There is nothing quite like the respect of one's peers, which is what Raf Simons got in considerable quantities at his debut runway collection for the house of Christian Dior.
One practically stumbled over designers - Marc Jacobs, Alber Elbaz, the long retired Jean Louis Scherrer, Azzedine Alaia, Diane von Furstenberg and Olivier Theyskens, to name just six, sat front row - at this fall 2012 haute couture show, staged Monday afternoon, July 2, in Paris. In the end, over a dozen designers showed up, pretty much an unheard of number even for such an important debut. And, few of them, surely, left disappointed after a Dior collection that finely balanced the classic visual DNA of the famed house with the modernist elan of Simons.
Staged in a private art foundation that is currently for sale, the 8th arrondissement mansion's upper floor was re-imagined into four separate saloons, each one's wall covered in with densely packed panels of floors; red roses; white orchids, yellow mimosa and blue delphiniums. The curvaceous shapes of flowers and petals suggesting the curvilinear silhouettes of founder Monsieur Dior's New Look.
The opening passage - a black pants suit with flared tuxedo jacket - was a telling homage to that New Look, while also a break with the house's past. There had practically never been a pair of pants on a Dior runway in a decade.
Simons riffed somberly in black wool crepe in a half dozen looks, dissecting them with studded brass belts, before wowing with the collection's key look - mini ball gowns, cut so short they were tops, and embroidered with exquisite dexterity with fabric buds and crystal petals.
"I wanted to make haute couture more probable. Not just a red carpet look, but something women can wear in many different contexts and times of the day," Simons said, in between posing for photos with over a score of movie stars.
The Belgium couturier's most commercial moments were some fab fur ideas, from a curvy mini gown top over pants - all made of white astrakhan - to a midnight blue, almost feathered in its treatment, blue cocktail dress. You could see the ladies in the audience almost twitch at the understated chic of a gray Prince of Wales dress, that ballooned below the hips in the New Look manner, yet looked thoroughly of today.
Not everything was in synch; duchess satin gowns based on biomorphic spray prints from artist Sterling Ruby were real clangers, and the show was a half dozen looks too long -generally evidence of a couturier still finding his way in a top-notch Paris couture atelier. Yet, those final five outfits, ornate organza dresses with futurist flower embroidery, several with contrasting backs, were of great beauty.
This was not quite a great collection, but its culmination was proof that Simons has couture greatness within him.
"Formidable and beautiful. Raf should be very proud," said Pierre Cardin, who will be 90 this Saturday, while the 29-year-old Christopher Kane, London's best young designer, remarked: "Beautiful, and the right mix of Raf and Dior."
Only Alaia was hesitant to comment. "Can I have a night to reflect?" he responded, as he left the mansion after a faultless presentation and a convincing debut.