Bette’s Biggest Style Lesson To Sophie: “Wear high heels!”

The Star
Couture Week: Jeanne Beker takes in Jean Paul Gaultier and Valentino shows in Paris
By Jeanne Beker
Fashion Columnist

PARIS–It’s couture week, I’ve happily found myself in the City of Light, on assignment for Etalk, en route to a wedding celebration in the south of France. How could I resist dropping by a couple of couture shows? After all, I’ve religiously combed these fashion trenches with a trusty TV crew in tow for the past 27 years! I longed to soak up the atmosphere, and lap up the exquisite creations these inspiring shows always promise. So straight off the plane, in the 90-degree plus heat, I donned a slinky orange Lida Baday dress, teamed it with a pair of six-inch Rupert Sanderson patent pumps, and made my way over to the Jean Paul Gaultier show on rue St. Martin.

Instead of my usual hustling about, running after editors and celebs for precious soundbites, I had the luxury of going right to my seat, and sitting back to watch the machinations of the high fashion ritual from more of a voyeur’s point of view. I watched a young girl from Swedish “Fashion TV” (as she described it) bravely approach revered Vogue creative director Grace Coddington, asking her for a moment of her time, but Coddington quickly declined with a blunt, “I don’t do interviews.” The girl slunk away, and I was just glad it wasn’t me who’d be rejected.

Over in the front row, a scrum of camera crews and photographers were clustered around some middle-aged blonde. At first, I thought it was Catherine Deneuve, a usual fixture at Gaultier shows. But upon closer examination, I saw that it was the divine Bette Midler, sitting next to a young woman who looked remarkably like Midler did many years ago. I surmised it must be her daughter, Sophie, and mustering up my courage, I got up and walked over to the duo and started up a conversation. They were utterly charming, sharing that they’d come to fashion shows together a couple of times before.

“It’s great to get out and soak all this up, and see just what human beings are capable of,” offered Bette.

“And what was the biggest style lesson you ever learned from your mom?” I asked Sophie.

Before she could answer, Bette interjected, “Wear high heels!”

Laughing, Sophie seriously considered my question. “I guess to always remove one thing,” she mused, adding, “My mom’s got so many fabulous clothes, so just watching her as I was growing up was a lesson in itself.” Suddenly, I started missing my girls, remembering all the fashion shows we’d gone to together, and what a great bonding experience it always was.

The show was more than 80 minutes late in starting, but the moment the lights went down and the first girl came out on the runway, the audience’s frustration dissipated and we were all transported. British model Erin O’Connor opened the show in an edgy top hat and tails. Gaultier’s inspiration for this collection was the upcoming film Confession of a Child of the Century, a story set in 1830, that stars indie music icon Pete Doherty as a philosophizing dandy. Gaultier was on the Cannes jury for this past festival, where the film premiered. He was taken with the decadence and seductive nature of Doherty’s character and wove that mood into his whole collection. And what a tour de force it was! Myriad tailored black looks, featuring elegant jumpsuits and jackets with tails (one croc biker jacket had tail you could zip off!) gave way to some of the most sumptuous regal gowns, many teamed with elaborate capes. Geometric shapes glistened in metallic shades with a “Metropolis” Art Deco vibe running through several sumptuous garments. Velvet devore fabrics took on new romantic glamour, with the kind of masterful elaborate beading that’s always the piece de resistance at couture.

I went backstage to congratulate Gaultier on this stellar showing. He told me how intimidated he’d been at first in his role as a jury member at Cannes. He was initially afraid to articulate his feelings about the films he saw. “It was like being in high school, and being asked questions!” he laughed.

“But then I just started talking about the films from the heart, and became very passionate about them,” he explained. “And that felt really good.” Speaking from the heart – and designing from the heart – apparently works every time.

Buoyed by my inspiring experience at Gaultier, I made my way across town to the opulent Hotel Salomon de Rothschild, for the house of Valentino’s take on fall couture. Front row guests included Nicky Hilton and couple-of-the-moment Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.

Beneath the elaborate crystal chandelier in the gilded salon, I watched the unbridled talents of designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli and the brilliance of the Valentino couture ateliers. Citing in the programme notes that “a nocturnal, reflective mood” had been envisioned for their collection, the pair riffed on shades of midnight navy, with lots of flowing gowns, some in pleated chiffon, others in gleaming satin.

Post-show, Canadian model Jessica Stam, who’s walked in a couple of shows this week, but only came to Valentino as a guest, was raving about the elegance of this Valentino vision. And rightly so. What I find so heartening is that Grazia and Piccioli, who may have walked on tenterhooks their first couple of seasons, now bravely march into artful new design territory, gallantly carrying the legendary Valentino torch into the future. It’s certainly optimistic for the fashion house itself, but it’s an even greater vote of confidence for the future of couture, and just how relevant and inspiring it still manages to be.

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