People were still finding their seats before the recent Giorgio Armani Privé show when applause and cheering broke out from a section of the front row.
Actress Jessica Chastain, who appeared in more films last year than there are Romney sons, had just learned that her role in The Help earned her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. Her runway seatmate, Cameron Diaz, was among the congratulatory chorus.
In fact, it was nearly impossible to watch the haute-couture spring collections – which take place in Paris every January – and not think about the Academy Awards ceremony, now just three weeks away.
Once Chastain had received the good news, the Armani show became an opportunity to hunt for red-carpet contenders and potentially select the one that would define a moment in her career.
When Givenchy held a presentation of 10 exceptional looks by Riccardo Tisci midway through the couture schedule, several fashion editors agreed that the label would be a wise and obvious choice for ingénue Rooney Mara, who is nominated for her turn as the titular character Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher's version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
With this silver-screen-themed influx, I found myself examining the collections with the eye of a celebrity stylist. Which dresses would be most television-friendly? What would stand out for all the right reasons? (Mind you, a polarizing frock can sometimes be preferable to a predictable one – it's all about impact.)
Indeed, the red carpet would get a serious shakeup from one of Givenchy's latest designs, such as the crystal-fringe-and-beaded-scale dress held up on one shoulder by a no-nonsense chain and paired with a white cashmere undershirt. The construction of another dress required 350 hours: to disassemble a crocodile skin, bleach it, dye it a rich peaty brown and attach it piece by piece onto tulle. I imagine, however, that stylists would likely steer clear of the doorknocker sized "nose sculpture" – an obvious obstruction to interviews and megawatt smiles.
Paris-based Italian designer Giambattista Valli is due for recognition outside his loyal circle of clients – and not just because Chambre Syndicale, haute-couture's governing body, recently granted him official couturier status (up from guest member). Where Valli's early ready-to-wear collections excelled in volume, his sophomore run at couture spoke almost entirely to technique and nuanced whimsy. (Though the pairing of a lace/cotton tuxedo shirt with a beaded pencil skirt trimmed with ostrich feathers might be too risky for the red carpet, it's still a notable testament to freshness in fashion and worth noting here.) Each of his sumptuous gowns had a distinct personality, from the black muslin with lake-by-moon-light paillette panels to a simply draped, almost sporty, silhouette in searing fuchsia.
Only upon leaving the Valentino show did I realize there was not a single red dress. The label is known for its signature shade of scarlet, which I clearly didn't miss amid design duo Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli's pastoral vision of decadent scale. Floaty dresses boasting floral prints dug up from 17th-century fabric archives opened the show – lovely options if ever the dress code calls for Marie Antoinette-inspired opulence. The show's program highlighted some impressive production figures for various gowns: 800 hours of weaving, 10,000 silver-plated glass tubes, 1,200 hours of embellishment. But first impressions form in a single minute and I'm not sure how much of this intricacy translated beyond a general sense of preciousness.
Elie Saab also took a softer turn for spring, with filmy fabrics designed to mimic a chrysalis and a flora print that conjured the gardens of Givenchy. But these idyllic conceits were still positioned within a black-tie-appropriate framework. What pleased me most were the shorter "baby doll" dresses, which meant less surface area for all the crystal and beaded bits and, consequently, less overall excess.
Excess of a different sort is Jean Paul Gaultier's forte, no matter what his theme. This season, his homage to British singer Amy Winehouse (who died last year) played out in candy-floss-coloured beehives and outfits named after her greatest hits. And what outfits, including frozen-looking suiting and slinky sequined separates in wild mixes of colour. One dress, in fluorescent orange lace, could prove an outstanding red-carpet choice (with more conservative undergarments). But as Cameron Silver, founder of vintage fashion haven Decades and all-around style savant, said to me post-show, "No one has the guts to wear Gaultier." Sadly, he's probably right.
Wearability is not an issue over at Dior, where Bill Gaytten continues to oversee the fashion house until an official successor to John Galliano is named. Using the notion of an X-ray as a starting point, he meticulously scanned the details that define Dior to produce velum-like silk coats and dresses that would expose the minutest flaw if not executed to perfection. If Winehouse was Gaultier's muse, then pouty hipster chanteuse Lana Del Rey was Dior's, both as the accompanying soundtrack and in the sense that her persona is simultaneously manufactured and yet still familiar and soulful. As for the gowns, filter out the superlatively pouffy ones and a selection of sleeker stunners remains – the tiered and pleated silk aubergine dress that swings atop a bodysuit or the embroidered haute gingham come to mind.
Of course, the irony of forecasting Oscar fashion based on a handful of couture collections is that the chosen actresses are not technically clients, merely Cinderellas until the umpteenth after-party comes to an end. In some cases, a starlet might even be paid by the brand to wear its creations, which once again raises the inevitable – perhaps even tiresome – questions of "Who buys couture?" and "Is it still relevant?"
Go to enough shows and you can quickly spot the clients. They're there in first two rows, old money and nouveau riche, Europeans and BRIC residents, using their crocodile and ostrich handbags (heaven forbid plain old leather!) as seat dividers. I even ran into one Torontonian on her very first cou-tour with some friends from the U.S. I'd like to think that the women who buy couture are investing in more so-called wearable items, the sleek pieces Armani continues to tweak and the Chanel jackets and dresses that are truly timeless. Bouchra Jarrar is another designer whose sensibility is less occasion-specific, more universally chic.
But couture remains relevant strictly because it is neither a commercial endeavour nor a flight of fancy but hovers nebulously between the two. And at a time when various ready-to-wear labels edge closer and closer to the opulence of couture, its responsibility is to soar even higher. Speaking of which, Karl Lagerfeld brought in the body of an airplane – exit row included – as the backdrop for Chanel's entirely blue collection. Among the first-class passengers: Diaz, Diane Kruger, Vanessa Paradis and new face Elizabeth Olsen. Actresses, after all, are the most frequent fliers between runway and red carpet.