PARIS — They may have been protesting the separation of migrant families in the United States over the weekend but, in Paris, they were celebrating France’s soccer victory over Argentina. And as the couture shows began Sunday evening, that World Cup series win lent a rosy glow to a sector that is regarded as a national treasure of a different kind.
Riding her post-Meghan Markle royal wedding wave of acclaim, Clare Waight Keller, artistic director of Givenchy, was awarded pole position on opening night for what was only her second couture collection ever. In the gardens of the Archives Nationales — as cawing sea gulls flew overhead, circling the house’s drone, and the arched windows of the cream stone edifice were reflected in the mirrored catwalk — she rose to the occasion with an ode to her house’s founder, Hubert de Givenchy, who died earlier this year.
You could trace the antecedents — some “Sabrina” here; some classic couture balloon sleeves there — but Ms. Keller made them her own.
She started with the signature Givenchy column beneath a satin tunic top cropped just below the breastbone in the front and sweeping down to the floor behind, as once worn by Audrey Hepburn but updated in black wool and white georgette covered in matte metallic sequins.
She melded deep jewel toned velvets and crystalline sequined capes that glimmered like the walls of an emerald mine; spliced a short black cape jacket to a white shirt; trapped flyaway nude silk chiffons with hammered silver breastplates; sent necklines soaring like satin stalagmites
Men’s narrow overcoats were pavéd in the same silver sequins and beaded peacock feathers as the gowns (though the men still seem like accessories to the women, rather than equals); trench coats lined in starlight; thin black turtlenecks and cigarette pants layered under glimmering bustier dresses with petal skirts. The shoulders in all cases were drawn with squared-offed geometric precision; the line pristine.
It was a little medieval and a little futuristic, formal in its heritage (fah to daywear!) and never less than highly controlled. Each look was named after a word M. de Givenchy had used to describe his own runway styles (“affectionate,” “intriguing,” ”severe,” “inaccessible”), though the net effect sacrificed emotion to the armor of elegance. Feelings can be messy, which is risky but also what creates an unexpected clutch of stomach-churning excitement. It’s the one element missing from Ms. Waight Keller’s roster.
She has mastered her material, but she still plays by the familiar rules, as does Bertrand Guyon at Schiaparelli, who this season gave the urban jungle a surrealist masquerade ball spin in the gilded halls of the Opéra Garnier. A flamingo intarsia cape topped skinny pink trousers worn by a model in a matching flamingo papier-mâché headdress, while crystal zebra stripes mixed it up with moire and leopard and Dalmatian prints tussled in a ponyskin coat. A platinum lamé gown trembled with lace butterflies.
The craft of the atelier on display was impressive, if the realization a bit obvious — though not as obvious as an ivory satin caftan with an intarsia portrait of the Schiap herself. Big sister is watching. Best not stray too far from her playbook, even if you can see the moves coming from a mile away.
Iris Van Herpen, on the other hand, is in an entirely different league; one she created, and continues to occupy pretty much by herself. For her, technology is a contemporary form of craft, and the digital world, her atelier. Half the time, what she makes doesn’t even resemble clothing, at least as we used to know it, but rather some form of undulating carapace: the 5G network made material, cast in the style of Arthurian legend, and encasing the body.
It’s not that she rejects the heritage of the couture, she just redefines it with modern tools. Once upon a time the sewing machine did the same.
Witness her latest collection, titled “Syntopia” and inspired, the show notes read, by “the new worlds that arise within synthetic biology.” Relatively wearable (by Van Herpen standards) leather overcoats displayed windows of gray wool woven via parametric files.
A turquoise organza fan-pleated cape dress was coated with liquid to create glass wings. Sound wave patterns were cut by laser out of Mylar and black cotton and heat-bonded to acrylic cutouts to create something resembling (kind of) a little black dress.
The result challenges convention, and, possibly, one’s ability to sit down. Whether Ms. Van Herpen scores with each look or not, however (and all those sine curves can start to feel a little repetitive), she’s definitely moved the goal posts in this game.