Paris is always Paris, but during Couture Week she wears her Sunday dress. Even in January, with temperatures dipping below zero under skies the color of sleet, the City of Light glows a little brighter and quickens her pace with the arrival of the fashion elite.

Editors and taste-makers, photographers and artists, bloggers and influencers, join stars (and their stylists) converging on the city. Hotels, restaurants, and bars fill to capacity; gossip permeates the air like jasmine; reputations are made and dashed. The carnival has come to town.

I was parachuted into this kingdom of indulgence in 1996, on assignment for the Financial Times. I arrived with immaculate timing just as the pins were pulled and John Galliano and Alexander McQueen (live grenades, both) took the reins at Dior and Givenchy, respectively, turning couture into a meteor shower.

In late January, I returned for the first time since the coronavirus, and I am happy to report that not much has changed. For designers, couture is a chance to dream. Casting aside budgetary constraints and utilizing the transcendent skills of the workrooms, twice a year (couture plays out in January and July) they reclaim the idea of designer as artist.

And artists can shock or delight, often simultaneously. Thus, Daniel Roseberry’s made-for-press-photos faux wild-animal heads at Schiaparelli and the blithe upside-down ball gowns in confectionary colors at Viktor & Rolf, two shows that ignited a social-media uproar on landing.

Elsewhere, Michelle Yeoh lit up the front row at Armani’s glittering harlequinade hours after being announced as a best-actress-Oscar contender; Virginie Viard’s jeunes filles shared the runway with giant animal sculptures by artist Xavier Veilhan at Chanel; Maria Grazia Chiuri sent out a muted and beautiful collection for Dior that paid tribute to entertainer Josephine Baker; and for Valentino, Pierpaolo Piccioli conjured up a ravishing homage to club culture—in this case, a couture club tucked under the Pont Alexandre III.

Outside the show, screaming fans lined the bridge, serving notice that for a new generation couture is still the Super Bowl. Or, at any rate, the Oscars of fashion.

David Downton is an Editor at Large for Air Mail