Haute couture goes for an MTV-style makeover

Jess Cartner-Morley
·3-min read

The ultimate luxury for 2021? A joyful family party. That is what we want more than anything else this season, according to Chanel’s Virginie Viard.

Since luxury fashion is ultimately about what is aspirational – and with blockbuster catwalk shows being off the cards for the foreseeable – Viard put up a marquee, strung fairy lights between rose arbours, scattered petals on the floor, and staged her spring haute couture collection as a family reunion.

“I knew we couldn’t organise a big show … so I came up with the idea of a small cortège that would come down the stairs of the Grand Palais and pass between arches of flowers. Like a family celebration, or a wedding,” said Viard before the show.

The organza and lace dresses typical of couture were worn with sunglasses and flower crowns, as if for a festival, and the mood was a little more casual than couture’s usual air of haughty perfection. Vanessa Paradis and Penelope Cruz kicked back in vintage Chanel from seasons gone by. Linda Ronstadt’s Be My Baby soundtracked the show with honeyed sentiment.

Chanel’s film and the album of family portraits released with it were shot by Anton Corbijn, director of the Ian Curtis biopic Control and mastermind of visual identity for bands including Depeche Mode and U2.

The Italian luxury house Valentino collaborated with Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja, who made a “collagist” film to accompany a collection reveal which was staged in the baroque splendour of Palazzo Colonna in Rome. Taffeta ballgowns were worn with stripes of New Romantic face paint and Ziggy Stardust platform boots.

With audiences forbidden and the supermodels and front-row celebrities who drive engagement grounded, fashion brands are on a steep learning curve. The most elevated couture houses need to compete with sea shanties and Bunny the Talking Dog, if they are to get eyeballs on Tik Tok and Instagram. As a result the rarified world of haute couture is having an MTV makeover.

Replacing catwalk with video is “like making a film instead of doing theatre,” said Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of fashion, in a Zoom call. “With a catwalk show, Virginie [Viard] and the models feel the energy of 2,000 people in the room – you can’t get that when the audience is just a few cameras.” He believes Chanel’s next show, in March, is likely to be digital-only but is hopeful that a show planned for Provence in early May could take place in front of an audience. “For now we plan for both scenarios,” he said.

Chanel occupies a quasi-official place in French public life. As a bastion of excellence in fashion, they are an informal “department of chic”. Couture orders have been badly hit by the logistical issues of the past year, with most clients unable to travel to Paris for the fittings in the atelier which are integral to the process, but any show-must-go-on instincts must yield to the greater good.

“Values are extremely important to Chanel. This is bigger than fashion. We understand that and we respect all of the rules and constraints,” said Pavlovsky. He added that none of the orders for gowns placed for 2021 had been cancelled to date, despite the absence of events for them to be worn to. “These clients are not easily put off. They will always want iconic Chanel.”