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€3,000 sneakers? Haute Couture strips down in Paris

From left, Chanel, Victor & Rolf and Christian Dior

When sneakers and tattoos appeared on the spring 2014 haute couture runways of Paris last week, it was as if the grande dame of fashion had doffed her stuffy embroidered gown for an entirely more current wardrobe.

Over the past few seasons, there have been signs that couture houses are adopting an increasingly contemporary outlook, including jeans in the collection of Maison Martin Margiela, abbreviated ball skirts worn over black cigarette pants at Christian Dior and bomber jackets from Alexandre Vauthier. While the upper echelon of designers continue to infuse these items with a sense of refinement and savoir faire – Vauthier's outerwear was cut from the finest crocodile, after all – it's clear they're positioning collections to be as relevant as ready-to-wear and setting their sights on a new, younger clientele (an age group mainstream fashion has long courted).

At the spring Christian Dior show, Raf Simons presented a collection that addressed the more relaxed and innovative way couture is experienced today. He created a sense of ease by pairing a delicate, printed silk coat and pants with embroidered trainers. Instead of defaulting to traditional guipure lace, Simons showed an architectural cutwork pattern layered over sequined fabric for a peekaboo effect that revealed a hint of sparkle.

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"They can be worn with a powerful attitude, without any of the extraneous elements like a 'couture pose,'" he said in the show notes, suggesting the collection is meant to be as practical as it is pretty.

It was a message echoed at Giambattista Valli, Vionnet and Chanel, where the models had a spring in their step. They skipped, sauntered and bounded down the double staircase that was part of Karl Lagerfeld's jazz club set within the Grand Palais. The collection's recurring silhouette consisted of a corset topped by a cropped shirt or bolero. Coco Chanel herself rejected garments that constricted the body, but today, emphasizing the midriff – even by wrapping it in the finest Chanel tweed – fits our fixation with fitness. To underscore the athletic message, many of the looks were accessorized with knee pads, fanny packs and sneakers in lace and python that are expected to cost upwards of €3,000.

While the sporty theme united many of the maisons looking to take a leap forward, there are still designers who are unable to move couture beyond princess gowns and theatrical costumes.

Ah yes, how to make sense of Jean Paul Gaultier's butterfly-inspired collection? Nearly three years after his career retrospective debuted at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, it will arrive in Paris this April. While Gaultier remains deserving of such an exhibition, his knack for extracting every last visual metaphor from a theme – in this collection's case, lapels shaped to evoke butterfly wings and blouses pleated to mimic the insect's shape – works against him.

The runway music included a sample of Féerie, the signature song for the long-running show at Le Moulin Rouge, where schlock is masked as an iconic example of French culture. It's become impossible to tell whether Gaultier is losing his ability to appropriate that kind of camp, or whether he's embracing it with more gusto than ever before.

Donatella Versace is another couture headliner who isn't known for subtlety. But, at least the Atelier Versace homage to singer, actress and model Grace Jones was unapologetically decadent, with cowled hoods, tattoo embellishments on translucent tulle and Swarovski details.

Tattoos also appeared in Maison Martin Margiela's Artisanal collection, underscoring the youthful idea that traditional art forms and street culture can coexist. The fusion between fashion and art remains top of mind for many designers but Margiela's approach is more original than most. Pieces incorporating textiles by Danish furniture designer Verner Panton, painter Raoul Dufy and tattoo artist Norman Keith Collins (a.k.a. Sailor Jerry) were true examples of wearable art.

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At Viktor & Rolf, designers Viktor Horsting's and Rolf Snoeren's tattoo technique meant applying trompe l'oeil to pastel latex dresses modelled by dancers from the Dutch National Ballet. Aside from addressing their conceptual approach to hyper-femininity, the inked bows and ruffles on ballerinas gliding across the stage suggested that couture can seem as simple as a leotard but be as technically complex as dance movements.

The Viktor & Rolf show concluded when a banner dropped from the ceiling and revealed the campaign for their new fragrance, Bonbon, featuring model Edita Vilkeviciute in the nude save for a few more strategically placed tattoos. Introducing something as commercial as a perfume ad into the exclusive, artistic sphere of haute couture might be an admission that the label's fragrance business supports its lofty runway ambitions. Or it could just be that Viktor & Rolf see no shame in self-promotion. Either way, what would have seemed gauche years ago was embraced by the audience and widely Instagrammed.

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