Valentino, Balenciaga, and Chanel make the haute couture bag

Around rush hour on the penultimate day of couture, a line of black cars emerges from Paris, past grassy fields and factories 30 miles north to the 16th-century Château de Chantilly. Guests in brightly colored feathers are let down to swing down a long stone walkway that opens to a scene of reflecting ponds and manicured lawns set around a central fountain surrounded by a maze of benches. This was where the golden hour began a glam show for Valentino – with Kaia Gerber in jeans and a white T-shirt.


Granted, they weren’t just any jeans: They were made of silk silk fully embroidered with delicate beads that were dyed in 80 different shades of indigo to resemble denim, but still. mascot.

They looked like jeans.

Jeans — or ultra-plush doppelgängers — were the week’s biggest trend. Aside from the opening jeans, Valentino’s ensemble also featured Levi’s recycled design from a rare 1966 edition Big E in gold, worn with a plunging white sleeveless shirt and a dark sapphire blue knitted coat that shrugged the elbows until it slid behind him like a train.

There were more jeans, similarly made of beaded, in the guest of Julien Dossena’s Jean Paul Gaultier collection, and plenty of jeans in all stages of Balenciaga’s distress, which were also not denim at all but an oil-coated canvas. It took two and a half months to create.

The idea of ​​fancy jeans isn’t entirely new—Matteo Blazzi switched leather into denim in his Bottega Veneta debut a year ago—but it may represent, more than any oversized ball gown, where it’s all headed. It sounds bizarre, like a desperate attempt at haute couture at street fashion, or worse, like a scenario of Marie Antoinette playing a shepherdess (neither of which is not out of the realm of possible). But, in fact, what jeans really signal is a return to a more meaningful way of approaching high fashion.

Which is to say, as just a crystal-encrusted attention grabber, and more as an inside story; Clothing is like a secret only the wearer knows, because only the wearer knows how much work it took to make something look so simple. Something that is literally impossible to make except by hand. With the advent of the age of artificial intelligence, this may be the most valuable thing of all.

Indeed, “couture casual,” as Balenciaga’s monogrammed designer Demna called it backstage after his show, or “haute couture you don’t see,” was a defining feature of the season. Given the real civil and economic turmoil outside the couture bubble, this is both a strategic move—this is not the time to be a fleeting declaration of wealth and privilege—and a creative move.

At Chanel, Virginie Viard set up her show on a cobblestone bank on the banks of the Seine, sent her models out for a stroll (as at Valentino, many of the models wore flat shoes, or nearly flats), and carried straw baskets of flowers as if they had just happened to go out. To an open air market in Boucle. As one does!

One of the models in a red jacket was walking the designer’s sister’s dog. There were some dimensional flourishes—skirts that ended below the knee—but the best looks were fruit embellishments and bejeweled flowers, like a walk in the park.

After a day at Fendi, Kim Jones sent most of his models clutching jewel-box-like bags to their hearts in one hand, a nod to the fact that the collection was inspired by the jewelry Delfina Delettrez makes for Fendi for the house, which also was on display in some of the models. This is synergy with the brand for you.

It could easily have resulted in a diamond-encrusted mess, but instead Mr. Jones stripped off the excess to focus on the shape, draping asymmetrical jersey across the body, draping feathered shoulders and a bodice cinched with columns of beaded tulle. The obi-like belts are no-nonsense, leaving the obvious gemstone references to the occasional splash of color: red rubies, emeralds, and silvery hematite. Even the final appearance, a pink tourmaline mosaic of crystals in the form of a wrap-around skirt and jacket that slips off the torso, had a certain ease—if also a calculating whiff of sentimentality.

By contrast, at Gaultier, while Monsieur Dossena (aka creative director of Rabanne, ex-Paco Rabanne) pointed to a number of familiar Gaultier icons like marinières and cone bras, he also leaned into lesser-known ensembles such as the spring 1988 show The Concierge. for inspiration. The result combined chain mail with floral aprons, sheer embroidered dresses layered over sheer trompe l’oeil bodysuits (complete with beaded mercenaries), ornate rabbinic coats and generally created a bricolage version of a “crowd of characters”. Like the kind you see every day, like the world outside the window.

There were, of course, collectibles, most notably Giorgio Armani, whose Armani Privé show was a tall ode to rose velvet, shimmering sequins, sequins and chiffon. Although one plain, long-sleeved gown of black velvet, backless except for a string of red roses down the spine, was very convincing, it was the exception that proved the rule.

Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli said during a preview of the show to explain how he ended up in Chantilly, and why, instead of leaning on royalty in all things (which would have been the obvious choice), he’s subverting the surroundings with his gorgeously lush and tactile, but still gorgeously tactile, outfit. Playboy looks like a pair of sweats.

As if you had just woken up one morning and put on a white dress, knit at the waist and covered in matte sequins, that draped from one shoulder like a workout shirt, to your coffee. Or thrown over a ruby ​​cashmere coat like a bathrobe to run out and fetch the mail.

Oh, that old tank is embroidered with silver? That feather dress? I just grab what came to hand! The dresses were made from a single piece of fabric, which was twisted at the waist. Everything seemed weightless. The goal was to change the hierarchy of aesthetics.

It’s part of what Demna has been doing since arriving at Balenciaga, and certainly since he restarted couture for the brand three seasons ago. Faithfully continuing that work, the collection rather moved it dramatically forward, focusing on the silhouette — funnel necklines on evening gowns and suits that narrow to a point at the ankle — and trompe l’oeil not just on denim but on coats from Faux fur is just like lynx or sable.

Coats and scarves were shaped to look like they were frozen in the middle of a storm (covered with the ropes and arrows of public opinion?). Two dresses were made of thousands of loose silk threads, like a curtain. Another scarlet lace gown is carved into the shape of a bell, though there is nothing underneath to keep it in place. The final look was a 3D-printed, galvanized resin-coated, chrome-plated armored dress lined with flowing velvet. Hi Jeanne d’Arc.

The obvious connection was life’s a battle, or private label battles late last year (celebrities, at least, seemed to get around the issue: Cardi B, Offset and Michelle Yeoh were in the front row; Isabelle Huppert walked the show). But then Dumna also said after the show that he believes haute couture is a kind of “antivirus” for fashion. For “fake creativity” and “endless marketing and selling and all this gloom, gloom that has been cannibalised, I think the whole industry”. Then compare fashion design to Moderna’s vaccine, come save the day.

The problem is, there’s nothing easy about it: not making it or wearing it. Is it enough to immunize everyone against the seemingly ruthless fashion trend? Doubtful. But when it works, it’s a great reminder.

As Viktor & Rolf said — literally — on their 30th anniversary collection that included a whistle-stop tour through concepts for their previous shows, all reimagined as bathing suits: “Dream On.”