Of all the Armani collections, the haute couture Privé line is the one where Giorgio lets his imagination roam free.
Giorgio Armani - an Italian, presenting a collection dedicated to Japan, in Paris, to an audience of Hollywood heavyweights. Throw in a few of his Russian and Chinese couture clients and the huddled masses of press from across the world, and you have the global reach of the fashion industry reflected in neat microcosm. And that global industry was why we were really there, in a cavernous space in the Palais de Chaillot, watching Signor Armani's take on geisha trot along a narrow catwalk. Our presence was a justification for the global Armani machine to whir ahead. The clothes were almost irrelevant.
Almost. Of all the Armani collections, the haute couture Privé line is the one where Giorgio lets his imagination roam free. This time it was titled 'Homage To Japan.' And it was taken very literally. Hence, we opened with a wave of kimonos, chrysanthemum and cherry-blossom prints, pagoda shoulders, breasts bound up with wide silk belts, waterfalls of crystal fringe and every single trouser-leg slit at the ankles. It was a little overpowering, not least from the master who once said it all in the Greige Suit (capitalisation intentional).
Then again, Greige Suits don't get you on red carpets, which is what this collection was all about. Credit where credit's due, as celebrity fodder these gowns were second to none, and Armani's hand was surer for evening here than it has ever been, cutting arrow-narrow columns of silk with effortless ease and enviable grace.
Then again, what was there to mess up? We've seen these variations on Japanese styling so very many times before - that doesn't necessarily negate them as inspirational grist for new creations, but the issue here was that Armani added nothing new to the old. In fact, it was all about reworking the old. Rather than Armani's homage to Japan, it was Armani's homage to couture's homages - past and present.There were shades of Paul Poiret in the strict, slender line and cherry-blossom prints, a touch of Balenciaga to the kimono sleeves and belling volume, and even a pinch of Dior in the angled peplums and exaggerated obi belts knotted like bustles over narrow trousers. That said, there were also echoes of Saint Laurent's Japonism, of Gaultier's geishas and even a hint of Lacroix in the Meiko-gone-loco headpieces: anti-gravitational origami folds of lacquered hair or Philip Treacy's take on towering Ikebana arrangements, the whole lot pierced with several thousand quivering chopsticks.
There was an undeniable elegance, even beauty, to these clothes - glowing with jewel-like tones, silhouette attenuated like an Erte sketch brought to life. But with that beauty comes hazards: hobble skirts are made for arch, static poses or lotus-footed mincing, not the busy lives of modern women. There's also always something disturbingly akin to misogyny afoot when designers reinvent woman as concubine, a throwback to an era when women were 'kept' as an exquisitely-dressed objet d'art, an ostentatious reflection of their husband's wealth. Would even couture clients dress in style reminiscent of that kind of restriction? From anyone - but especially from Armani, the man who has been responsible for dressing more than his fair share of young urban professionals - there was a disconnect between image and reality in this collection that was profoundly worrying.