you can experience only in person — like sitting by the river, reading big books and watching the world go by. The imperative recently has been the opposite. With a dose of shine and sparkle, and that flash of flesh (presumably, clients less fond of getting their legs out can forgo the big reveal), Mr. Lagerfeld had it both ways. The promise of more was overt, but the more itself could not be discovered through simply surfing by.

“Come closer,” the clothes beckoned. Only then can you really understand what’s going on.

Credit: Fashion Review: At Chanel and Dior, the Incredible Intimacy of What You Can’t Buy Online

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