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Dior, Versace kick off Paris Haute Couture with fierce femininity

The first day of Couture Fashion Week in Paris ushers in the opulence that is expected from high-end desingers and a brilliant renewal by Raf Simons at Christian Dior

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Before Paris Couture Week officially got underway, Donatella Versace attracted a high wattage front row – Jessica Alba, Christina Hendricks, M.I.A. – to her Atelier Versace show Sunday evening. Held at The Ritz, brother Gianni Versace’s preferred venue before his death in 1997, the collection mixed heavyweight notes (i.e., belts) with sexy sheerness.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters

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The dresses were knockouts – and not just because of their sculpted bodices and extreme thigh exposure. Here, hand-cut strips of plastic have been layered atop silk, creating a glossy embroidered effect. Up close: the pattern reveals tarot card imagery treated with Pablo Picasso-style abstraction.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters

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Of the 26 looks, several mini-dresses appeared as if painted directly on the body – with a layer of varnish for extra sheen. Most impressively, Ms. Versace tweaked the Gianni era excess by balancing sex appeal with stunning construction.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters

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Count on Alexis Mabille to apply the couture sensibility to hair and makeup. Less eccentric than his last show (models faces were painted the colour of their dresses), this season’s look features anti-gravity ponytails topped with Swarovski charms.

Francois Mori/AP

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The charm message extended to the dresses themselves, which Mabille conceived to emphasize a woman’s jewel-like qualities. Look closely: There’s a crystal dangling in front of the model’s sternum. Indeed, it disappears in the awkwardly draped sea of turquoise lamé.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

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Mabille is strongest when he eases up on the oh la la. It says something about his level of decadence that this gold sequin dress looks comparatively relaxed.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

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Left is Bernard Arnault, chairman of Louis Vuitton Moêt Hennessey, the luxury conglomerate. He would have had the final word in determining which designer would take over the most venerable name in the fashion industry: Christian Dior. The search was drawn out over a year until the appointment of Raf Simons (right) in April.

Valerio Mezzanotti/NYT

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Monday’s Haute Couture show was Simons’s first collection and it was an incontestable success. Several rooms within a private mansion boasted blossoms from floor-to-ceiling, providing a fragrant backdrop for designs that expressed the Dior spirit with freshness and striking femininity.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters

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Simons, who most recently had overseen design at Jil Sander, has often been described as a minimalist. But it would be more accurate to suggest he prefers impact over theatrics (the blue flowers, by the way, are delphinium).

Jacques Brinon/AP

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It’s easy to forget that all high fashion was haute couture before ready-to-wear (prêt-à-porter) gained popularity in the late 50s. This outfit echoes Dior’s radical New Look silhouettes circa 1947. Simons did not get trapped in the archives, though. You could say his look is renewed.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters

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Simons has always loved colour, showing equal affection to strong solids and painterly prints.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters

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When Emma Stone wore a carmine Giambattista Valli Haute Couture gown to the Oscars in February, the only complaint expressed by fashion critics was that the bow appeared to have swallowed her neck. Well perhaps the designer decided to teach them a thing or two about volume.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters

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He explored a fantasy garden theme with lush prints and explosive volume. This was dramatic enough, never mind the models who appeared to be inhaling butterflies.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters

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If this collection conveyed a dream, Valli was due for a pinch.

Jacques Brinon/AP

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