Paris' three-day-long fall-winter 2011-12 haute couture extravaganza wrapped up Wednesday with a mini revolution that challenged the established order of this elitist world by allowing the uninitiated masses into a show.
Normally only a reduced cadre of fashion editors, stylists and journalists, as well as the ever-dwindling numbers of fabulously wealthy women who regularly sink five-figure sums into a made-to-measure dress attend couture shows. But French couturier Frank Sorbier took the bold move of selling tickets to his show on the internet to anyone with an interest in fashion and 31 euros ($44) to spare.
"You can buy tickets to concerts, to plays, to standup comedy acts, and really a fashion show is a kind of spectacle, too, with drama, emotion and beauty," said Sorbier. "So I figured, why not sell tickets to my show, too?"
Still, Sorbier's revolutionary spirit didn't spill over to the day's other shows, which remained, in true couture style, invitation-only events attended by an extraordinarily well-heeled insider audience.
Valentino was held in a stately Paris mansion, and the feather-light chemisier dresses exuded a retro tres Parisien elegance that was very much in keeping with the surroundings. Elie Saab _ the Lebanese designer whose high-wattage va-va-voom gowns have conquered a thousand red carpets the world over _ also delivered a light, airy collection of sequin and tulle confections.
Feathers flew at Jean Paul Gaultier, where plumage plucked from just about avian species from the common chicken to the stately swan dressed up his gorgeously cut staples _ pinstriped suits, trench coats and bustiers. The show was raucous and ended with a tuxedoed Gaultier racing off the catwalk, out of the building and down the street to a launch party for his new perfume "Kokorico" _ which translates, appropriately enough, to cock-a-doodle-doo in French.
Other highlights of the week included debuts on the couture calendar by Giambattista Valli, whose retro Italian glamour has won him flocks of jet-setting fans, and inventive up-and-coming Dutch woman Iris Van Herpen, who sent out a ball gown made entirely out of twisted metal wire. Attention to detail was pushed to the outer limits of sanity at Givenchy, with ten astounding looks in tulle, pearls and tiny iridescent beads that each took upward of 2,000 hours of painstaking labor.
At Chanel, the set alone sufficed to take people's breath away. The deep-pocketed house built a life-sized replica of Paris' jewelry Mecca, Place Vendome, swapping Napoleon for founder Coco Chanel atop the square's iconic towering column.
Spring-summer 2012 couture shows will take place in January.
JEAN PAUL GAULTIER
Like a fox in the proverbial hen-house, Gaultier served up plumage from every bird he could get his hands on. Rooster, ostrich, swan, turkey and pheasant feathers peeked out from the hemlines of trench coats and fluttered out from beneath the necklines of bustiers and other Gaultier staples. And even when they weren't visible from the outside, the feathers were there on the inside, stuffing the puffer jackets and A-line skirts made from down-filled duvets.
A cropped leather jacket was entirely embroidered with black rooster's feathers that gleamed darkly, like an oil slick. A model appeared to be transforming, "Black Swan"-style, into a macaw, her bustier an explosion of feathers in saturated tropical shades.
In a nod to the blockbuster movie, Gaultier paired tutus with his signature pinstriped suits and sent out high heels that looked like satin pointe shoes with a metal platform to hike up the heel.
Gaultier has a prodigious imagination, and his creativity can sometimes get the upper hand and overshadow the clothes themselves, but Wednesday's collection hit the sweet spot between fancy and rigor.
In a nod to his new men's perfume Gaultier put men onto the catwalk, which in couture shows is normally ladies-only territory. Lanky male models tuxedos with pointy patent leather heels shared the catwalk with buff boys in duvet skirts.
"I never really saw myself in a dress before," said Rob Evans, a boxer-turned-model with a square jaw and epic shoulders. "Coming from boxing, I'm more about testosterone and locker rooms and I'm generally not all that in touch with my feminine side."
Loaded with beads, rhinestones and sequins, couture is generally a weighty business. But Valentino kept it whisper-light with a collection of sheer chemisier gowns that were about as substantial as one of Gaultier's feathers.
A light touch has become the signature of the label's new design duo, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli, who over the past two-and-a-half years have steered the label once known for its va-va-voom red carpet looks to an altogether airier place.
Ankle-length chemisier dresses were dreamy concoctions of flesh-colored tulle, chiffon, lace, feathers and lustrous metallic beads. Retro capes blossomed with flower petal appliques, and skirt suits were riddled with elaborate cutouts.
"That was sheer beauty," gushed actress Anne Hathaway after the show, which was held in the rambling, gilded salons of a Paris mansion.
"Those were the kinds of dresses you dreamed about when you were a kid."
Saab has the formula down pat: Take miles of flowing silks and tulle, whip the fabrics into flattering, nip-waisted silhouettes and cover them with a ton of shimmering sequins and beads and you've got yourself a red carpet winner.
The Lebanese designer didn't stray Wednesday from the winning recipe that has helped him conquer red carpets worldwide. But then again, with gowns that look that good, why would he?
Models walked the catwalk in artfully draped bustier gowns with long flowing skirts cinched at their waists with skinny belts.
Fans installed near the photographers' pit billowed the dresses' flowing chiffon just so for the photos, and the battery of flashes electrified the intricate bead work.
The dresses were feather-light and ultra-sheer, but slap on a lining and you'd be ready to go to your next movie premier, gala dinner or black tie soiree.
Sold on the Internet (gasp!), and priced starting at a very reasonable euro31 ($44) a piece, tickets to the Sorbier show allowed those who'd never before set foot in a fashion show to access this elite world, at least for the 15-minute long display. People in jeans and non-designer T-shirts queued up in front of Paris' Cirque d'Hiver theater, where models paraded in ravishing hand-crafted garments.
The collection channeled Brothers Grimm's fairy tale world, with models looking like impish Gretels after too long in the woods. A yellow and green pantsuit and matching cap covered the model like lichen, while a coat made from rough, uneven chocolate and evergreen patches looked as if it had been cobbled together out of strips of bark.
"It's the anti-couture couture show," Sorbier said in a backstage interview. "There are no sequins, no crystals, nothing that sparkles. Just pieces that required lots and lots of work."
Sorbier says he personally did the lion's share of the labor, hand-scrunching the silk georgette into the rumpled texture that has become the veteran designer's trademark. All the material was then hand-dyed in the atelier sink.
"There were some models who came by for castings who looked around like they thought we'd been slaughtering something in that sink," Sorbier added with a laugh.
Maybe it was the elfin clothes _ shorn of couture's high-wattage sheen but showcasing its extraordinary workmanship _ or perhaps it was the fashion outsiders in the audience, or both, but there was something magical in the air at Sorbier.