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Why Raf Simons's Triumphant Debut for Dior Marks a Dramatic Shift in Couture

Long Nguyen is the co-founder and style director of Flaunt. PARIS--There hasn’t been a greater moment of anticipation in fashion in recent memory tha
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Long Nguyen is the co-founder and style director of Flaunt.

PARIS--There hasn’t been a greater moment of anticipation in fashion in recent memory than Raf Simons’s debut showing of haute couture in his new post at Christian Dior.

Since I first saw Mr. Simons’s work in 1996--for his men’s show in the basement off the Place de la Bastille--the Belgian designer’s career trajectory has been fascinating to watch. He made news then with his espousal of youth culture, and he is making news now for revitalizing the Dior house and haute couture.

Taking on and modernizing the heritage of a house with such a varied and deep history isn’t an easy task. Which parts of the heritage should be carried forward? Which should be abandoned?

INCORPORATING DIOR'S HERITAGE Mr. Simons carefully studied the archives and decided to concentrate his first efforts on Christian Dior’s decade at his fashion house. That meant tackling the construction of the 1947 “New Look” and, of course, the Bar jacket. Mr. Simons opened his couture show with a deceptively simple new Bar jacket cut slightly longer, so it hit below the hips. There was also a double-breasted version worn belted and as a coat that suggested a less rigorous hourglass silhouette. Proportions were streamlined and cuts were precise to show off the contours of the body.

Paying tribute to Mr. Dior’s love of flowers, the four small rooms at the hôtel particulier were decorated floor to ceiling in blue orchids in one room, red and white roses in another, and so on--a reminder that flowers themselves are incredible architectural masterpieces, not unlike a flawlessly constructed dress. The bright red strapless gown, the acid yellow high waist skirt worn with a sheer stretch long sleeved tee, and the pastel pink strapless dress reflected the colors of the flowers that adorned each of the separate rooms. Happily, the magnificent floral decorations did nothing to overwhelm the clothes.

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A MORE STREAMLINED AND ACCESSIBLE APPROACH Having seen the last three Dior couture shows in the Gianfranco Ferrè era through the entire Galliano years to today, I was not surprised of the lack of those once ubiquitous larger than life ballgowns--those gowns too large for the catwalk and surely too much of an encumbrance for anything in real life. In fact, none of the 54 looks were cut to train on the floor as the models passed by.

In a nod to women’s changing lifestyle, the giant ball-gown is banished from the new couture vocabulary, now replaced by more streamlined versions like a white strapless balloon-skirted gown embroidered with degrade beading that hits at the ankles, or a minimalist ballgown skirt embroidered with blue peonies and paired with a simple long sleeved tee. Perhaps one of the most beautiful passages of the show was the series of elaborately embroidered strapless corset tops that would have been part of a ball gown but now were paired with wool cigarette pants.

In watching many of the extravagant Dior couture shows in seasons past, I had to wonder, even though they were stunningly uplifting, what kind of woman can actually buy and wear these clothes? With this collection from Mr. Simons, there are plenty of real-life options for women. And it will surely give Chanel haute couture’s thriving and substantial commercial business some competition.

HOW THIS COLLECTION CHANGES COUTURE More importantly is what this show actually does for couture. I remember when Yves Saint Laurent closed his couture operations with a final show at the Pompidou a little more than a decade ago in January 2002. Even though YSL’s partner Pierre Bergé declared then that couture was on the verge of death, somehow, miraculously, and by the sheer will of the financial backing of major corporations behind the few brands still devoted to couture (and the recent emergence of new markets) haute couture survived. In spite of the worst recession of modern times and in spite of dismissals of its irrelevance in the age of fast fashion, couture is back and bigger than ever.

Mr. Simons didn’t just put Dior in a new era by wiping clean any vestiges of the past two decades. He is charting a new course for couture.

Click through to see the full collection. Photos: Imaxtree