Valentino, by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, autumn 2013, in Paris. More Photos »
PARIS — There were more cultural questions than wardrobe solutions at the end of the autumn 2013 haute couture season — even if Valentino, in a beautiful and thoughtful collection, actually managed to show covetable coats and desirable daywear.
Elsewhere, designers are struggling to decide whether couture is about high fashion or high concept, taking style into the realm of art. The Viktor & Rolf collection, with its sculptural shapes and Zen spirit, also was beautiful in its ascetic way, going deeply into the conceptual realm, with no idea that could be defined as seasonal clothing.
“We wanted to be as conceptual as possible to celebrate our 20 years” in design, said Rolf Snoeren and Viktor Horsting, their comments flowing together after a long meditation on a set with a few stones whose shapes were echoed in the black clothing. It was as far as any designer could go from fast fashion.
The wonder of Valentino is that it is on the cusp of “new” couture, yet the collections resonate with the past. Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli went way back to the 16th century for their “mood board,” which they printed in the program: deeply religious imagery with period decorative objects like spiky coral brought to life on the runway.
“We just took the spirit of the Cabinet de curiosités and put it together differently,” said Mr. Piccioli, while his fashion partner said that they wanted to show daywear. Their thoughts were backed up by a set that included such cabinets with rare and strange collectors’ objects inside.
But for all its antique spirit and its hand workmanship from Valentino’s fabled Rome ateliers, these were not costumes. A coat — and that outerwear looked younger and snappier than the narrow skirt underneath — was patterned with lace, infiltrated in cashmere. Or there might be a grand brocade that was not, in fact, that heavy, textured, historic cloth but instead made from woven raffia.
Illumination, as in a medieval manuscript, seemed to be behind discreet, long-sleeved dresses in gray wool or plaid, lighted down the front with gilded embroidery. This sober elegance, a counterpoint to the flash-the-flesh of the last few decades, is becoming the leitmotif of this design duo — even for their gowns, whose handwork is listed in the program according to hours of embroidery (which can be as many as 800).
But nothing in these images of nymphs in grottos or so-called vanity mirrors was weighed down by history. They were clothes to make the young Euro-aristocracy swoon with joy and mark desirable purchases on their programs. Valentino Garavani himself — front row with Princess Madeleine of Sweden, whose wedding gown he designed this year — should be both delighted and relieved to see his spirit moved forward with such delicacy.
It is over a decade since there was a Viktor & Rolf show during the couture season. Yet the Dutch duo made their reputation with extraordinary and complex shows, like Russia dolls peeling off layers of clothing or cowbells tinkling in an unlighted room.
The 20-year celebration — which will also be marked by the opening of a new Paris store — was a peaceful presentation of clothes that seemed simple in their dark, strangely shaped silhouettes. But up close, the insertion of pieces of fabric, shaped like stones from a classic Japanese garden, were a work of complex fashion architecture. Hence, when the graceful models took up positions on the floor, the ultra-modern techno silk stretched and draped, sometimes to cover completely body and limbs.
It was intriguing to see the designers create an art concept that included themselves, both arranging the clothes and making meditative gestures.
And the show raised a question: Would it not be a great idea for the Paris couture organization to invite a few thoughtful and forward-looking designers — Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons comes immediately to mind — to suggest how the historic craft can be moved forward in the 21st-century universe?
During the finale at Vionnet, when the models lined up on a grand staircase, their dresses flowed over their bodies in drapes and pleats and in shimmering shades of green, red and blue. That made a pleasing tableau for the fashion house, where the original designer invented the bias cut, with its ripple of fabric at a graceful angle across the form.
Today it is Goga Ashkenazi, as both chief executive and designer, who is trying to restore the Vionnet style and spirit. The show was delayed a day and had some unfinished details — Ms. Ashkenazi described a complicated tale about metallic embroideries wrecking the fabrics on their way from Italy. But haute couture is a craft as well as an art. And maybe, for all her enthusiasm, this designer/owner should set up a studio of “little hands” to make the Vionnet clothes as beautiful in execution as in the original thought.