Walking the Fashion High Wire

PARIS — Out the women came, carrying one another on their backs. Up the women went, hoisted by each other’s hands. Over their bodies curved, all different sizes and strengths.

Maria Grazia Chiuri had hired the all-female acrobatic troupe Mimbre for her Dior show, and they stacked themselves into various innovative kinds of human pyramids — under the big top that the brand had raised in the gardens of the Rodin Museum — balancing on one another’s shoulders, reaching ever higher.

As an opening act for the couture, the metaphor was hard to miss.

Christian Dior: Spring 2019

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Gio Staiano/Nowfashion

Circus lends itself to many situations, the present one not excepted. There’s all sorts of talk about a clown in the White House. Brexiters are flying without a net. And there’s always something a little loop-the-loop about the couture: that part of style that showcases very expensive clothes for the very few. In any case, it’s hard to argue with the idea that the world is upside down. You might as well say it with fashion — especially the kind that isn’t expected to make sense hanging in a store for the everyday.

The problem, in Ms. Chiuri’s case, is that the theme led her down a creative wormhole to the past, and the kind of collection that paid homage to the circus of vintage postcard fame (also Dior heritage: remember Avedon’s famous 1955 photograph, “Dovima with Elephants?” Ms. Chiuri sure does). So there were crystal-spangled bloomers, and red and black polka-dot corset playsuits; harlequin ruffs and beaded bareback-rider dresses. It didn’t seem to have much to do with female power after all, except maybe for a troika of pleated Jean Harlow lamé gowns, the sort that used to make all viewers go weak at the knees and which should be coming soon to a red carpet near you.

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Schiaparelli haute couture, spring 2019.CreditValerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

Still, the fact that this time around Ms. Chiuri’s feminism was implied rather than advertised on T-shirts and posters was a step forward. That’s one of the differences between couture and ready-to-wear; there’s more room in the first for subtlety. Besides, the ringmaster was a woman: in slick-cut tails and a ruffled sheer white blouse. So was the lion tamer. And Ms. Chiuri was not the only designer with somersaults and high-wire acts on her mind.

At Schiaparelli, Bertrand Guyon name-checked flowers and the intergalactic cosmos, but the result was like something straight from the costume department of Cirque du Soleil (When is it going to do a Schiap show? Can’t you just imagine what it could do with the lobster?).

He made a big puffball with no place for arms and then covered the whole with purple and red feathers and christened it “Meteorid Swarm Cape.” He molded New Look jackets with structured pannier hips over Bermuda shorts, all in shocking-pink stiff silk embroidered with gold and mother-of-pearl blooms, topped by an enormous bow and finished with cowboy boots. He sprinkled pastel stars on duchesse satin with a giant, face-framing ruffle.

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Giambattista Valli haute couture, spring 2019.CreditValerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

Though when it comes to the frill of the oversize, no one, really, can top Giambattista Valli, who has made frothing titanic tulle dresses his signature. Also high/low dressing: taffeta and moiré frocks cut thigh-high in the front, and backed by billowing trains, so they make both entrances and exits. And this time, billowing poet’s sleeves attached to micro sheaths and rendered in silk velvet (there was a lot of billowing, though everything came paired with its own little black fez).

Don’t even ask if you can sit down in some of these — that’s what the understated columns with ostrich-feather cuffs are for, the cocktail mini-fripperies covered in crystal. Think of it as the Ball-gowned Lady of the Instagram side show. No matter that getting through a doorway might take a contortionist. Or a magician. Presto change-o.

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Iris van Herpen haute couture, spring 2019.CreditValerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

Enter Iris van Herpen. Probably the most inventive couturier working today — certainly the most modern (she probably is the only designer ever to work at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Switzerland) — she also started with classic ideas of mythology and cosmology and flying through the stars and so on. Then that made her think about DNA engineering and harmonic convergence, and it all became a 3-D printed, laser-cut, algorithm-defined visual universe expertly balanced on the tightrope between creativity and technology: earth angels in filmy layers of organza printed with liquid clouds inspired by the artist and former NASA engineer Kim Keever; wings of midnight-sky plissé jutting from shoulders; anamorphic faces peeking out of swirling body topographies in layers of white.

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Chanel haute couture, spring 2019.CreditValerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

When it comes to escape artists, however, even P.T. Barnum would have to take his hat off to Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. It’s been snowing in Paris but inside the Grand Palais Mr. Lagerfeld did a flip through the seasons, building a verdant garden from an 18th-century Mediterranean chateau, complete with an expanse of grass, palm and orange trees, rose bushes, gravel paths à la française — and a swimming pool.

Around it swirled long, lean silhouettes in springtime pastels with hemlines dropped to mid-calf and jackets with broad, softly rounded, shoulders; garden party frocks in organza with feathered blooms scattered across a bell-like skirt of Wedgwood blues; satin pouf skirts and bouclé bolero tops inverted and flipped over on themselves; and evening trains caught up at the waist to reveal the contrasting bow underneath.

Chanel: Spring 2019

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The set was a marvel of decoration, and so were some of the clothes, including one column dress adorned with real flowers preserved in resin. The bride wore a sparkling silver bathing suit and long veil and looked ready to take a plunge into the aqua waters. You kind of wanted to jump in with her.

Though perhaps ultimately the most surreal aspect of the whole thing was the fact that Mr. Lagerfeld did not appear at the end of the show to take his bow as usual. The brand issued a statement saying: “Mr. Lagerfeld, Artistic Director of Chanel, who was feeling tired, asked Virginie Viard, Director of the Creative Studio of the House, to represent him and greet the guests alongside the bride. Virginie Viard as Creative Studio Director and Eric Pfrunder as Chanel’s Director of Image continue to work with him and follow through with the brand’s collections and image campaigns.” The absence was so unprecedented, it’s bound to start the rumor mill churning.

It’s one way to make what you read in the papers every morning disappear.

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