The past is never dead. It's not even past. Rarely at Couture has that seemed truer than it did this week. Donatella Versace channeled the fifties, Raf Simons leaped centuries, and Karl Lagerfeld merged baroque and brutalism. Capping it all off backstage at Valentino today, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli were talking about the Pre-Raphaelites, who themselves exalted all things classical. The goddess gowns on the runway were 21st-century interpretations of 19th-century interpretations of Roman togas.
Paired with gladiator sandals that laced up to the knees, the dresses also signposted two of the week's other relevant themes: youthfulness and ease. The Valentino designers have always loved a long, fluid shift. In the past they've read as noble or nun-like. Here, tied at the waist with long lengths of leather ribbon, they looked like innocence itself, or innocence on the verge of being lost. (It was somewhat ironic that the voluptuous Kim Kardashian was in the front row; these were not clothes for girls with boobs and butts.)
That caveat aside, the collection was lovely. Romantic, but with a nice sense of rawness. Credit goes to the sandals, the leather strapping, and the naive, almost rustic quality of the wool and leather embroideries. The gold and black sheaves of wheat on a white wool dress were simple but striking. Hand-painted daisies on nude organza were subtler. Which isn't to say that Chiuri and Piccioli neglected the lavish. On the contrary, a coat in gold lamé embroidered with pearls, paillettes, and silk thread was as opulent as anything on the runways this week, and the same is true of a tulle toga embroidered with yet more pearls and crystals.
But for all of that finery, the dresses that cut the strongest figure were barely more than single pieces of fabric draped elegantly and asymmetrically across the shoulders—Haute Couture versions of the bedsheet dresses we all played at making as kids. As the Pre-Raphaelites would've put it: Back to nature! Up with beauty!