For years—or maybe decades now—highfalutin editors have been bemoaning the degradation of runway shows into marketing exercises for luxury brands. Their wish for a lo-fi, paparazzi-free season has been granted—and all it took was a pandemic! The spring ’21 haute couture collections, which were unfurled this week in Paris and Milan, were entirely focused on the fashion at hand. A few designers dropped out when, au dernier moment, the French authorities banned public gatherings. But still, a robust 28 houses soldiered on, and in many cases lockdown and the opportunities to reflect on what women really want to wear when life resumes again have served their creative directors well.

The most anticipated event was Kim Jones’s women’s-wear debut at Fendi, which showed spring couture for the first time. His starting point: the Charleston Farmhouse, a 16th-century home near Jones’s weekend place in Sussex that was frequented by Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set. (Who knew that Orlando, published in 1928, and Fendi, founded in 1925, were contemporaries?)

Other highlights: Chanel’s newish creative director, Virginie Viard, went from strength to strength, turning the Grand Palais into a venue for a simple, South of France wedding—well, as simple as it gets when there are so many embroidery studios (Cécile Henri, Montex, Lesage, among others) involved. There was a bride, certainly, but the 31 wedding guests were far more interesting, especially those who gave the flou a rest and embraced a la garçonne look, complete with kicky tweed pants. At Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri took an even more nostalgic route, looking back to the Italian Renaissance while grasping for a glimpse at the future through the mystical world of tarot. Two things we know for sure: brocade and velvet are in the cards.

Meanwhile, in Milan, Giorgio Armani for the first time unveiled his Privé collection at Palazzo Orsini, the former residence of the Orsini marquesses and Falcò Pio family and where Armani has housed his atelier and showroom since 1996. The feminine jackets, especially the moody one whose back was replaced by a transparent panel, are destined to be the sharpest things at the black-tie affairs of fall ’21. But a buoyant coterie of gowns led by an embroidered greige slipdress with a dramatic tulle overlay stole the (virtual) show. Here’s hoping that these looks will be admired far beyond the screen in the months to come.

David Downton is a London-based artist
Ashley Baker is the Style Editor for Air Mail