PARIS – It was a breath of fresh air in Paris, as Valentino's designer Pierpaolo Piccioli liberated himself of constraints on race, age and weight Wednesday to produce a joyful, inclusive and long-awaited moment of couture.
Fashion prides itself on being able to predict trends and be ahead of the curve. So many industry watchers have been disappointed in recent years that European fashion houses -- some of whom have been accused of Western-centrism and even racism -- have seemed behind on issues of body positivity and diversity.
For spring, Piccioli took one well-heeled step forward.
Here are some highlights of Wednesday’s shows.
VALENTINO’S DIVERSITY COUTURE
“I have reflected on the body. The repetition of the house model proportion has always been the rhythm to follow and I thought it was time for a change,” Piccioli said. “Creativity, as life itself, is possible only in a non-homogenous environment.”
And with that, the lauded Italian designer waded into a new realm: A fashion universe of clothes worn by individuals -- regardless of color, age, height and waist size.
Couture, the age-old tradition of exorbitantly priced made-to-measure clothes, has always been governed by strict rules of body shapes, and traditionally modeled on predominantly white, European-looking models of a certain height and weight.
In the storied Place Vendome, Piccioli finally broke down those rules.
Voluptuous beauties, over-60s, as well as male and female models from diverse racial background stepped out into the flashes of the camera sparkling in light, optimistic and playful couture designs. Some 32 of the 64 looks — precisely half — were modeled by non-white models.
Some fashion observers saw it as an “about time too” kind of moment, including Long Nguyen, a prominent Asian-American fashion critic.
“It’s a welcome change at Valentino to see age, body and race diversity into the couture orbit,” he said. “It’s a process that has taken way too long at luxury fashion houses.”
He said there is “still far to go.”
Last week, Kenzo unveiled the collection of their first Japanese designer since house founder Kenzo Takada. Nigo, 51, became only the second Asian designer at the head of a European high fashion label, alongside Bally’s Filipino-American Rhuigi Villaseñor. His appointment was seen as a milestone as the luxury industry wrestles more broadly with questions on race.
Diversity was felt not only in Valentino's choice of models, but in the fashions themselves.
Valentino’s collection was entitled “the Anatomy of Couture.” Styles, often pared down and cut away from the body, were a study on the line between minimalism and exuberance.
Snipping away was sometimes literal by Piccioli -- like in holes down the sides of pants or vertical cutouts down a lime tunic. It produced the best looks.
A white column dress in viscose crepe had a sublime undulating cutaway at the chest to give it a playful, modernist vibe. A midnight blue chiffon cape that was sheer enough to expose the nipples and skin took the title of the show to the heart of its design. It felt archetypically couture.
Elsewhere, the simplicity was interrupted by flourishes of bows, whooshes of silk and flashes of bright color.
The house said 50 meters (165 feet) of cotton faille were handstitched by Valentino’s army of seamstresses to create one sky blue cape that was so voluminous it seemed to hover around the model like a smoky halo.
ZUHAIR MURAD’S RETRO PIRATES
Zuhair Murad is in a 70’s mood.
One of two major Lebanese designers staging couture shows in Paris, alongside Elie Saab, Murad took out the silk bandeaus, embellishments and long silk gowns whose accordion pleats swept the floor for a retro, confident and sexy display that riffed on piracy.
The runway comprising an old fashioned map suggested seafaring.
Then the theme became clear: Tricorne 18th-century hats — or pirate hats popular in the 70s — were reimagined in lavender, complementing flappy leather pirate boots with stylish pointy toes.
Murad’s cuts clasped the natural high waist of the silhouettes on models whose height was accentuated by full skirts. Elsewhere, plunging necklines and shoulder-less bodices emphasized feminine curves.
At times, the collection felt a little like a pastiche. But its sheer exuberance and fastidious execution produced a saleable and commercially-minded show.
VIKTOR&ROLF’S DISAPPEARING MODELS
Off kilter, tongue-in-cheek and ghoulishly creative.
Dutch design duo Viktor & Rolf were back on the couture calendar in fine form on Wednesday, producing a typically thought-provoking series: The case of the ghostly, shrinking models.
A clever trompe l’oeil effect hoisted the shoulders of garments so that models seemed to shrink as if suddenly aged. White makeup was used to hollow out their faces alongside dark, ghoulish lipstick. Long fingernails suggested a person that had been buried alive -- in styles that you would have to be bold to wear.
This collection, you might say, was not for shrinking violets.
Style-wise it felt late-70’s. Jabot collars mixed with frilled cuffs and giant pleated ruffs that evoked the heyday of the New Romantics. But the 25 designs also had an encyclopedic feel. with historic musing such as a crisscross Shakespearian bodice or huge tiered raspberry gown with a giant slanting neck hoop that evoked the ruff of Queen Elizabeth I.
ELIE SAAB BLOOMS
Elie Saab said it with flowers. On Wednesday, the Lebanese designer took the lavish bread-and-butter silhouettes that have made him a red carpet hit with celebrities such as Rihanna, Halle Berry and Mila Kunis — and created infinite variations.
It was thanks to his designs of beautifully embroidered flowers.
Bright petals — in a dazzling shade of fuchsia — seemed to engulf the giant full skirt that opened the show and resembled a kaleidoscope of butterflies.
Huge teeming pink peonies were hung around a model’s neck and midriff, matching a shoulder-less pink silk gown and train that riffed on the '70s.
And an embellished cape in Persian rose evoked a fairytale princess — a realm the romantic designer has explored in the past with considerable frequency.
Organizers, citing pandemic restrictions on access, denied Associated Press photographers entry to the Valentino show