Raf Simons was hired by Christian Dior to win back an audience that had fallen out of love with this most venerable of Paris fashion houses in the wake of the ugly John Galliano scandal.
And Simons, who came into the limelight with a reputation as a modernist and a minimalist, has surprised the industry by using the most traditional of seduction strategies: he says it with flowers.
A cage of latticed scaffolding on the scale of a Kew Gardens greenhouse was constructed to house the Christian Dior catwalk on Friday at Paris fashion week. Laced around the walls, and trailing from the roof, was a staggering display of floral beauty. Ropes of lilac wisteria next to thickly budded cords of pink orchids; red bougainvillea swaying blowsily in the breeze next to stiff birds of paradise. The many in the audience who had never expected to see a floral display to match Simons's first Dior couture show, at which the walls of each room were wallpapered with blooms in colourblocked shades, were forced to think again.
Simons is a romantic, and a clever one. At the house of Dior, the front rows welcome not just fashion experts but prominent women from every walk of French life. Guests included both Valérie Trierweiler, the first lady and political journalist, and Zahia Dehar, the Algerian prostitute at the centre of the underage sex scandal involving prominent French footballers. A brand on the scale of Dior needs to connect with all kinds of women, and Simons understands that fashion is animated by emotion, and he knows perfectly well that walking into a vaulting, church-sized space filled with glorious flowers will cause a chemical reaction in his overwhelmingly female audience, who brim with serotonin before the show begins.
Simons also understands that the language of flowers – so important to Dior, who took walks in his Normandy rose garden when he was in need of inspiration for a collection, and always pinned a sprig of Lily of the Valley flower to one model on his catwalk, for luck – is a symbol of femininity and of beauty whose currency will never devalue.
But like all ladykillers, Simons has a mischievous side. "This collection is the idea of twisting, turning and pushing Dior; where the lyrically romantic becomes dangerous; a beautiful rose garden becomes poisonous," he explained in the note he left on every seat. And then on to the catwalk came what he described as his "new tribe of flower women". Not a single one wore what might be termed a traditional floral dress. Instead, a trompe l'oeil combination of leather jacket with an integral 'bra top', which existed only in the three inches gap between the jacket buttons, was stamped with flower motifs; dresses of vivid floral prints spliced with segments of black wool crepe were emblazoned with ransom-note legends reading "the ultraviolet mouth" or "hyperreality in the daytime". Sandals had sharply pointed toes, and razor-thin straps that wrapped the ankle like ivy; models wore gold paint brushed into their eyebrows, their hair partings, and under their lower lashes. Dior elements were cross-pollinated in dizzying combinations, as a Bar jacket erupted into vibrant silk folds at the hip, and a severely tailored black coat dress revealed in its back view an entirely different look, with stripes of blossom printed pink and orange.
As the last model exited the runway the audience, high on romance, were just beginning to question whether any real-life clothes could be extracted from this fantasy. But Simons was a step ahead: for the traditional finale, in which the models make a lap of honour of the runway, each wore an entirely new outfit. Here was an entire second collection of beautiful, simple tailored daywear and shimmering, glamorous red carpet gowns – all the things that keep the cash tills ringing on the Dior shopfloor – so that fantasy and reality, the catwalk and the commercial, blurred into one.
The unexpected was a theme of the day's shows. It was all change at Roland Mouret, a label long known for a sophisticated Parisian aesthetic and a passion for the elemental beauty of the hourglass form. Bright colours, brash stripes and flat shoes usurped snaking zips and curvy tailoring. If it was intended as a wake-up call to those who arrive at a Roland Mouret show thinking they already know what they will see, it worked – although the classic, sinewy dresses that closed the show, on which those seductive gold zips made a cameo appearance on semi-transparent cream knit or shimmering fuchsia silk, are likely to be the commercial successes.
The catalyst for change was the soundtrack at the beach bar on Ithaca, Greece, where Mouret was holidaying this summer with his friend and collaborator, the stylist Sophia Neophitou. "They started playing techno, and reggae. At first I was like – I can't stay here, I'm leaving. But it made me think that I need to face change. I need to open doors that I've never opened before, and go beyond what feels safe." This show, played out to a reggae version of Rude Boy by Rihanna, "is my way of expressing that", Mouret explained. "It's about anarchy and contradiction. The woman who wears these clothes has a more street attitude – she is darker, harder. She gets sweaty."
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