PARIS — Maria Grazia Chiuri’s celebrations of women for Christian Dior have most often been spun around the work of a female artist where the inspiration is necessarily more abstract, but the couture collection she showed on Monday was rooted in a real life, that of entertainer, activist and Black icon Josephine Baker and it was all the stronger for it. Chiuri’s starting point was a trove of old photos of Baker performing in New York in the 1950s, dressed in Dior, but the designer drew a narrative thread back to the 1920s, when Baker first arrived in Paris and created a sensation at the Revue Nègre and, later, the Folies Bergère. Sinuous metallic sheaths and flapper dresses fringed with crystal evoked the Jazz Age, undergarments wrapped in velvet robes suggested loungewear for backstage dressing rooms. A clutch of spectacularly simple columnar evening gowns in glistening satin and decadently toned crushed velvet — all of them crumpled, lived in — sang to the single spotlight of the cabaret star.
A good half of the collection was made up of daywear: tailored suits, coats, dresses, some in the men’s fabrics favoured by Monsieur Dior. Lengths were a sober mid-calf, which loaned a vintage flavour compounded by the hair, the makeup and the footwear (embroidered velvet shoes with a hunky mid-heel). But it was quite a pleasing effect. Chiuri said she was drawn to Baker because she understood the power of dress to confront racial stereotypes, and confound expectations of gender roles, like another famous Dior customer, Marlene Dietrich. Those women resonated with her, to the point where Chiuri picked the tuxedo coat as a personal favourite from her new collection. (Baker and Dietrich did almost as much for a man’s tuxedo as Fred Astaire and Cary Grant.) “That’s what I like for myself, really clean and timeless,” she added. And maybe it was that intimate personal resonance that gave this collection its subtle kick. It had soul.
Of course, it was also a Christian Dior show so it demanded some extravagant contextualising. American artist Mickalene Thomas created 13 photo-based collages in her signature style, celebrating Baker and a dozen other Black women who had blazed trails in their worlds, among them Dorothy Dandridge in movies, Nina Simone and Lena Horne in music, Donyale Luna in modelling. They were reproduced in giant embroidered wall-pieces executed by the Chanakya School of Craft in Mumbai. “Women — and great women artists — don’t celebrate themselves enough,” Chiuri said emphatically. “I’m obsessed with pushing women.” As usual, I was wondering where these remarkable pieces of contemporary art would end up when the music stops.
There was more contemporary art at the Chanel show on Tuesday morning in the sculptural animal forms created from cardboard, wood and paper by Xavier Veilhan to accompany a show designer Virginie Viard imagined as “a spontaneous village festivity.” Midsommar, or The Wicker Man, maybe? There was something of those cult classics in the giant abstracted creatures that were wheeled into an oddly shadowy show space. There were models concealed within, a hint of Spinal Tap perhaps, that was made more emphatic when a elephant trundled onstage at show’s end. From this giant structure, Anna Ewers emerged, a virgin bride in a veil embroidered with swallows.
It was klutzy and kultish, like a cross between a Trojan horse and a child’s horsey, and in an odd way, it was a perfect distillation of the collection itself. As much as it embodied haute couture in the extraordinary techniques that made the clothes, it also ensured that those clothes had a sparkly, frothy fairytale naivete that seemed bizarrely at odds with couture’s expression of a fundamentally adult sophistication. The same artistic sophistication, in fact, that shaped the original bestiary in Gabrielle Chanel’s apartment on Rue Cambon, the Coco ur-zone which Viard introduced Veilhan to at the beginning of their collaboration.
So back to the clothes. Viard liked the idea of majorettes, the kind that might lead a small-town parade of Americana in their flaring skirts or shorts, their laced booties, maybe even an abbreviated swing coat. There were top hats and bowties, as though the models were ringmasters in the circus of abstract animals that awkwardly filled the arena. When that hat and tie combo accompanied the transparent, tiered formality of the black grouping towards the end of the show, it took on a Girls-of-Guns n’ Roses edge. I’ve always maintained that Virginie Viard’s rock chick heart will ultimately define her tenure at Chanel. Here was a whisper of that future. Mind you, she covered her bases by embedding a Corgi picked out in pearls on classic Chanel tweed. Playing to the Palace, perhaps?
Ultimately, with houses the size of Dior and Chanel, the designers are bound by their ability to deliver the sales at street level. If they’re doing that, haute couture is allowed to become a thin-aired Everest of idiosyncrasy. The invitation for Giorgio Armani’s new Privé show featured a harlequin diamond pattern, which sparked simultaneous dread and curiosity. The dread was instantly consummated on entrance to the venue in the Garde Republicaine, where the French cavalry’s horses usually prance. A harlequin catwalk! So soon to be echoed in the diamond-patterned looks which took to that catwalk.
But then the dread was co-opted by the curiosity. Armani never takes on a theme by halves. If he’s in on harlequins, he’s all in on harlequins. So what did that mean? Harlequin’s home was in the grand Italian tradition of commedia del’arte with its origins in the carnival of Venice. Armani’s palette — aqueous blues and greens, shot through with a wintry sunrise pink — was the palette of Venice at a particular time of year. The sinuous flow of glittering floor-length sheaths duplicated the effect of light on water.
But there was also something fundamentally surreal about Armani’s presentation that made me think about what harlequins meant to Picasso and DeChirico and their peers: the romantic, the prankster. Giorgio clearly still has some tricks up his sleeve.