Inside a courtyard off Place Vendôme, fashion fans have gathered, compact cameras and cellphones in hand, poised to capture every bit of the inevitable glamour. Giorgio Armani's guests have started to arrive for the red-carpet master's spring couture offering, and there's bound to be at least a couple of major celebrities on his list. The fans aren't disappointed. Academy Award winner Jodie Foster, slated to preside over the César Awards - France's version of the Oscars - on Feb. 25, creates a stir: This is her first fashion show, and she's made it Armani for good reason. "For him, it's always about the woman he's dressing, not just putting her in an outfit. He'll never make you feel like a clown," she tells me.
Next up is Olivia Wilde, who recently starred in Tron: Legacy and who made a splash at the Golden Globes in a sparkling copper Marchesa number. "It has to be about making a statement!" she states with conviction. Suddenly, a frenzy of flashes announces the arrival of forever radiant Sophia Loren, a long-time Armani fan who later tells me that the glamour on the red carpet has never changed over the years. "It's always about dreaming," Loren says. "And nothing makes us dream more than couture."
But even the most costly glittering gowns run the risk of looking redundant in an arena where everyone vies for standout originality. Maybe that's why Armani went out on a futuristic limb this time, concocting a bold Privé collection based on space-age glam, complete with sleek Philip Treacy hats reminiscent of minimalist flying saucers. In what appeared to be an ode to early Cardin - or perhaps Lady Gaga (whom the designer is dressing for the next leg of her North American Monster's Ball tour, which kicks off next week) - Armani sent out a stream of gleaming ensembles, many in rich jewel tones of emerald, sapphire and ruby. "Those shiny materials looked like plastic to me," Foster said. "But I couldn't believe it when I felt them backstage … they were all soft and silky." The sleek silhouettes came down the runway in the form of sexy, streamlined gowns and modern, two-piece outfits featuring skinny pants and tunics.
Over on Rue Cambon, easy modern dressing was also the name of the game at Chanel, where Karl Lagerfeld mixed unexpected pieces in fresh new ways. There was some interesting layering going on, as sparkling, roomy tops were teamed with delicate chiffon skirts. In a bid for the younger, spirited client base that Chanel has been building rather well, sexy sequined leggings and skinny faded jeans made a strong showing. The jeans were especially charming, with rows of crystal buttons running up the ankles and shins. But the most striking aspect of the collection was the workmanship of the ateliers, particularly the spectacular iridescent beading that Lagerfeld's muse and creative collaborator Amanda Harlech described as "an embroidery of light."
Lagerfeld opened the show with 40-year-old aristocratic model Stella Tennant and closed it with quirky 46-year-old favourite Kristen McMenamy as the bride. "I almost cried coming out in the wedding dress," McMenamy confided. "Do you know that Karl actually gave me away at my own wedding in London 12 years ago?" But it's more than sentimentalism that's driving Lagerfeld this spring. "The new Chanel campaign stars three different generations of models," he enthused. "Freja [Beha Erichsen, the 23-year-old Danish stunner] Stella and Ines [de la Fressange] That's reality." "We're all aging," noted de la Fressange, 53. "We just have to look at ourselves in the mirror and love and accept who we are."
Women of all ages also strutted it for Jean Paul Gaultier, who embraced both punk and the can-can in one of the most entertaining presentations of the week. "Just because it's something like punk and can-can doesn't mean it can't be chic and elegant," the designer told me backstage. Despite the wild Mohawk hairdos and a generous helping of sass and sensuality, thanks to fringes, transparent mesh and plenty of ruffles, Gaultier's show smacked of the haute sophistication that couture is famous for.
In an approach reminiscent of the early days of fashion, there was little music in the show. Instead, the designer's models - who ran the gamut from his first muse, Farida Khelfa, sensational at 48, to Toronto-born Kate Somers, Czech supermodel Karolina Kurkova and Australian drag queen Andrej Pejic, cast as Gaultier's bride - all cruised down the catwalk to descriptive commentary voiced by long-time Gaultier supporter Catherine Deneuve, who looked on from her front-row seat. The eclectic collection, which included small lace bomber jackets, ruffled gowns, a fancy black-taffeta trench worn over layers of tulle, a colourful brocade jacket and pants and a crystal-studded sheer jumpsuit with a mini cape, was Gaultier at his best: imaginative, playful and timeless - yet wearable and practical.
Meanwhile, the two designers at Valentino had another kind of practicality in mind when they created their vision for spring. Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli were determined to give their increasingly young clientele a hearty dose of sensuality, while at the same time delivering timeless dresses that were easy to wear. Silhouettes were diverse, but most had a relaxed feel. And in an obvious attempt to appeal to the red-carpet crowd, the duo concentrated on flutter and flow, dishing up some of the prettiest concoctions of the week, in delicate powder shades of blush and beige. A soft green feathered coat provided some delicate punch, while signature Valentino red cropped up twice, in both long and short dresses.
Historical reverence was also high on John Galliano's agenda, as he continued to pay homage to Christian Dior by referencing everything from his master's revolutionary silhouettes to Dior's own muses and inspirations. This time, under the big top on the grounds of the Musée Rodin, it was legendary Dior illustrator Rene Gruau who Galliano celebrated in a grand and romantic collection that recalled '50s sensuality. It was all about graceful lines, and plays on light and shadow. Stephen Jones's headpieces elevated some outfits to even greater heights, replicating Gruau's simple, bold brush strokes that resembled wafts of smoke. Ostrich feathers and iridescent embroideries added to the fantasy, as Galliano played with a rainbow palette of ruby red, emerald green, raspberry, soft blue and pink.
But as grand a spectacle as Dior's show was and as much as the dwindling number of couture houses are determined to keep things big and splashy in the name of "image," there's a new wave of thinking creeping into the moneyed culture: Some younger couturiers feel smaller and more intimate is the way to go. Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci chose to present a mere 10 Japanese-inspired dresses to his clientele in the privacy of a small salon. Cameras weren't welcome. And Giambattista Valli, who closed Couture Week with a swish cocktail party at his stellar new shop near the Madeleine, chose not to stage a presentation at all. Rather, he'll entertain his couture clients in the intimacy of his atelier, located atop the 1,500-square-foot ready-to-wear boutique. And as the throngs of international fashion cognoscenti sipped Perrier-Jouët out of crystal goblets in his rose-filled garden courtyard, Valli gave everyone something to think about, proclaiming: "Privacy is the new luxury."
Jeanne Beker is the host of FashionTelevision. FT's Academy Awards fashion special, Runway to the Oscars, airs Feb. 27 on CTV.