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God, you've gotta love Karl Lagerfeld. In his couture show Tuesday morning at the Grand Palais, where Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo awarded him the Grand Vermeil medal (the highest honor in the city), he created a nearly life-size replica of the base of the Eiffel Tower—a mere 1.2 miles from the actual Eiffel Tower.
"Fantasy is often better than reality," Lagerfeld told the Guardian in 2011. "It's much more inspiring not to go places than to go." A German who often insists on his identity as a "foreigner" in this city, Lagerfeld's notion of Paris will perhaps always be a neighbor to reality—and obfuscations are a source of the brand's enduring allure.
The Eiffel faux, as it were, was the scene for nearly 70 looks of heavy tweeds, nipped waists, and mutton-sleeve coats and jackets in grays, brown, and aubergine—an almost pastoral view of a bygone Paris, more akin to Gustave Caillebotte's 1877 Paris Street: Rainy Day than, say, Marie Laurencin's famous 1923 portrait of Coco Chanel, in which she is lost in solemn, almost hopeless reverie, and draped in slate blue and inky black like a ballet dancer or a caryatid exhausted by the weight of promoting her own grand ideas. Indeed, Ms. Chanel began designing in defiance of the controlled Victorianism that lingered on in the 20th Century (Lagerfeld's boater hats, super simple and pulled down squarely on the head, were all Ms. Chanel; you can almost picture her yanking the brims down on the models' heads before they walked the runway). But covered up makes sense: many of the women who attend the shows to buy the garments hale from places where the weather is frigid in the fall (such as Russia) or where society mandates modesty (the Middle East).
The designs were also heavy at Dior—there was a muted palette, with scores of elegant robes, capes, and gowns, all of which have an almost ancient Greek asceticism, as if designer Maria Grazia Chiuiri's core customer is a cerebral goddess (in the center of her moodboard she had pinned A Map of the Open Country of Woman's Heart). But the mood at that house is high, too. (And not simply because Celine Dion, the unexpected fashion muse of the moment, was in the front row. It's incredible how a new wardrobe can help revitalize a woman's career!) The house is celebrating its 70th anniversary with a sprawling chronological exhibition of Christian Dior's work at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs that comprises nearly 32,000 square feet. To see Dior's magnificently crafted clothing up close is to comprehend his hold over the world of couture: you can see how the nip of the infamous bar jacket Mr. Dior introduced in his 1947 debut collection clearly reverberates in the tailoring of everyone from the irreverent and super-elegant Ulyanka Sargeenko to the couture newbs Proenza Schouler, or how his spectacles of embroidery and embellishment on a mermaid silhouette set a standard in the late 40s that remains the primary dress shape of the couture world today.
Elsa Schiaparelli is often pitted as Ms. Chanel's great rival, but in some ways it is Dior—with his go-go postwar bravura that caused both rapturous devotion and riots in the street—who is her true foil. The New Look left Chanel's designs feeling dated. If Chanel's purpose was to liberate women, then Dior offered nostalgic patriotism, as well as a certain conservatism.
Speaking of conservatism: who actually wears this? And when the garment is too beautiful for its desirability to be denied: who actually buys it?
The marquee events of Paris Couture Week make it clear that in fact this most rarefied world is as much a commercial endeavor as a creative one. At the Armani Privé show Tuesday evening, the requisite movie stars—Kate Winslett, Sophia Loren, and Naomi Watts—rubbed elbows in the front row with the requisite editors. But most of the five rows of seats were reserved for swaths of customers, many entire families: husbands looking on intently with their wives, and mothers with their daughters, snapping photographs perhaps to post on Instagram but more importantly because they'll likely visit the Armani atelier later this week to place an order. A group of British teen socialites sat in the third row, chewing gum, texting, and pulling apart their split ends like normal teenagers—but in Armani polka-dot suits. Socialites from Russia, Dubai, and China gossiped as the models slinked down the runway to Lakmé's "Flower Duet," pausing to snap photographs of black and purple dresses sleekly festooned with feathers and spangles.
A woman in the front row, wearing a black fascinator headband with a whisp of tulle, sat up with a jolt of delight when, halfway through the show, the more dazzling evening looks began to appear: column gowns meticulously appliqued with rosettes; a round-shouldered cocktail jacket of fuschia ostrich feathers. A number of times, she audibly gasped. After Mr. Armani gave a gracious bow, someone from his team materialized and put a gentle arm around her to take her backstage. "I have tears in my eyes," she told the man, grinning. "It was wonderful." Now there's a happy customer.