Every time I head to France, I can’t help but choose French films to watch on the plane. Call it a guilty pleasure, or maybe it’s more a desperate attempt at last-minute French immersion. This trip was no exception. Of the films I watched, one stood out: Haute Couture, the 2021 film starring Lyna Khoudri and Natalie Baye, about a retiring head seamstress from Christian Dior’s haute couture atelier who took a Seine-Saint-Denis banlieue teen under her wing. Intrigued, I made a mental note to squeeze in a visit to the newly-opened La Galerie Dior.
It’s been two years since I was last in Paris and I’ve almost forgotten how alluring the city can be in summer. When the days are long, it’s tempting to go on long strolls through side streets on the Rive Droite, stepping into shops along the way and pausing for apéro on a crowded terrace in the 10th arrondissement or by the Canal de l’Ourcq.
Fashion exhibitions may not be the first thing on your mind especially when you are lounging on a green Fermob chair at the Jardin du Palais Royal—coffee in hand—but they should be. There is no better place to gain a deeper appreciation of the history behind luxury fashion than in the undisputed fashion capital of the world, birthplace of haute couture and home to the biggest fashion maisons.
Why read a book when you can be in the same building where iconic couturiers once worked—right where history was made? If anything, you could earn some serious street cred and it’s research well worth your time before your next big ticket purchase. Here, Vogue Singapore gives you the lowdown on three couture exhibitions to help you brush up on your fashion fundamentals tout de suite if you are heading to Paris this summer.
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Alaïa avant Alaïa
In the Marais with some time to spare? Head to one of the neighbourhood’s best kept secrets, Fondation Azzedine Alaïa, a tranquil oasis away from the throngs of tourists.
Beneath the glass-and-ironwork roof of the hall where Azzedine Alaïa once lived and held runway shows, this exhibition shines the spotlight on the self-taught couturier’s humble beginnings and formative years pre-perforations and studs.
An eight-minute documentary sets the scene for what’s to come—Tunisian-born Alaïa moving to Paris during the Algerian War, starting a short-lived stint at Christian Dior and working as a babysitter while making dresses for socialites.
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Alaïa avant Alaïa
The exhibition traces his evolution from private dressmaker to fashion designer, featuring works which reference those early years as well as honouring the women who supported and influenced his designs like Louise de Vilmorin and Leïla Menchari.
Dresses are ingeniously framed inside cut-out windows of the exhibition paneling, slowly revealing themselves as one walks along the display to read descriptions and quotes. The scale of the exhibition is manageable, taking about an hour to navigate.
Don’t miss the few surviving dresses from Alaïa’s first years in Paris and some of his best works from the 1980s—like his Arletty tribute spiral zipper dresses and the wedding dresses for Pronuptia inspired by Catholic nuns in Tunis.
End the visit at the bookstore furnished with Alaïa’s own furniture or with a glass of wine in the palm tree-lined courtyard before you step back into the chaos of the Marais.
Fondation Azzedine Alaïa, 18, rue de la Verrerie, 75004 Paris, France
Alaïa avant Alaïa runs until 23 October 2022.
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La Galerie Dior
The long-awaited reopening of Dior’s historic 30 avenue Montaigne flagship sees a revamped sprawling boutique, two new restaurants and the luxury house’s first gallery space with a no-expense-spared permanent exhibition.
Whether you are a longtime fan or not, this immersive experience in the house of Dior, lasting about an hour and a half, is bound to leave you captivated.
Designed by renowned scenographer Nathalie Crinière, the space documents Dior’s rise in 13 dreamy sections and offers an intimate look at Christian Dior’s carefully-restored office and breathtaking archival gowns—brought to life by collection charts.
From tourists dressed in their finest fashion to French grandmothers discussing their recollections of the Dior shows they had once attended, the exhibition is understandably packed. One might still need to queue to enter even after booking a time slot online—I waited 30 minutes on a weekday. Eventually, the crowds disperse as many visitors only linger in the first rooms before hurrying to the central spiral staircase with the 3D-printed colorama display–perfect for selfies.
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La Galerie Dior
Room 6, introducing Dior’s petites mains, or skilled haute couture artisans, is a surprise highlight of the visit, with a petite main on hand to talk about the métier and answer your questions. I was shown intricate hand-sewn buttonholes and was told it takes one petite main, aided by an apprentice, approximately two weeks to finish a jacket. A delightful ceiling installation reminds visitors that Dior’s 80 petites mains work upstairs in an atelier on the fifth floor of the same building.
There is a bookshop round the corner a few doors down, not particularly publicised perhaps on purpose, to entice you to step into the boutique and take home a piece of Dior on your way out.
La Galerie Dior, 11, rue François 1er, 75008 Paris, France
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Yves Saint Laurent aux musées
The six-museum exhibition to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Yves Saint Laurent’s first runway show might have ended in May but fret not, the exhibition in the designer’s former headquarters has been extended.
At the heart of the monumental exhibition, Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris digs deep into the archives not only to showcase the couturier as artist, referencing and reinventing visual arts, but also the individuals and the many steps involved in creating couture. Toiles are displayed in the very room where heads of ateliers once waited to present toiles to Saint Laurent.
Three short documentaries from 1974, interviewing heads of ateliers Jean-Pierre Derbord and Alain Marchais, provide precious insight on Saint Laurent’s creative process and what it was like working with him. Try not to let their unfortunate placement next to a stair landing, the lack of seating and muted audio dissuade you from watching.
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Yves Saint Laurent aux musées
Exceptionally memorable are the walls of drawings of outfits paying homage to artists Saint Laurent selected for his 2002 Centre Pompidou farewell show, the iconic “Hommage à Van Gogh” jacket, and four decades’ worth of polaroids.
The small gift shop stocks a well-curated selection of coffee table books and paperbacks without trying too hard. You probably won’t find a better place to pick up Saint Laurent’s controversial comic book La Vilaine Lulu, his LOVE New Year’s greeting cards or a copy of Pierre Bergé’s Letters to Yves.
Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, 5, avenue Marceau, 75116 Paris, France
Yves Saint Laurent aux musées runs until 18 September 2022.