By Astrid Wendlandt
PARIS (Reuters) - As Paris Haute Couture week gathered pace on its second day, Raf Simons offered a walk through history at Christian Dior, with a mix of 18th century-inspired dresses with side hoops and embroidered masculine court coats.
The designer said he was searching for a modern interpretation of fashion codes from centuries past for his fifth haute couture collection since he was appointed Dior's chief designer in 2012 to replace John Galliano.
The show at the Rodin museum, staged in a gigantic round room with walls decked with white orchids, opened with a series of pale silk dresses with panniers, the dramatic side hoops first introduced by the Spanish court and immortalized in the paintings of Velazquez.
The collection moved on to long dark court jackets with embroidered collars resembling those worn at the court of Louis XIV.
Bright stilettos brought modern flair to the looks, while handbags, one of Dior's biggest products, were notably absent.
"Raf asked himself how 18th century fashion could be re-interpreted with today's codes," Dior Chief Executive Sidney Toledano told Reuters after the show. "He looked at it not from the point of view of today, not one of a museum."
Other striking dresses included 1920s-inspired embroidered or printed cocktail dresses and long woollen coats with slightly bouffant wrists.
On the front row were French actress Marion Cotillard, the brand's ambassador for its bags and Charlize Theron, the face of Dior's J'Adore perfume, with her new partner, actor Sean Penn.
Asked what he thought of the collection after Theron praised Simons effusively, Penn deadpanned: "I just follow her."
Others French actresses at the show included Chiara Mastroianni, Isabelle Huppert and Marisa Berenson.
The ex-girlfriend of French President Francois Hollande, Valerie Trierweiler, used her front row seat to rekindle media attention to the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamists more than two months ago, sporting a T-shirt that read: "Bring back our girls."
"I find it so amazing that everybody got mobilized for them two months ago and now nobody is talking about them, it is as if we have forgotten about them," Trierweiler told Reuters.
She said Christian Dior was the French fashion brand she wore the most while at the Elysee presidential palace, but that she now no longer had the budget to afford the designer's dresses.
Earlier on Monday, Marco Zanini, formerly at Rochas, presented his second haute couture show for Schiaparelli, the once-sleepy fashion brand relaunched a year ago by Tod's owner Diego Della Valle.
Critics called the collection more mature and harmonious than last year's, with clear common themes such as shoulder pads, high waistlines and original sequined prints.
Elsa Schiaparelli, inspired by artists such as Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dali, was a rival of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, making her mark in the fashion world with sharply cut suits ornamented with avant-garde drawings from her artist friends.
Seven years ago, Della Valle acquired the brand, which had laid dormant since 1954, hoping to replicate the success he had resuscitating shoemaker Roger Vivier, Tod's fastest growing brand, whose sales more than doubled in 2012.
This year's collection included harlequin-inspired tunics, a voluminous white wedding dress printed with black crows, and audacious mixes of colors such as a caramel silk shirt paired with pastel pink trousers tightened by a green belt.
"I wanted to pay tribute to Elsa Schiaparelli's irreverence and provocation," Zanini told Reuters.
(Reporting by Astrid Wendlandt; Editing by Alexandria Sage)