To Millennials, couture can feel more than a little alienating: grandiose evening gowns entirely embroidered in gold and silver sequins might be appealing to princess wannabes and oil tycoon wives, but they hold no connection whatsoever to 21st century modernity.
Enter Karl Lagerfeld: on Tuesday morning, the designer not only presented a superb collection, he also taught us a much-needed masterclass on how couture can stay relevant at a time when fashion is as much a matter of fun, pop culture and surprise as it is about beautifully executed dresses and feminine silhouettes. Guests to the Chanel show entered the Grand Palais to discover a cylindrical greenhouse of sorts, populated by ghostly water green paper plants. The whole atmosphere had a slightly uncomfortable, stuffy quality to it evocative even of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer and its dowager character Violet Venable. Until a gardener-clad Baptiste Gabiconi appeared on the set to water the plants, upon which they opened to reveal a multitude of multicoloured flowers. Michel Gaubert’s score then became booming, and French model Joséphine Le Tutour walked in dressed in a bright orange ‘tailleur’, flat black ankle boots and a veiled straw hat. After that, we very quickly understood this was couture that could be worn by Rihanna: exquisitely cut woollen ensembles were paired with large grunge-like beanies with veil details, jackets were cropped and voluminous skirts were worn below the navel, revealing the flesh in a pop rather than sensual way. The colour palette was as varied as what can be found in a garden, including tones going from sherbet lime to grey blue, pastel pink and poppy red. Tweed was delicately shredded in places and became floaty as feathers as the models walked, and flower-shaped sequins proliferated in cocktail dresses that reminded us simultaneously of Spring at Versailles and of seapunks in Harajuku. The finale, an embroidered wedding ensemble worn by Molly Blair, displayed all the artistry of couture (it took a month and fifteen petites mains to make), but that was almost irrelevant: the whole show was a celebration of French savoir-faire and a modernity manifesto. It seems paradoxical that it has to be 81 year-old Lagerfeld who reminds us that high fashion can (and should) be an exercise in innovation. But then again, that’s what makes Karl the undisputed Kaiser of haute couture.