Pin It
Valentino Couture AW21 show Venice
Courtesy of Valentino

The Haute Couture circus has rolled into town!

From Schiaparelli’s glittering, gold-drenched matadors to Demna’s big Balenciaga couture debut – we guide you through everything going down at the AW21 shows

And just like that, the SS22 menswear shows came to their official end this weekend – though don’t doubt there’s still a bunch of stragglers hatching plans to present off-schedule in the coming weeks, given fashion season is basically a year-round event these days. In the meantime, however, we’re on to the most prestigious, most glittering event on the sartorial calendar. That’s right: the Haute Couture circus has rolled into town, baby! You might not have a front row seat, but as ever, we’ve got you covered – welcome to our round-up of everything going down at the AW21 shows.


The AW21 couture shows started with a bang, as editors from around the world descended on Paris for the first time since March 2020. IRL shows! The day has finally come! Kicking things off was the first Alaïa show under the direction of Pieter Mulier, which took place on the street outside the house’s HQ. Although Raf’s former right-hand man avoided Azzedine’s extensive archives – for fear of becoming ‘too intimidated’ ahead of bringing his first collection to life – he paid homage to the revered and much-missed designer through body-con minis, laser-cut, sinuous knits, sharp tailoring, and flashes of luxurious marabou and python, while simultaneously punctuating the offering with his own modern flourishes, including deconstructed denim and new takes on Alaïa’s classic hoods.

In place of show notes was a short letter Mulier dedicated to Azzedine himself: “This collection is a tribute to thank you. To express my sincere respect, and recognition for the work you did. Thank you, Azzedine, for your audacity that helps me today to take risks in the act of creating,” Mulier wrote. “I will take care of your house and your family with a tremendous sense of admiration and responsibility. It’s a dream come true to build the future of this legendary house.” I’m not crying, you’re crying etc. 


Schiaparelli is fast becoming the hottest ticket of the couture season, and Daniel Rosenberry’s AW21 outing was no exception. Where previous collections have seen him turn his nose up at nostalgia, this time around, the designer explained that nostalgia was where it all started this time around. “I found myself wondering, again and again: what if you combined a little Manet; a little Lacroix; a little 1980s; a little 1880s; a little matador; a little space alien; a little Ingres; a little shimmer; a lot of colour?” Intent on finding out what that would look like, the answer was offering number four, The Matador, which saw Rosenberry reimagine Spanish archetypes in typically surrealist, bizarro fashion.

Models wearing velvet corsets dripping with gold embellishment became the bull itself through horned headpieces, while the quintessential matador jacket was reimagined with dramatic sleeves that ballooned from the elbow, as finished with glittering moulded armour to the chest. Meanwhile, the red flag controversially used to entice the creature during traditional bullfights became an enormous rose at the waist of a cinched evening dress, with looks finished with jewel-encrusted rococo clutches, big, brash brooches flashing rippling abs, and the kind of door-knocker earrings Pat Butcher would go berserk for. “No more cookie cutter fashion,” Rosenberry wrote in his show notes, explaining that, in previous seasons, he’d been creating for the end of the world, right now, he was far more interested in clothes that inspire hope.


After a few seasons of sending Haute Couture videos out into the world thanks to the virus that needs no introduction, Maria Grazia Chiuri was back with a live audience for a live runway show for AW21. Taking place at the Musée Rodin once more, the Italian designer enlisted French textile artist Eva Jospin to create a series of hand-embroidered landscapes that hung throughout the space. Taking three months to bring to life, the works were completed by female artisans at India’s Chanakya School of Craft, which supports and preserves traditional craftsmanship.

This women-supporting-women theme continued, as it so often does, throughout the maison’s new-season collection. Citing female artisans as the inspiration behind the collection, Chiuri turned an offering full of intricately woven pieces and knitted styles that referenced key Dior garments out onto the runway – think sweeping, gauzy gowns with latticed bodices, heavy, nipped-in coats with dramatic cape panels, and new iterations of the iconic bar jacket. Bonus points go to Grazia for the soundtrack – as models took their final lap of the catwalk, the strains of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” rang out.


Iris Van Herpen is known as one of the most innovative designers in fashion – a true alchemist of the art of couture – but this season’s show takes the absolute trophy when it comes to ingenuity and sheer drama. Dropping new collection Earthrise (quite literally, from a great height), Van Herpen enlisted champion skydiver Domitille Kiger to step into its standout gown and leap from a plane while wearing it – the fabric rippling, billowing, and flowing behind her as she fell.

With the offering and its accompanying presentation exploring “the splendour of this blue body we call home”, the designer dove into our relationship with the planet, fusing organic motifs with evolving tech – classic gowns in a palette of rich blues spanning deep indigo, into purple, through to sky were juxtaposed against her now signature 3D-printed sculptural pieces, of which she was a true pioneer. A further collaboration with Parley for the Oceans saw trash turned into treasure as she continued to subvert the idea of what couture could be – now more than ever, she explained, it is time we all started doing things differently in the name of the planet on which we live.


Where Virginie Viard’s last collection was a distinctly punk rawk-indebted affair, this time around the designer was feeling decidedly more romantic. Back in Paris with a much-missed live audience, Chanel’s leading woman turned her attention to a series of photos of Coco herself – dressed, in an extremely out-of-character fashion, in 19th century bustles and crinos, as worn to the costume balls that were seemingly all the rage in Paris circa the mid-1930s. Also drawing inspiration from renowned artists, Cubist Marie Laurencin and Impressionist artist Berthe Morisot, who also moved in the right circles during this era.

Their influence resulted in a hopeful collection of painterly tailoring and signature tweed suiting in a muted, light-as-air palette, romantic gowns that flowed delicately behind the models as they walked, and a wide array of feather, flower, and jewel embellishments – some of which took a casual 2,000 hours to bring to life. Closing the show was Margaret Qualley as this season’s Chanel bride. Making her way around the catwalk in an understated white dress and matching veil, the model and actress closed proceedings by chucking a bouquet of wildflowers into the enraptured audience.


With Jean Paul Gaultier announcing he’d be taking a back seat at his eponymous house last year, fashion’s OG enfant-terrible is intent on handing the reins over to a series of guest designers from here on out. Last month saw the likes of Palomo Spain, Ottolinger, Nicola LeCourt Mansion, and Alan Crocetti invited into the fold to remix classic styles in their own vision, as the label reinvigorated its ready-to-wear line for a new era, and now, it’s couture’s turn for a revamp.

Enlisting Sacai founder Chitose Abe to take over for one season only, Digging deep into the Gaultier archives, Abe played with proportion and breathed new life into the house’s iconic codes – pinstriped denim and bolshy tartan was layered heavily and blown up to XXL proportions, while signature striped sweaters were updated with couture-level flourishes including silk chiffon inserts and dramatic organza ruffles. The designer’s tattoo print also played its part in full, ostentatious gowns that swept behind the models as they walked, and the famed conical bra – as worn by Madonna – was reimagined across a series of looks, too.


After making his debut during the SS21 Couture shows, Kim Jones is back again to put his stamp on the fabled house of Fendi. Eschewing the IRL experience of his first Couture outing, this season saw the designer collaborate with Luca Guadagnino on a short film that features the AW21 collection on a host of familiar faces. 

Inspired by Rome – the birthplace of Fendi – via lens of director Pier Paolo Pasolini, the cinematic short opens on the Fendi Palazzo; through a window we spy modelling legend Paulina Porizkova looking regal in an embroidered white jacket. The film continues, with more models – from newer faces like Lila Moss and Adut Akech to OGs Christy Turlington, Amber Valetta, and Mariacarla Boscono – floating in and out of the set in their looks. 

The collection itself had all the pomp and circumstance you’d expect from a Couture show – frills, feathers, and frou frou – mixed with modern techniques to bring a new perspective. When dresses weren’t embroidered with sequins galore, they were printed with silks that looked like flowing marble. Furs and fabrics were scanned and reimagined as jacquards, sculptural jewellery came courtesy of Delfina Delettrez, and the arches of the Palazzo were reimagined as heels on thigh-high boots. 


For Maison Margiela’s AW21 Artisanal collection, John Galliano presents: A Folk Horror Tale – a film created in collaboration with director Olivier Dahan. The feature-length film has everything from pirates and sea shanties (Pirates of the Caribbean, who?) to pagan rituals and angry peasants – all filmed on a state-of-the-art camera to bring photorealistic backgrounds to life. 

Futuristically medieval, the clothes are similarly inspired by alchemy and required rigorous processes to age them. Developing a new technique for the house called essorage, Galliano and the team created garments from deadstock materials twelve times their natural size, before shrinking them with an enzyme and stonewashing technique that eroded them. Wizard! 

Shoe addicts can get their fix this season via seaworthy Tabi clog waders, just in time for a hot swashbuckling summer. 


Initially called off due to an unholy downpour of rain, Kerby Jean-Raymond’s couture debut took place a couple of days later than originally anticipated. Though, with guests dancing beneath the deluge, little could have been done to dampen the spirits of couture’s first (official) Black designer. That being said, Jean-Raymond’s collection was not quite couture as we know it. Much like how Balenciaga sent out jeans, or Iris Van Herpen lasered pieces, Pyer Moss’ soft-sculptures were not meant to assimilate into the storied Parisian ateliers of yore. Larger than life, cartoonish looks had been derived from the work of Black inventors – gas masks, peanut butter, traffic lights – and stomped down the runway in a celebration of African American innovation. 

“We are an invention inside of an invention,” the show notes explained. “Inside of the creation of race, we made Blackness. Uprooted from home and put in a foreign land, we made culture. And when they tried to strip our humanity, we made freedom so tethered to each other that it still shapes the world today.” As such, gowns were constructed not with beads and mink, but hot rollers, wound in reams of hair extensions. Models strut beneath tresses of crystals, swinging from humongous lampshade-hats, or trundled along, strapped to giant sandal-backpacks. Camp and just a little bit Moschino, there was no room for subtlety when it came to Jean-Raymond’s statement making – “we hold stories of glory in our bodies. Black imagination is this world’s greatest technology.”


“What the world needs now,” Cosima crooned at the closing of Valentino’s show, “is love, sweet love”, as if speaking directly to the Pierpaolo Piccioli’s collection, which sauntered along the dock of a Venetian harbor at sundown.

If love was ever on the designer’s mind, then this was translated into a series of chocolate box dresses, sumptuous colour treatments, and whimsical, enveloping silhouettes. Prior to arrival, Piccioli asked every guest to dress in white, a collective cleansing of sorts, which stood to emphasise the deeply sensual, chromatic experience of the show. There were amethyst mini dresses and chartreuse hoop skirts, followed by pink blush peplums, and, of course, Valentino red, pleated princess gowns. 

Piccioli’s expert colour blocking was interspersed by more expressive prints, too, articulated in a slew of artist collaborations with the likes of Francis Offman, Luca Coser, and Jamie Nares. But the undoubted stars of the collection, however, were the fuzzy, quivering hats designed by Philip Treacy, which seemed to move independently of the models, their long ostrich feathers swaying and bouncing behind knees like chirpy jellyfish.


Gigantic, psychedelic puffs of organza emerged from the pitch black of Kyoto’s Nijo Castle in Japan, like kindly, though cartoonish monsters. Tomo Koizumi’s turn at couture saw his signature, conceptual pieces imbued with a newfound appreciation of tradition and craftsmanship this season. Bhuddist symbols have been embroidered like amulets onto the body of garments, while the ballooning, frou frou ruffles were forged from deadstock, silk kimono fabric, sourced from a factory in Kyoto. Similarly, the organza, which Koizumi must use in miles, not metres, was made from recycled plastic bottles.

Koizumi, rather unsurprisingly, started his career as a costume designer and has since built a brand on a vocabulary of attention-seeking, serotonin-stimulating fashion. And this season was no exception, as explosions of fabric consume the body, trailing from sleeves and ginormous trains. The energy of this  season felt more chaotic, however, haphazard even, with Koizumi trading in the technicolour organza for all-white fabrics, which he then spray painted – giving a harder edge to that confectionery colour wheel that has become his trademark.