Chanel and Dior and their flowerpot mien
Context can make a seemingly minor distinction incredibly sharp. Black olive and black bean might look indistinguishable from a distance, but lay them on top of each other, and you’ll very quickly realise you’re wearing the wrong shoes for those trousers.
The Spring/Summer 2015 haute couture shows were, when taken together, almost single-mindedly focused on making a minor distinction major: the difference between “florals” and “flowers”.
Florals exist only in abstraction. They’re a fantasy motif – a field of daisies simplified and overstuffed to the point of impossibility, a red poppy flipped, reversed and repeated.
Flowers bear a closer resemblance to reality. They feel as if they’re still rooted and possibly even still wild. Flowers, on some level, look alive.
Both are fitting subjects for the hyper-skilled hands that create haute couture. Hand embroidering guipure lace with hundreds of silvery paillettes and golden glass beads, as Raf Simons did at Christian Dior, is just as challenging as crafting an almost-real hibiscus from flame red feathers such as those that appeared in Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel collection.
The exact number of haute couture customers each atelier possesses is as fiercely protected as the names of those clients. Whatever the number, it is small. This makes haute couture more like contemporary art than pret-a-porter; for a garment to be a success only one very rich person must love it. Haute couture is also an exercise in tone-setting – what happens at the highest point of a fashion house trickles down into their more accessible collections and other concerns.
The choice between florals and flowers said much about the woman, and the tone, each house had in mind.
Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren were fixated on the idea of flowers overgrown. They began their Viktor & Rolf show with a sweet, flouncy baby-doll dress, covered in a black-and-white print of zinnias, each bloom about the size of a splay-fingered hand. Perched on the model’s head was a straw hat with florets of wheat protruding at jaunty angles, like feathers on a racing hat.
Each look that followed was a variation on this theme, but with every iteration the zinnias grew more lifelike – at first with splashes of yellow and purple, then three-dimensional petals, and before long they had become fully realised flowers, growing out from the dress and up into the straw hats which had, by this stage, expanded far beyond the bodies of the models who wore them and out to take up most of the runway.
It was a meditation on madness – specifically Van Gogh’s descent into insanity, and the results were gloriously colourful and hallucinatory. As a testament to the garments’ ingenuity and total lack of wearability, art patron Han Nefkens purchased three of the dresses before the show, to be gifted to Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.
Elie Saab’s collection had quite the opposite intention. Saab is a designer who plays his muses close to his chest, producing season after season of exquisitely beaded gowns sewn with the intention of making their wearers look perfectly shapely and tasteful without conveying anything more profound than Old Hollywood Glamour. Taylor Swift is a huge fan. Almost every dress in his Spring/Summer show would have looked at home in the WASPy fantasy world of “Blank Space”. In a rare move, Saab also deployed a floral print.
Generally, Saab prefers to present pattern through monocoloured embellishment only – and there was plenty of that – but a floral motif that appeared first in lace, then in beads was finally realised in full, gorgeous watercolour towards the end of the show. The flowers in question were tulips, but the print was a reference not to the things themselves, but to a dress Saab’s mother used to own, back in the halcyon days of Beirut society life. Here, florals stood for the beauty and romance of a bygone era.
Used in pretty sprays, Giambattista Valli’s tiny, delicate floral embroidery formed part of a larger conversation between an unlikely pair of dinner party guests, Coco Chanel and Janis Joplin. Chanel brought little black dresses and short, shapely blazers while Joplin brought flared trousers to wear underneath them. The collection featured all the foaming, feminine details that have made Valli famous, and all those girly flourishes – even with pants under them – proved a logical canvas for small and complex floral prints to spring up on. When the wild flowers rubbed up against houndstooth prints in unusual clashes, it was “Flower in the Sun” versus “Elegance is refusal”. Since Valli never failed to add several extra flounces and ruffles to hemlines, necklines and sleeves, “refusal” lost out.
It’s a couture tradition that every show close with a bride, but Jean Paul Gaultier, ever the jokester, ended his with a bouquet instead. He sent Naomi Campbell down the runway in a corset made of green cellophane and fake ferns, with a living trail of orchids encircling her bust. The show was Gaultier’s first since he shut down his ready-to-wear business, and in many ways what he presented was a celebration of couture itself, but especially the bride. Every look was a bride of some kind – a dominatrix bride, a beekeeper bride – mostly they were the extremely-silly-but-also-very-fun kind. His final look with its real, fresh flowers showed that, like his ready-to-wear business, something doesn’t require longevity to be fabulous.
Some designers were less adept at creating a distinction between the idea of florals and a living bloom. Alexis Mabille’s starting point was a line from an Albert Samain poem: “There are strange evenings when flowers have a soul.” But his oversized pansies and tulips placed expansively over the hip and waist of structured, vampish evening gowns fell short of the soul he aimed for. Instead his creations looked as if someone had blasted a floral grenade across Jessica Rabbit’s dress, leaving her improbable proportions even more cartoonish.
The most illustrative distinction of the season was between Chanel and Dior. Dior has long been known for its belles fleurs, women so delicate and ornate they’re practically flowers. This season, designer Raf Simons aimed to liberate these women. He did away with Dior’s floral proportions – those stamen-thin waists crafted through corsetry – and instead shrank his flowers down and abstracted them. His aim was to create a collection that referenced the past, but never felt bound to it, a coherent range with no particular sense of “time”. With his modish ’60s daisy lace, swirling psychedelic bodysuits and full bell skirts he certainly succeeded in that. A particularly masterful innovation was a range of plastic overcoats in translucent green, printed with posies. These leant everything they were paired with a futuristic appeal, but they were smart enough to shy away from looking sci-fi.
The new Dior woman doesn’t need to be a breathing flower, she can borrow a little from that antiquated ideal, abstract it and adapt it into something far more sensible.
Karl Lagerfeld wasn’t wrestling with the “woman as flower” metaphor at Chanel. Instead, he seemed to be creating flowers for a world without flowers. The show’s elaborate set was an artificial garden, with giant lotus machines that whirred into bloom. When flowers appeared on garments, they hinted at life, not closely enough to fall into the uncanny valley of shopping mall pot plants, but certainly to the point where they trembled, as real petals do. The shapes at Chanel were long and often loose. This was cool-girl couture that managed to make tutus look tomboyish by combining them with sock-boots and crop tops. The overall effect was very young, and in the context of high fashion, this felt very fresh.
Lagerfeld seemed to be promising his future clients, women who were born in the 1990s, “Don’t worry, even if the world stops blooming, you’ll always have Chanel.” If the execution wasn’t so whimsical, the grim underlying message would have felt almost too real.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 7, 2015 as "Flowerpot mien". Subscribe here.