The big guns came out to play Tuesday on the Paris haute couture catwalks and showed why they are still top of the fashion tree. Christian Dior, Schiaparelli and Iris Van Herpen conjured up some thrilling clothes that married daring and tradition the day after two new American kids on the block made their debuts in the French capital. While the US newbies Rodarte and Proenza Schouler make solid Paris debuts, Monday showed why haute couture with its decades of tradition and know-how is such a uniquely Parisian phenomenon. Dior, now under the sure hand of Italian designer Maria Grazia Chiuri, set out on an odyssey through 50 shades of grey inspired by pioneering women explorers, channeling the great traveler Freya Stark and aviators like Amy Johnson. Stark frequently dressed as a man on her peregrinations around the Middle East after World War I and Chiuri topped her long and enveloping ash-grey wool and tweed suits with trilby hats. Pulled tight at the waist with thin crocodile and bamboo effete belts, they were both sober and dramatic, typical touches of Chiuri style. After becoming the first woman ever to lead the fabled label last year, the Italian adopted the slogan, “We should all be feminists.” True to that spirit, she said this collection was a homage to the “restless first female explorers who overcame geographical and psychological frontiers”, with a leather one-piece shearling flying suit summoning up the first female pilots. “Women explorers were very brave and they dressed themselves like males,” Chiuri told AFP, sometimes adding “ethnic local pieces” to their looks, something she mirrored in her autumn winter line. “These women were among the first independent women and in some ways I feel myself also (following in their footsteps) coming to Paris from Rome and moving around the world with Dior,” she added. The designer said she had dipped into the archives of the label’s founder Christian Dior, and was particularly struck by his postwar suit designs which raided the male wardrobe. Despite their manly roots these highly tailored suits gave their wearers a gamine quality that was magnified in delicate flapper chic of the equally long evening dresses. Here typical Dior prettiness carried an added touch of grey steel, women who knew where they were going – cue the spectacular map cape – and were no pushovers even as they embraced the ethereal and the romantic. The Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence was among the A-listers watching the Dior show. Dior will this year celebrate its 70th birthday. The revived house of Schiaparelli has an even longer – albeit interrupted – history. It’s resurrection under Bertrand Guyon continued apace with another sleek and hugely sophisticated collection. Watch out next winter as its historical surrealist motifs – the Salvador Dali lobster and Joan Miro-inspired color schemes – get a big airing on the red carpet. Couture’s great innovator Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen pulled out the stops for her tenth anniversary collection, with one of her biggest fans, Bjork, rumored to be performing at the party afterwards. The Icelandic singer will need to go some to match the Danish group Between Music who played the show’s sounds cape underwater in fish tanks on specially adapted instruments, coming up for air every few moments. Their spine-tingling performance would have washed away a lesser designer. But not the Dutch master whose collection might have been billed “Iris Van Herpen’s Undersea World”. This was the aquatic as fantastic, with schools of impossibly fluid semi-transparent knock-you-dead squid and cuttlefish sheaths taking the evening dress into an entirely new dimension. The designer said she had been inspired by the musicians. “I found out about how these artists had been working for 10 years on developing underwater techniques for both making music and singing” and thought it was too good to miss.