After an 18-month hiatus, the haute couture shows were staged in Paris. This was, perhaps, a dry run for a return to the fashion circus of old, pre-pandemic — a full fashion week of shows and appointments, meetings, black-tie dinners for art foundations and perfume launches, and a jaunt to Versailles. The mood seemed buoyant: the weather was great, the collections good.

Yet halcyon days were not quite back. Client attendance was cautious — quarantine restrictions in Asia limiting travel of important customers from the region. It was disturbingly easy to get a table at many popular restaurants.

“Today there will be mainly European clients. And a couple of courageous Americans,” Pietro Beccari, chairman and chief executive of Dior, said before the house’s couture show. A Covid-19 test result had to be flashed to be permitted backstage access. Giorgio Armani had around 50 clients at his two haute couture presentations, half the typical number; Chanel said around 40 made the trip out of the usual 150 to 180.

Balenciaga returned to couture after a 53-year absence with a much-anticipated collection by creative director Demna Gvasalia that wasn’t just for show.

“The ultra-high net worth individual has boomed in 2020, and is growing. We have clients that are interested in our codes, our brand, Demna’s vision — at every level,” says Balenciaga chief executive Cédric Charbit. “Couture is an investment.”

After two couture seasons designing collections for film, Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri says this season was about up-close intimacy. Her collection was backdropped by a hand-embroidered installation by the French artist Eva Jospin, and filled with minuscule Grecian-style hand pleating, microscopic fabric chains and multiple hand-woven tweeds. The same fibres were used for knits.

“This material aspect is impossible to see in film,” Chiuri insists, tugging at a sweater’s sleeve. If the past two Dior films served to glorify Dior’s eveningwear, this was grounded in daywear — which, perhaps, made it a somewhat sombre outing. But when clients come, they find an entire wardrobe here.

Wedding dresses were big, ideologically and literally: 75 metres of silk taffeta was cartridge-pleated into a bubbling salon-size Schiaparelli gown by artistic director Daniel Roseberry; Balenciaga recreated an iconic 1967 model; and, under a shower of confetti, the actress Margaret Qualley, in a satin dress, played bride at Chanel and tossed her bouquet. Bridal gowns are traditional couture show-stoppers, but they’re also the closest couture comes to a money-spinner: if a woman is going to spend upwards of £200,000 on a dress it’s probably for her wedding day.

Roseberry himself allowed that clients had been requesting wedding gowns, and he was happy to oblige. I’m unsure if they’ve been asking for denims studded with life-sized golden roses and ear lobes, or matador jackets embroidered with original 1930s threads — but those were there, too. This Schiaparelli collection was presented on static mannequins strung through a series of rooms, but it vibrated with life, finally fully re-energising this long-moribund fashion name with 21st-century energy.

The style of the late 1980s veered up again and again. Armani created gowns that were exuberant, light to hold but heavily ruffled and embroidered — he pinpointed his Chinese clients’ taste for extravagance.

Virginie Viard’s Chanel collection referenced the 1880s and the work of artists Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet with its thick daubs of impressionistic embroideries in intense hues; but the silhouettes were also more 1980s, with broad-shouldered tweeds, thick braid, low-notched lapels. Models in delicate Victorian lingerie bloomers and camisoles had shades of Madonna; full tulle skirts and picture hats were a touch Princess Diana. It’s a period eagerly revived by 20-somethings, a golden age for French haute couture and the start of Chanel’s rebirth as one of fashion’s powerhouses under the late Karl Lagerfeld.

Lagerfeld exceptionally designed for two couture houses: the other, Fendi, is now headed by Kim Jones, who showed his couture via a film directed by Luca Guadagnino. It was heavenly: women dressed in white, like de Chirico angels in a reproduction of the label’s headquarters, the Palazzo della Civiltà.

The clothes themselves drew from the architecture of Rome, reproducing inlaid marbles and pietra dura mosaics through mind-boggling intense leather and embroidery, shoes balanced on heels like arched colonnades. Jones has found his sweet spot: if his first collection fused his own British heritage with Fendi’s, this was speaking pure Italian, crafting an identity for a fashion house that has, in the past, seemed trend-driven and somewhat nebulous. It’s now in sharp focus — Roman, regal, but real. “I think I’ve nailed it,” Jones shrugged to me. He had.

More new names, more great clothes. Designer Pieter Mulier, the longtime right-hand man to Raf Simons, made his Alaïa debut on the street where the founder both lived and worked, a collection filled with memories of Alaïa rather than reproduction. It also mixed together ready-to-wear and couture, meaning there was stuff for normal people to get their hands on — knits with sinuous U-bend seams over torsos, precisely tailored A-line coats, waist-cinching belts and metal-studded handbags. It had a modern, youthful energy. You felt you’d be seeing more of these clothes on the streets.

Balenciaga was a trip, a fashion geek-out at the very highest level. It was like stepping back in time: through resurrected couture salons, in absolute silence, a couture collection of total formality and rigour paraded. If its purpose was to posit an alternative to Balenciaga’s contemporary history of hyper-successful streetwear, it accomplished its aim. It was impossible not to sit in those hallowed halls — fashion holy ground — and not recall legendary stories of the founder Cristóbal Balenciaga, whom Christian Dior once called “the master of us all”.

“Balenciaga and couture is an effort or quest for perfection,” Gvasalia says. But he played with that idea — Balenciaga’s salons were “aged” with painted patina of mould and water-marks, and the clothes were twisted takes on Cristobal classics. At first glance, the unfitted silk suits and flying saucer hats were direct throwbacks to mid-century — but embroidery seemed to be unravelling on gowns slit open in back to reveal trousers, and silk robes were permanently crumpled.

These effects were, of course, intricately and painstakingly achieved. There were even couture jeans, riveted with sterling silver, and track-suits. “It’s very much me, but also Balenciaga,” Gvasalia says, by simple way of explanation. I suspect clients will love buying both.

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