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Paris Haute Couture Week: Clothes for the 1%, thrills for everyone else

Fiona Sinclair Scott, CNN

This week in Paris, a series of designer collections featuring handcrafted, one-of-a-kind, eye-wateringly expensive high fashion was once again unveiled during the city’s biannual Haute Couture Week.

Closer to collectible art than the clothing most regular people own, couture fashion is exclusive by definition, with each bespoke garment made for one supremely wealthy client.

For the 1%, couture fashion is a chance to indulge, to splurge, to flex, to enshrine, even. (Some serious couture collectors wouldn’t dream of actually wearing the garments they purchase — they simply want to own a piece of fashion history.)

Meanwhile couture is a chance for a fashion houses to intimately connect with their top clients while showcasing their creative directors’ boldest visions and the skills of their design teams. A couture collection is also about strengthening a brand; it’s often the purest expression of a label’s values. A manifesto of sorts. And it’s a marketing opportunity: A splashy couture collection will boost a brand’s cultural cachet, making people want to buy into it, even if the entry point is a bottle of perfume.

So what’s in it for everyone else? Why care about clothes that aren’t made for you?

Because it’s thrilling to watch the spectacle, to escape into another world and ogle at the excess of it all. Be it the conversation-driving gowns that end up at the Met Gala or the Oscars’ red carpet, or the theatrical shows — now almost always simultaneously broadcast online — couture has crept into culture because it’s entertaining and because there’s an element of storytelling to it. And we’re all invited to enjoy that.

American designer Daniel Roseberry hit the nail on the head in the show notes accompanying his latest couture collection.

“All of us who work in fashion know that much of the rest of the world thinks that what we do is silly,” he wrote.

“It’s a boring criticism, and we all argue otherwise, but if you think about it, fashion is silly at times. It’s also provocative, upending, challenging, and meaningful. It’s breathtaking. It’s beautiful.”

Read on for moments that reflected this sentiment at Paris Haute Couture Week.

Balenciaga: Celebrity casting with a bang

Wielding the power of celebrity, Balenciaga stole headlines again by asking reality star-turned label muse Kim Kardashian to model in its show alongside Nicole Kidman, Naomi Campbell and Dua Lipa. Beneath the starry commotion was a collection filled with technological innovation — crinkled T-shirts bonded with aluminum that can be sculpted into a desired shape — and extravagance: a wedding gown made from 820 feet of tulle, 70,000 crystals and 200,000 sequins.

The brand also unveiled a collaboration with Danish audio firm Bang & Olufsen: A “speaker bag” that is part accessory, part sound system. Who will buy the 20 limited edition bags? The same people shopping for ink-tinted Balenciaga couture face shields, no doubt.

Fendi: A high jewelry debut

For those seeking more traditional accessories, Fendi’s debut high jewelry designs may be the answer. The one-of-a-kind set was conceived by the house’s artistic director of jewelry Delfina Delettrez Fendi (daughter of Silvia Fendi) using an abundance of white and yellow diamonds.

Olivier Rousteing for Jean Paul Gaultier: Punks with bumps

Since Jean Paul Gaultier stepped back from fashion in 2020, his namesake label has invited a different designer to create its couture collection each season. This time, Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing took the reins, presenting a series of designs that paid homage to Gaultier’s archive. Conical bras, Breton stripes and trompe l’oeil motifs were given Rousteing’s “Balmain army” treatment (exaggerated shoulders and metallic armor).

The talking point came mid-way through the show when two bump-clad models with nose rings and layers of metal jewelery walked the runway together, an apparent reference to France’s decision to extend the right to access IVF to lesbian couples and single women last year.

Schiaparelli: Flower power

A rash of floral detailing broke out amid Daniel Roseberry’s latest couture collection for Schiaparelli. Whether hand-painted, leather-made, or constructed from stones and metal leaves, the flower motif was complex and striking in vivid blues and autumnal tones. It added an earthiness to the house’s signature metallic embellishments and — to return to Roseberry’s earlier musings — it was beautiful.

Top image: Anna Wintour, Kim Kardashian and North West seated front row at Jean Paul Gaultier.

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