If it has sometimes been difficult for luxury fashion to speak to the present moment, then what role could haute couture, with its strict tailoring and elaborate ball gowns, possibly have to play?

That was the question several designers were grappling with at haute couture week, which was again streamed fully online as France’s daily coronavirus cases climbed above 20,000 and all but essential travel remained banned in the country.

The answer was not fancy clothes for loafing about the house (even if, as has been the case at Dior, some clients are ordering couture pyjamas). Rather, designers homed in on what Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli described as the “essence of couture” — the elements of fantasy and craft that set it apart from ready-to-wear — and how to bridge them with modern lifestyles.

“I was not going to do homewear couture,” Piccioli said over Zoom from Rome, where Mayhoola-owned Valentino is based and this season’s collection was filmed. “I hate the idea of homewear. I don’t think you need couture at home. Or maybe you do. But not something that looks like homewear.”

Instead, he eased the fit, stripped back the decoration and introduced more daywear: generously sized trenchcoats with slim skirts and roomy trousers, and narrow, softly draped dresses, some of which could conceivably be worn to an office (sans the towering platform boots). To emphasise what he called their “almost minimal” quality, he set the clothes against the baroque interiors of the 18th-century Palazzo Colonna, in a pre-recorded show without guests.

Piccioli also expanded the idea of who wears couture, with male models joining the show line-up for the first time. This was merely modern, Piccioli said; men were already buying Valentino couture for themselves.

Male and female models also walked the Plexiglas set at Fendi, where Karl Lagerfeld’s successor Kim Jones (who also designs Dior Homme) staged his Bloomsbury-inspired debut collection for the LVMH-owned house on a power line-up of models that included Demi Moore, Christy Turlington, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and two members of the Fendi family.

The collection was both deeply personal and foundation-setting: a way of laying common ground between the Fendi family and Jones himself. Jones grew up not far from Charleston House, the famous country retreat of the Bloomsbury set in East Sussex, and so he drew on “the enduring allure of Virginia Woolf’s and Vanessa Bell’s liberated creativity”, weaving it together with “the eternal language of Italian sculpture and Fendi’s foundational codes”. Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s novel about a gender-swapping aristocrat, was also a starting point.

The resulting collection was soft and lovely, treading the delicate line between the traditionally feminine and masculine with silky, lantern-sleeved evening dresses that gracefully revealed the curves of the body; marbled trouser suits softened with flowing capes; and a beaded, column dress affixed with half a blazer (perhaps the most literal expression of the collection’s exploration of gender fluidity).

It was a more romantic, traditionally beautiful collection than one might have expected from Jones, a designer whose menswear collections have skillfully combined heritage with hype. His first outing for Fendi suggests he may be taking a different tack here.

The week was marked by several other debuts, including guest collections from artist (and longtime Raf Simons collaborator) Sterling Ruby and 24-year-old Charles de Vilmorin, both of whom used hand-painting to great effect, as well as the launch of guest designer Alber Elbaz’s joint venture with Cartier owner Richemont, called AZ Factory.

Of the many things I had imagined from the much-loved former Lanvin designer, a collection of elastic, body-con, Kardashian-esque dresses and pointy-toed trainers was not it. Women are always worrying about their weight, Elbaz said; he wanted to offer clothes in a wide range of sizes that were versatile and flattered all shapes. While they may not appeal to everyone — it takes more self-confidence than I possess to don a dress that clinging — their sharp necklines and glamorous pouf sleeves have a youthful appeal that also reads well on Zoom. Priced at about £1,000, several sizes are already sold out on Net-a-Porter and Farfetch.

Self-confidence is also required to wear Daniel Roseberry’s designs for Schiaparelli, which this season included dresses with powerfully moulded breastplates in black and gold; big, glittering, baroque bijoux; and sinuous dresses in sequins and tiger stripes. Roseberry knew early on this collection would be shown digitally, so he amplified the proportions to extremes, he said.

“We are an indie couture house. We have a fraction of the people of other houses; we have a fraction of the budget,” said the American designer, who in a real coup dressed Lady Gaga in a dramatic red and blue gown with a gold brooch for the inauguration of US President Joe Biden this month — a look he was given fewer than 10 days to prepare.

“These collections have to be doing double duty — they have to be inspiring and inspire our clients, but they also have to communicate our vision of the brand aggressively. Making couture that is fantasy is not enough.”

For Viktor&Rolf — whose main clients are museums, not socialites — fantasy is the point. This season’s collection was designed as an “antidote to doomscrolling”, involving fun, punkish clothes for a fictional “Couture Rave”. The fantasy factor was also played up at Dior, where Maria Grazia Chiuri designed a collection inspired by tarot cards, combining the feminine and masculine in romantic medieval lace and silk plissé dresses and smart tailored suits. Once again, she partnered with Italian director Matteo Garrone to create a dreamy 15-minute film, in which a model passes through a series of chambers, each representing a tarot card.

Dreamy, too, was Chanel’s couture show in the Grand Palais, which was styled like a summer wedding in the south of France with strings of lights, a rose arbour and a handful of guests, including Chanel faces Penélope Cruz and Marion Cotillard.

Flounced and tiered dresses with slim straps, ruffled bolero jackets, two-tone Mary Jane shoes: these were designs made for celebration. While some looks were pretty, others were awkward in their execution: a loose silk charmeuse blouse over a broad black ball skirt attempted to project ease, but was oddly proportioned, while an icy pink dress and matching bolero looked heavy rather than fun. But still, it sold a dream of better times to come.

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