PARIS — France may have lost an A in its credit rating, but fashion seems to have won it back with a flourishing start to haute couture week — from the A-list celebrities to Dior's 1950s A-line silhouettes.
Monday marked the lavish return to Paris couture of Donatella Versace, who wowed spectators with her unapologetic glitz, gold and famous friends.
Since haute couture is such an expensive affair — shows have been known to cost in the millions — Versace's decision to show in the French capital after eight years away appears to have been aided by the house's profitable 2011 collaboration with mass-market retailer H&M.
Haute couture, unlike ready-to-wear, is a protected French appellation existing only in Paris. The status is granted to select fashion houses that produce astronomically-priced, made-to-measure garments, bought by a shrinking number of super-wealthy women.
Year upon year critics predict couture's demise, calling anachronistic an art form that generates little or no money in a profit-driven industry.
Yet the presence this year of mega-brand Versace suggests otherwise.
"Madame Versace's return after all this time shows that haute couture is not in the past. Versace knows they need couture. We tap the creativity (of haute couture) for ready-to-wear like an ideas factory," the president of the French Couture Federation, Didier Grumbach, told The Associated Press.
For Christian Dior, it was less a question of tapping new ideas than revamping iconic old ones.
Interim designer Bill Gaytten seems to have pleased the fashion crowd by revisiting Dior's iconic New Look, including reworked 1950s bar-suits.
Question marks remain over who will permanently fill the shoes of Dior designer John Galliano, sacked after being caught on camera making slurred, anti-Semitic comments last year. The disappointment of Gaytten's previous fall-winter collection only served to intensify calls for Dior to name a successor. But the subtle confidence of Monday's offering has left critics scratching their heads: Has Gaytten been too quickly overlooked for the top job?
Ending the day, the award-winning Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen provided dark contrast from the rest of the shows with her highly abstract and unconventional creations. Tapping the dark depths of imagination and blurring the boundaries between art and fashion, the 27-year-old represents a younger and fresher side to Paris couture week.
Donatella Versace climbed Mount Olympus for inspiration in the opening show of Paris' spring-summer haute couture week, in top form after an eight-year hiatus.
Gold metal discs sculpted the busts and accentuated the hips as models with never-ending legs slinked down 13 shimmering steps Monday at the grand salon of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the acclaimed Left Bank school.
The show marked the designer's return to haute couture week, with the Atelier Versace brand reportedly capitalizing on profits from last year's lucrative collaboration with H&M.
The clothes were pure Grecian drama. A yellow mini-dress with laser-cut silk satin sparkled with the help of Swarovski crystals.
The summer palette was served up in silvers, oranges and acid green. One goddess pearl gray evening gown made in Chantilly lace dazzled as the music climaxed with an aria from Tosca, sung by Greek legend Maria Callas.
Versace classics were revisited and given an Aphrodite-like twist, such as a leather biker jacket and sexy shorts with gold metallic gussets.
Gasps of delight came from the crowd, which included U.S. and French Vogue editors Anna Wintour and Emanuelle Alt as well as actresses Cameron Diaz and Diane Kruger.
"I loved it. It was so sexy, so typically Versace. I'm looking myself to see if I can get one," Kruger said after the show.
That means fashionistas can look for one of the numbers on a red carpet in the not-too-distant future.
Christian Dior revamped its signature New Look for its 2012 spring-summer haute couture collection, with stand-in designer Bill Gaytten playing it safe following last season's panning.
Monday's show got started fashionably late — but Dior is tardy in more ways than one. The front row was abuzz over Dior's ongoing silence on the appointment of a new creative director.
Would it be Raf Simons, artistic director of Jil Sander? Or perhaps French designer Haider Ackermann?
But the fashionistas were quickly jolted back into focus as floaty silk crepe silhouettes with nipped waists — in shades of beige, aubergine, red, black and white — filed through the sumptuous salons of the couturier on the Avenue Montaigne.
Gaytten had clearly hit on the house's bread-and-butter pieces, which go back to the 1947 collection that introduced fashion to a new ladylike look that thrived through the next decade and was copied many times over. It was a back-to-basics move following his fall-winter couture flop. Despite its predictability, the collection somehow worked, perhaps by dint of its subtlety and textural detail.
A classic A-line bar suit was given a light touch in ultra-feminine sheer silk with a full skirt, giving the show an ethereal, otherworldly feel.
Black silk dresses were painstakingly embroidered with delicate beads, followed by knee-length skirts featuring long knife-pleats that fluttered like butterfly wings. One model looked so weightless in cascading chiffon she might have taken off in flight had she walked just a bit faster.
The piece de resistance came near the end: a floor-length ballgown with a full black-and-white tulle skirt that brushed teasingly past photographers.
When Gaytten came to take his bow, he winked, perhaps because he knew he had produced some solid couture.
"I could show you a picture of every single one of those dresses from the 1950s. They were all copied. But it worked, it really did," said British fashion writer Colin McDowell.
It-girl of the moment, Olivia Palermo, summed it up: "Sometimes it's good to go back to basics."
IRIS VAN HERPEN
Iris Van Herpen's second haute couture show wrapped up a frenzied day of spring-summer collections with clothes that dipped into a darkly aquatic world, apparently inspired by "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."
"Normal rules don't apply" is one of the slogans of haute couture's new enfant terrible, a 27-year-old Dutch designer. Even the invitations she sent stick out from the rest: a transluscent square of plastic with a crustacean-inspired etching.
As two gothic doors opened to dramatic music, a pearl sheath dress emerged from the night at Monday's show and grew lightweight octopus tentacles made of glass that enveloped its female host. As if this weren't enough, the model had to struggle against killer platforms — boney vertical daggers, instead of heels.
All the pieces were highly architectural, often with accentuated shoulders and hips in metallic shades of aubergine and gray, as well as pearl.
One piece, a cape-dress, looked like a brooding stingray carcass given life by an intricate weaving of shimmering silk and metal fiber. At this point the perhaps puzzled spectators were struck with awe.
Haute couture is often a spiky affair, but white Plexiglas fangs poking out of a cap-sleeved mini-dress saw this taken to the next level. The message was clear: You can look but don't touch.
The only downside was the slightly repetitive use of the sheath silhouette, only rarely punctuated by a longer number.
Despite her youth and newcomer status, Van Herpen has made a name for herself in Paris.
"I just lead with intuition," the designer said backstage. "It's positive being new, as I can go wherever I want with total freedom."
Tuesday's haute couture collections include Chanel, Giorgio Armani Prive and Givenchy.