The cruise shows have become renowned for being fashion’s most sumptuous in terms of location and one-upmanship. Last May, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton and Gucci whisked their audiences out to California, Kyoto and Florence respectively – flexing their financial muscle with insanely spectacular shows and travel budgets that cost millions. But last week saw the fashion world’s heavy hitters come together for the first time in a joint collaboration to produce one almighty Cruise Week in France that began in Chantilly, via the Maeght Foundation in Saint-Paul de Vence, and ended in Antibes.
So instead of transporting its 675-strong audience to Mexico, Dior brought the escaramuzas – Mexico’s intrepid women rodeo riders – to the Great Stables of the Château of Chantilly, 30 miles north of Paris. Cue an electrical storm of biblical proportions bucketing down on the open-air arena. Had Dior not got the message about the shaman? (True fact: a shaman is employed by Louis Vuitton to ensure good weather for all its Cruise shows – of which more later). In fact, the sheets of rain only added to the drama of the escaramuzas who compete in Mexico’s charreada tournaments, performing death-defying stunts at full-pelt, all the while riding side-saddle in overtly pretty petticoats, flounced embroidered skirts and embellished sombreros.
Naturally, they had inspired both the look and message of this collection – femininity meets fearlessness – from Maria Grazia Chiuri, whose love of strong women is the red thread that has run through every one of her collections since she debuted as Dior’s first female creative director in 2016 with her ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ T-shirts. ‘What impressed me is how these women have changed rodeo culture. Rather than support their husbands and sons, they decided to do it for themselves. It was the idea that women can do what they want, that they don’t have to dress in a certain way or change who they are to fit in,’ said the designer backstage before the show.
Out stormed the models in a ravishing mix of femininity and control, from their strict ponytails down to their sturdy rubber-soled riding boots. The frothy ounce of their skirts enhanced by thick leather belts or topped with the famous Bar jacket that Maria Grazia is 'obsessed' with reworking into a lightweight everyday item. 'I want to translate our heritage into something that is very wearable. I'm obsessed with denim too, it's so democratic,' she said.
The collection was a judicious combination of couture-level craft and straightforward wearability, a hard-to-achieve balance that has become Maria Grazia's hallmark at Dior: 'Being a couture house does not mean you are exclusive, you have to value people who don't want to buy an evening dress but maybe want a T-shirt or jeans,' she added. Some critics have baulked at this idea – of making Dior relevant (quel horreur!) with Millennial appeal (how dare she!), recoiling at the logo-loaded ready-to-wear as if commerciality were a crime in an age where street-luxe brands like Supreme are greeted with the kind of hysteria that equates to printing money. Cynics should please note that Dior's 2017 sales revenues showed a 17% hike over the same period in 2016. Not that Maria Grazia's Cruise collection for 2019 was merely an exercise in creative-meets-commercial, it was also damn dreamy too – especially in the downpour.
As for the predicted storm over the South of France's Maeght Foundation – the impressive modern art museum tucked into a hill above the picture postcard village of Saint Paul de Vence that played host to Louis Vuitton's Cruise show – the heavens opened minutes after the final model had departed the runway. This meant the mysterious shaman (a Brazilian who goes by the name of Horacio – we think – and is said to be on a very expensive non-compete contract, meaning he can't work for other fashion brands, only royal weddings and the grand prix) got paid. It also meant that LV was able to sit its audience of 600 outside in the magnificent Miró Labyrinthe garden and marvel at the giant sculptures. 'It was interesting to see what kind of woman could evolve in this environment,' said Nicolas Ghesquière, Louis Vuitton's artistic director, who had taken the venue as inspiration for the clothes. And what clothes! Gone were the bourgeois skirt suits à la Madame Macron of his last ready-to-wear and in their place a smorgasbord wardrobe of boudoir-meets-boardroom, vintage-meets-futurism for the individualist LV woman. In other words, Ghesquière at full creative throttle that recalled his Balenciaga heydays. 'What's important is to build a vocabulary. It's what I've been doing for five years now with Louis Vuitton,' said the designer post-show, as if to draw attention to his recently renewed contract with the house – and putting a full stop to the 'is he staying or going' rumour-mongering.
You could see the models' sinewy frames reflected in the Giacometti figures and the huge round 1980s shoulders mirrored in the epic Miró sculptures. But this was no art history lesson; it felt more like a tribe of fashion futurists had landed and we'd caught them performing a cult catwalk ritual – some models even wore a painted third eye in the middle of their foreheads and white sacrificial-esque robes. 'This Cruise show is about eccentricity for me. It's how an individual can have her own proper style and start a movement. I love this idea,' he said. Cue the rubber-soled trainers (a literal thigh-high extension of this season's sell-out sneakers), uttering silken minidresses inlayed with lace, stark spaceship-jumpsuit uniforms and delicate swingy cape jackets made entirely from feather-shaped sequins. 'We all try to respond to the desire of having a new emotion with fashion,' Ghesquière reflected after the usual photo-ops with his LV glamourati crew of Emma Stone, Jennifer Connelly, Ruth Negga, Léa Seydoux and new recruit Sienna Miller. 'There's this constant balance between doing timeless things. But the thing is, we're doing fashion, we want to be in the moment. at's why I've chosen this job.'
Next stop: the Gucci graveyard. Or rather, Les Alyscamps, the ancient Roman necropolis just outside the walls of Arles in the heart of Provence. It was dark when we took our seats in the burial ground alongside the ancient sarcophagi, mist curling, the air full of the eerie sound of church bells. A fuse was lit and a line of fire shot down a narrow channel, setting the pathway ablaze. It was an epic opener, even by creative director Alessandro Michele’s standards – his last show in Milan turned Gucci’s HQ into an operating theatre with models carrying replicas of their own heads under their arms. But this was something else. Or as Millennials obsessed with Gucci like to put it: is was everything.
It was like watching a cliff-hanger episode of Michele’s Guccification series, a bone-chilling drama with mind-boggling, multi-faceted fashion that highlighted his awesomeness to the max. ‘The show’s characters are imagined through a mix of widows attending grave sites, kids playing rock stars, ladies who aren’t ladies. It’s a place that belongs to everyone and the idea that death is a fascination,’ said the show notes.
Peel back the layers – veils, trains, cloaks, headdresses, bouquets of flowers – and the commercial big hitters began to reveal themselves: a Chateau Marmont laundry bag, those neon-bright treble-soled sneakers, printed silk track suits, a perfectly polite form- fitting navy coat, a white Chanelified skirt suit, a giant oral printed puffer jacket, leggings, sweatshirts – you name it, all destined to sell up a storm. Even the dreamy gowns – including a ghostly white dress whose owing train came so dangerously close to the fire it had us all on tenterhooks ready to throw our jackets over the model who wore it, were the stuff of red carpets for the A-list individualist.
It’s incredible that of all the designers out there, Alessandro Michele has become fashion’s pied-piper-in-chief – where he leads, others have tried to follow because the true magic of it all is that it actually sells: Gucci sales soared 42% in 2017. But this designer is a true one-off – an unrepeatable authentic iconoclast. Only he could get Elton John to an ancient cemetery outside Arles to serenade us at the end of the night. Sitting at a grand piano, behind diamond-framed Gucci sunglasses, he dedicated Rocket Man to his friend Michele who sat with him on stage, as emotionally overwhelmed by the moment as the rest of us. As Cruise shows go, this will be hard to ever top. And the rain held off, too. Perhaps Gucci got hold of a shaman after all – his name? Alessandro Michele.