In Paris, venues as chic as the fashions

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

(c) 2014, The Washington Post.

PARIS — Just hours before the Versace couture show began in Paris last month, Donatella, the creative force behind the brassy Italian house, snapped a photo of the most glittering piece on display.

"My beautiful room!" she wrote on Instagram of a neo-baroque chandelier, dozens of which hang in the former Hotel Potocki, where Versace staged its 2014 spring couture show. Before any of her Swarovski-encrusted models sailed through the city palace — which now, fittingly, houses the Paris Chamber of Commerce — bundles of purple, orange and gold stage lights illuminated the 19-century fixtures, turning the gilded room into a Technicolor mirage. As is custom at Paris fashion shows, the artistry of the setting matched the workmanship of the clothes. Though Donatella's muse of season, Lady Gaga, sat front row, many eyes were fixed on the ceiling.

The word "ambiance" is of French origin and joined the English language around the same time that the Parisians discovered street lanterns. So it's understandable that fashion shows in the "City of Light" embrace Paris' artistic history and romanticized past. The locations of Paris couture shows — dozens of which are housed in museums and once-private residences all over the city — are indivisible from the garments themselves. In many ways, the address of a couture show gives the first look into a fashion house's ethos.

Unlike at New York Fashion Week, where most shows spring up in bleak warehouses or clinical, bare tents alongside Lincoln Center, couture designers indulge Paris' sculptural superiority, knowing that the history of the city is ingrained in the "high sewing" it produces. The walls, the theaters, the jaw-dropping palaces create a stage as lofty as these high-priced garments. And while some designers choose to hide famous art behind sheets of plastic during shows, others bask in the presence of an unexpected fresco or sculpture. And why not? It adds to the charm of the fashion industry's biannual romp through Parisian art, history and design.

Fashion shows continue in New York this weekend, and some will cost upwards of $300,000 to mount. In the digital era, many argue that shows are less necessary. But in Paris, couture week can't easily be re-created online, any more than a play can be recorded and enjoyed years later. It's a live, enviable tour of history, art and essence — a tour that could overshadow the clothes if you're easily wooed or distracted.

If you take your eyes off the models, it's easy to forget that tired "Who are you wearing?" question. In Paris, "Where are you going?" often yields a more inspired response.

Paris by address

The nondescript building off the Avenue d'Iena had few photographers waiting to harangue celebrity editors or Kanye West. Perhaps they were too tired after their morning encampment at the Place Vendome, where the House of Schiaparelli gave its first show in 60 years, with former French first lady Carla Bruni looking on. But across town stands a residence turned diplomatic outpost, No. 51, a Beaux-Arts beauty worthy of any camera. It was one of the more modest and homey venues for a couture show this season.

The wood-paneled rooms in the former residence felt more appropriate for reading Balzac than watching couture models come and go. But the sparse and simple salons overlooking the tree-lined avenue nodded to the simplicity of a collection of women's trousers and fitted jackets. That Bouchra Jarrar chose this understated space says much about her collection: A modern woman doesn't need a glittering gown or baroque palace. Pants and a room with a view are good enough, thank you.

Charlotte Licha made the opposite statement, and it was equally persuasive for couture lovers looking for majesty rather than pragmatism. The first Lebanese woman to showcase her gowns at Paris couture week, Licha staged her show in one of the most opulent rooms in town: the ballroom of a palace bequeathed to Napoleon's great-nephew, which has since been restored to a Louis XVI-styled Shangri-La Hotel. The rococo ballroom enhanced a collection of glittering gowns, each sewn to hold thousands of rhinestones and embellishments. The final look, a silver wedding gown sealed with a monstrous tiara, harked back to pre-Revolutionary France and the days of European decadence.

Valentino embraced both history and fantasy at the Hotel Salomon de Rothschild, the former residence of what was once the wealthiest family in the world. It functioned as an art gallery for much of the 20th century until it became what it is now: an events space for rent. Still, like so many residences in Europe, it retained a few gems, like a 14th-century ceiling decoration of cherubs, roses and clouds, the ideal backdrop for a Valentino show inspired by the artistry of the Rome opera. With a catwalk painted as an enchanted forest and artists on hand to paint models in flight (in mediums as varied as oil and iPad), the show sang like a Rossini aria, even though not a voice could be heard.

Paris by art (or plastic)

While some shows simply nod to art, others bash helpless fashionistas over the head with symbolism. Elie Saab, who year after year stages elegant parades of couture evening gowns, presented his dramatic "Promise of Spring" collection in the Theatre National de Chaillot. Though other designers present at this official state theater, Saab is indisputably the king of elegant and dramatic entrances. His ball gowns will certainly show up at the Oscars this month, but it's thrilling to know they started with credibility on the stage.

And what's that? Hidden behind the stadium seating and all that tulle? Just another unidentified oil painting hanging on the wall. Saab's show designers obscured the mural paintings of the theater with high-tech lighting tricks, but Alexandre Vauthier opted for a blanker canvas, placing white tarps behind the seats at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the famed art academy where the likes of Degas and Renoir have passed through for 350 years. The tarps did little to cover 19th-century religious murals, so Jesus, Mary and a host of saints looked on as models in leather bustiers and hot pants passed by.

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