By its very nature, haute couture is the opposite of magic: No dress makes it to the runway without regular feats of time-consuming, painstaking craftsmanship.
This season, though, designers seemed determined to inject it with magic, conjuring enchanted gardens and winsome lesbian brides, showing decadent dresses inspired by glass-domed architecture, American folklore and Indian-boho fantasies. Maison Martin Margiela even created "fur" out of candy wrappers.
Adding to the magic of the recent presentations was a rare Paris snowstorm, which transformed the city into a winter wonderland a day before they began.
In terms of backdrops, the venue for the Christian Dior show revealed as much about designer Raf Simons's vision as his impressive collection did. As early as Jan. 7, notice went up in the southeast corner of the Tuileries gardens that the area would be closed off in preparation for the show. Three weeks later, an enormous tent was concealed by mirrored panels so that it reflected the Tuileries trees and became all but invisible in its natural setting.
Inside, plump, semi-circular boxwood hedges and trees supplied by Wirtz International Landscape Architects of Belgium hid staircases from which the models emerged, embodying, according to Simons, "the very idea of spring." Essentially, he had created a secret garden for his Dior flower women.
With his second couture collection for the house, Simons revisited ideas he had unveiled back in July: the black cigarette pant, the embellished bustier and beautiful, simplified ball gowns. This time around, however, he also planted the seeds that will likely grow to define his tenure at Dior. The most interesting was a new approach to layering, one that consists of a gradual progression from vest to flared bodice to pencil skirt. The tailoring of his suiting was slim but fluid. Proportionally, everything was in its place.
Simons's approach to embellishment is as intricate as any; one dress featured three layers of tulle, all separately embroidered with different layers of flowers. It was as if he had crafted a prize-winning garden scheme in beads and pailettes.
Grand Italian gardens and old renderings of labyrinths appeared on the mood boards at Valentino, where Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli conceived one of their most flawless collections to date.
"Fantasy and reality transform one another with magical naturalness" was how the show notes somewhat awkwardly described the designers' vision (chock it up to the Italian translation).
Valentino Garavani, in attendance as usual, applauded with approval when the sixth look appeared. Over top a dress embroidered with birds was a cape that mimicked the curlicues of a wrought-iron birdcage; according to the show notes, achieving such verisimilitude required 500 hours of handwork (which pales in comparison to the 2,500 hours of embroidery that went into affixing porcelain sequins in a meticulous zigzag pattern to another look).
Such ornamentation aside, the designers actually seem more and more disciplined. Theirs is a garden that blooms ever so precisely yet allows for movement and lightness.
For the Chanel show, Holm oaks, Scotch pines and bushes from the north of France (all purchased after licensed felling) turned the Grand Palais into a wilder wooded scene. Here, Karl Lagerfeld declared that this would be the season of the shoulder – framing them from below, extending the sleeve up like armour to shield them, highlighting them with beaded white T-shirt-style inlays – everything, that is, except pad them with unnecessary volume.
His floral embellishments appeared as if in relief, their petals layered onto black beaded dresses like wafer-thin porcelain. It was all so romantic and also, as many have already pointed out, tinged with melancholy.
Couture shows typically end with a wedding dress. While Simons showed five variations at Dior, Lagerfeld showed two, presenting them side by side with a toddler in tow, thus offering unambiguous commentary on France's current divide over proposed gay marriage and adoption laws.
Meanwhile, Jean Paul Gaultier's Indian bride had four adorable tots hidden under her huge hoop skirt; they streamed down the runway to the crowd's amusement, ending the show on a high note after a collection that, at times, seemed ornamented to a fault.
Giambattista Valli and Elie Saab both expanded on their signatures styles, ensuring the return of their faithful couture customers (a combination of actresses and heiresses). Valli was strongest when he created a pushpull of black and white, rigorous and diaphanous. Saab showed four gowns that introduced some soft multi-coloured beading atop outlines of sculptural detailing. They were gorgeous.
The Atelier Versace and Maison Martin Margiela collections excited for different reasons, but shared a common rebellious spirit. The former was unapologetically flashy; how else to describe the mini-dress in alternating strips of neon yellow mink and python, gold and crystal laminate? The latter was achingly cool; with Kanye West, Simons and Mugler's Nicola Formichetti looking on from the audience, models with faces concealed by embroidered veils showed what's possible when vintage flapper dresses from the 1920s and ballgowns from the fifties are restored like Renaissance paintings and remastered and enhanced like a Diplo remix. For those with a hankering for the absurd, there were also coats embroidered entirely in candy wrappers.
The final time slot of the week went to Canadian Rad Hourani, who, in his high-fashion debut, sent out a collection of 22 completely unisex looks – a first for Couture Week. Made of black and white leather, the layered pieces had been cut in such a precise way to fit both male and female body types (or, more accurately, androgynous ones). Hourani, whose place on the official calendar came through the recommendation of Christian Dior CEO Sidney Toledano, admits that his avant-garde aesthetic does not fit neatly into the couture archetype.
"Couture doesn't always mean flowers and feathers; couture can be wearable 24 hours. It's just how you execute it," Hourani says. "It's important to be comfortable, wearable and extremely luxurious."
Practical magic, in other words.