Again, chronological oddness here as I revisit Chanel’s haute couture collection.  During London Fashion Week, for the first time, Chanel had bought their S/S 15 couture collection over for those that couldn’t make it to January for the show, to peruse or yes – if you’re one of the elite few – to buy.  It was a two-way view on a haute couture show that normally drums up column inches, sweeping panoramic photos of the set and effusive but blurry descriptions of clothing because there are seventy or so looks to dissect.  Our main takeaway is the overall theme – (this season it was simple – “SPRING!”) and the set – 300 mechanical flowers that took six months to develop that opened the show when watered by Baptiste Giabiconi.

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I went into Chanel two days later to have a glimpse of the working reality of the ateliers of what is the oldest and arguably, the truest haute couture house.  With four ateliers – two for tailoring, two for “flou” (or draping) and a “Madame” manning each one, there’s a system in place that works for what is in fact a profitable (although Chanel won’t say how much…) business.  Speaking to Madame Josephine, who heads up one of the tailoring ateliers, the emphasis is always on the “client”.  “Haute couture is unique because there is no boundaries,” she said.  But that they can always modify and adapt designs to suit a client’s needs.  She smiles discreetly when asked about the relationships she has with clients.  It is a secret closeted world where the house won’t divulge much and you’re left guessing and fantasising about the sort of woman that can sink tens, even hundreds of thousands of pounds on an outfit that actually isn’t about the brand (there are no Chanel labels sewn into haute couture outfits) but about hidden secrets that only the wearer can enjoy.  These are the things that we got to discover (although only partially) at the London haute couture presentation.   

Walking around the atelier, the pattern cutters and seamstresses were already busy drafting up orders.  The show had finished but the work still carries on.  Jacqueline only had a few minutes to speak before she had to go to attend to a fitting.  The passion though was evident enough.  “We work so hard but it’s always worth it when you see the show,” she said.  “This season, we loved the lightness and the prettiness!  Tres jolie!”  That lightness was communicated through a lot of the daywear which is a particular strong point for Chanel, which they do very well on.    

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Chanel emphasise repeatedly that daywear is their couture forte.  And for S/S 15 – there are a myriad of options entered around the new Chanel suit – with a narrow shoulder (shaped with what the atelier call a “hammer” sleeve) and a cropped shape that Lagerfeld had come up with to elongate the body by bringing the waist higher up and lengthening the skirts.  Can the midriff be adjusted for the customer should they wish – yes, but only ever so slightly.  Jackets are differentiated with bias cut seaming at the back or as they put it, “couture sans couture”.  On a simple little black dress. mesh strips are built in and lined up with a precision that was difficult to achieve.  These seams and lines only look like great technical feats when seen up close and also when compared to a conventional off-the-peg piece side by side.

“We are the only ones that do things this way,” said Jacqueline about Chanel’s ‘true’ approach towards haute couture.  Perhaps she was referring to the way Chanel makes uses of its  Paraffection companies – Lesage, Lemarié, Massaro, Montex, Lognon, Desrues to name a few.  Within one haute couture collection, practically all of them were put to use.  Maison did the cloud-like tulle hats.  Massaro made the leather booties.  Montex made specially cut flower sequins.  Desires the bejewelled buttons.  Logon, an origami pleated fabric.  And of course Lesage and Lemarié who took care of all the feather and flower embellishment and embroidery.  It’s a back and forth process between these metier d’arts ateliers and the central Chanel atelier.  Sometimes there are logistic nightmares where pieces can’t be transported.  Jacqueline recalls that the final wedding gown was too large and delicate to travel so the people from Lesage had to come over. 

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As the looks begin to blossom and really flower in decoration, the details get mind bogglingly complex.  Lagerfeld’s flowers were all fantasy – he didn’t really refer or replicate specific species but instead in his laboratory created new breeds.   An orchid tweed woven by Lesage (yes they also weave fabrics too), with strands of lace, ribbon and tulle that pop with vibrancy when seen up close.  The ends of the tweed jacket above were unravelled carefully to fit the model, who was switched at the last minute.  Delicate lace cut with holes the shape of petals, are then folded in and double stitched to achieve a sort of origami lace that is was significantly time consuming for the ateliers to achieve.  Underneath all those hours of embroidery, the thousands and thousands of sequins, beads and hand-cut flowers are yet more layers for the wearer to enjoy.  Flowers embroidered on the lining for instance so that your legs might brush up against soft organza blooms or a voluminous tulle skirt with poppy red painted patches that can really only be seen if you lifted up the layers.  And of course for extra Chanel appeal, a soft pink quilted cushioned lining to contrast with the hard flower shaped sequins and beads on a heavy coat.  

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Whilst the secret is never going to be fully revealed, Chanel have endeavoured to open up their worlds of savoir faire so that we can understand the real point of haute couture.  It exists both as a real endeavour to outfit the women that can afford it but also as a way of pushing techniques to a limit.  “There are no limitations,” said Josephine repeatedly.  In these sets of in-process photographs, you can see specific looks from toile to model.   Look number 65 for instance with its hooded cape in two-tone tulle, embroidered bustier and organza skirt adorned with hand painted flowers, which takes over 750 hours of work just to get the embellishment correct.  I don’t quite know how to imagine it but Lemarié cut feathers into the shape of petals and applied each one individually with tweezers and they’re then hand painted and appliqued onto the organza skirt.  The sequins adorning look 56 are hand dyed individually so that they gradiate in plummy pink from outside.  From a front-on picture, you just see a mass of pink.  Getting close to haute couture is no easy feat unless you’re working in the industry or are a customer but with every high definition image, our general perceptions of haute couture surely has to change.  It isn’t just a spectacle.  It isn’t just a two hour wave of social media frenzy.  It’s a living and breathing thing with hands and heart, and despite Chanel’s presentations and behind the scenes reportage, there are thankfully still a sea of hidden secrets embedded into those clothes.  Mystery and fantasy – two components that are slowly ebbing away in today’s fashion world.

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Apologies if this is a bit chronologically out of sync.  During shows, the blog and I exist on an alternative time zone, ruled by deadlines.  I’m writing up for Dazed Digital and BBC (can only be read from outside the UK), if you’re up for perusing more formal reports on all things fashion week.

In this realm though, I’ve rewound back to the beginning of New York Fashion Week when I was still waxing lyrical about my brief adventure in India.  When I finally got to New York, three days into proceedings, I asked around to see what I had missed.  Coach was GREAT!” was the general consensus.  Now there’s an answer that I wasn’t expecting.  That just shows how in just three seasons Stuart Vevers has created and injected an evocative fashion identity into the all-American much-loved leather goods brand.  The same conclusion was drawn from their debut menswear collection presented during London Menswear Collections in January.

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Not that we should be that surprised that Vevers is shaking things up in the right way at Coach.  He’s a consummate designer fitting into houses and giving them an appropriate identity.  He doesn’t enforce his aesthetic on a brand, for the sake of his vanity.  Instead, each brand is its own separate project and he designs to brief in a way that feels intelligent.  For Coach, Vevers has been exploring different strands of Americana.  From the California anything-goes kook of last season, Vevers turns to the great cross-state road trip – the imaginary open road that exists in most people’s mindsets whether they’ve been to America or not.  It’s a great thematic vehicle to express notions of freedom and individuality.  The collection recalls Life Magazine photos of female Hell’s Angels and Richard Prince’s later repurposing of advertisement images to centralise the female figure in these male dominated scenarios.

image-1Richard Prince, “Girlfriends”

Vevers honed in on the literal monikers of a biker girl with her indulgently generous shearling jackets  to more kawaii abstractions like little skulls worked into a bandana print.  It’s the biker jackets though that really grabs your eyeballs not least because of the words “Wanted” and “Nomad” on the back but also because of the myriad of badges that recall everyone’s own customising attempts.  These symbols and slogans are the perfect way of building up a Coach lexicography that people can identify with.  Ditto for the blooming-skull print that is a new take on the ditzy floral.

Following on from my inquest into who is the new Gucci girl, similarly, Coach now has an identifiable character.  She skews younger than any other customer that Vevers has designed for previously, as befits a brand that sells fairly affordable bags to the contemporary and aspiring-luxury customers.  And it’s to his credit that he can handle the responsibility of designing for a contemporary brand.  And whilst Coach’s fashion identity is fully kitted out with personality and verve, the bags, which Vevers is of course fully well versed in, have also been pepped up with American sports detailing and charms.  Soon there’ll be no need to say that Coach is good with a question mark at the end because Vevers has made a positive and emphatic statement of intent.     

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0E5A8247All backstage photography by Evan Schreiber for Dazed Digital

Who is the Gucci girl?  Under Tom Ford, you knew who she was.  She had powerful allure and either you wanted to be her or at the very least,  you commended her bravado.  Under Frida Giannini, she was a bit elusive.  Did you ever know her in real life?  Or was she just constantly trussed up in re-iterations of 60s and 70s cliches – a walking hologram on the runway.  That’s the ghost of a Gucci that I had seen chez Giannini.  So when it came to witnessing the debut womenswear show by surprise creative director choice Alessandro Michele, I was hoping there’d be more than a semblance of character and personality on show.

In a moody recreation of a Milanese subway station – a girl stalked around in shaggy fur lined Gucci slippers with flyaway hair, glasses, silk blouses with ties at the neck and boyish trousers that hung low on the hips.  She doesn’t mind that her leather is rumpled and that her dresses are roughly pleated.  She’s a collector and goes about procuring embroidered birds like treasures from the 18th century to adorn her library sweaters, knit skirts and the back of one decadent fur coat.  Copies of Nietsche might be in her Gucci floral motif hobo bags.  Geometric lurex, metallic leathers and Tudor-inspired jewellery satisfies her inner magpie instinct without ever allowing glitz to dominate.  She also subs about in mannish Colefax and Fowler floral suits, matched by her boyish partner in crime.  These couplings sloth and slouch about – conscious of their own eclecticism.

With one show (and at the back of your mind, his hastily pulled together menswear show in January), Michele had very clearly painted the picture of this Gucci girl (and boy – or are they one and the same?).  There’s a tangible character there and it’s one that felt more than familiar to me.  It’s almost been a full decade since we were mooning over the jolie laide, geeky femme, heavy-on-the-vintage style of inspirations like models Iekeliene Stange, Valentine Fillol Cordier and Irina Lazareanu.  Way back when before street style photographers were two-a-penny, there’d be the dilligent Japanese street style magazines snapping away at them.  They’d garner cult followings there and beyond.  Their dedicated threads on The Fashion Spot would burgeon with every picky instance of them and you can see their maverick stylings come through in this collection.  In a similar vein, Michele’s Gucci also recalled for me, that very brilliant Class of 2006 shoot in British Vogue, where Paolo Rovers shot Russell Marsh’s spotted new models including the likes of Hanne Gaby Odiele.  If those references mean nothing to you then you could even say Michele’s new collection for Gucci is the perfect style accompaniment to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character trope that was incidentally coined in that period.

In short, Michele consciously or not, inciting nostalgia for a time period that is now actually long enough ago, to romanticise.  At least that’s what it felt like to me.  Vanessa Friedmann said in her review that the clothes weren’t ANYTHING new and she’s right.  But in fashion’s cyclical prism, and as forerunning designers like Raf Simons and Nicolas Ghesquiere find success in eking out futures from the past, this feels like it’s in a similar vein.  Except Michele is looking to something closer to home – tangible, recognisable and because of that, even more endearing.     

For Gucci, Michele’s romantic eclectic chick is new and feels appropriate too.  She tunes into a Western world that isn’t so sure of itself anymore.  The desire to dream and to escape run away in sartorial romantics, as opposed to confronting it head on with full-on sexiness, plays into Michele’s Gucci girl.  Hence the awkwardness.  That’s not going to embraced universally.  Even as we were exiting the show, you could see the question marks above some people’s heads – “Where are the bags?  Why is that girl not sexy?”  Love or hate.  There’s a feeling that you haven’t felt in a while at Gucci.  And despite that, at the very least you know who what the deal is with this Gucci girl.  She can feel her and, maybe just – just maybe, want to be her.  Time will tell.

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London is Changing.  So says the user-generated art project overseen by Rebecca Ross from Central Saint Martins, who is using billboards in Holborn and Aldwych to communicate the impact that economic and political changes are having on this city.  People have been sending in comments about the unaffordability aspect, the processes of gentrification and the stifling of creativity in a city that has nurtured a reputation for being the source of it.  Those thoughts have been weighing heavy on young designers like Claire Barrow.  Her collection “High Flyers” reflects on her own conflicting relationship with London – she describes the city as a “mousetrap” for young and inspired people where creativity is now under thread and comrpomised.  In an accompanying zine created by Ditto Press, Barrow draws out figures of depressing day-to-day corporate scenes in a rain-drizzled, glass-ridden metropolis – “All this welth, who gains?” she asks.  Her own set of high flyers are given freedom though, as gusts of wind  sweep through ochre and deep magenta dresses and painted leather and sheepskin jackets nod to aviators of the past – the female high flyers of their day.  Bessie Coleman, Amy Johnson and of course Amelia Earhart.  Through an emotional upward flight, one can find hope, despite all this despondency.  “For the moment, nobody can stop me from flying so high,” scribbles Barrow as an end note to the zine.  That’s the thing about fashion’s engagement with socio-economic climate.  More often than not, a silver lining emerges.  And when our surroundings are ridden with tension  – that’s when creativity is at its most fervent.  It’s important to feel that fashion doesn’t exist within its own inward-looking microcosm.

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Danielle Romeril was perhaps also rebuking against mass consumerism as seen by the super wealthy of this city. Her collection was simply called “Survive” as she imagined a dystopian future where you can’t buy anything anymore and instead you scavenge and salvage to create new things. This sort of bricolage owes its debt to the likes of Margiela and Comme des Garcons but Romeril’s warrior wardrobe is more attuned to the female form. A bric-a-brac blanket collage of flocked lace, corded velvet, nylon quilting and tartan, stitched together with leather scales (made with the Japanese Samurai armour technique odoshi) doesn’t exactly appear to be a hardship to wear. Romeril’s inspiration point may have come from a dark place but the results are romantic with a toughness that has thus far defined this one-to-watch NewGen newbie.

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Yasuko Furuta of Toga prefers to get away from this sprawling corporate mess altogether. In a crowded London Fashion Week schedule, Furuta is making herself known with forward-thinking layerings that are more than just surface. This season, the Toga girl might tie up her coat and her rucksack and fling everything on her back and go on a spiritual journey out East somewhere. Banish any thought of gap-yah-year costumes ridden with world-travelling cliches. Furuta’s nomadic spirits collage trailing Victoriana-tinged capes and delicate shirts in netting and lace, with oversized coats and taffeta flared trousers. Sure it’s mostly down to styling that these ensembles hold such potency but the proposition at the very least feels fresh as Furuta continues to contrast styles in a way that piques your interest. You want to be that girl who gets away from it all with just the coat on her back and a pair of flat satin slippers to make her way through the world. What’s prompting all these flighty thoughts? Those statements on those aforementioned billboards could apply to any growing meglomaniac-filled city in the world.

‘I’m worried I’m signing up to a life of poverty, despite being highly qualified,’ says a student relocating from Australia to Hackney.

There’s a siren call from ALL designers out there.

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With thanks to Mercedes-Benz for providing transportation