Grasse, the famous epicentre of the perfume industry, is a sort of mythical land to me. Somewhere I’ve read about extensively, most notably of course in Patrick Suskind’s novel about a scent-mad serial killer, but have never had the chance to visit because I’m not technically a beauty journalist.   Nor am I by any means an expert on the perfume industry.   Its relation to fashion though is more than obvious. In many cases, its revenue dwarfs that of ready to wear and accessories.  The launch of a perfume has catapulted a fashion house into stratospheric levels, giving a brand household stats.

In the case of Louis Vuitton though, the order is somewhat unusual.  First of course came the luggage – the outfitting of the privileged for their travel needs on the waters, by rail and road and eventually by plane.  Then its foray into fragrance and cosmetics with crystal perfume bottles called ‘Editions d’Art’ and then their first scent in 1927 entitled Heures d’Absence, followed by Je Tu II in 1928 and then Réminiscences and Eau de Voyage in 1946.  This buried fragrance history of Louis Vuitton was something which I only learnt about in last year’s Volez, Voguez Voyagez exhibition held at the Grand Palais. Sadly no traces of those original perfumes – its physical form or formulae – exist anymore because of an archival fire in the 1970s.  And so Louis Vuitton – the perfume – as a project was shelved for decades.  Until about four years ago, when Jacques Cavallier Belletrud was hired to become the official Louis Vuitton “nose” or more formally, their Master in-house perfumer.  As a third generation perfumer, Belletrud has architected many award winning perfumes such as Giorgio Armani Acqua di Gio and Issey Miyake’s L’Eau D’Issey.

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He began to go on a journey, collating experience and artefacts from around the world to come up with what would form Louis Vuitton’s collection of Les Parfums.   Why seven?  There wasn’t a specific number in the brief and Belletrud had the tough task of whittling it down from an initial batch of ninety.  It was perhaps too difficult to compress Belletrud’s research into one singular scent.  Or on a more practical level, having seven very diverse (yet unified by their idiosyncrasy) fragrances mirrors our perfume shelves for both men and women.  In our household, Steve has about four or five in steady rotation and I normally grab from a selection of about seven or eight depending on mood, occasion and even what sort of clothes I’m wearing.   You’ll gravitate towards specific scents in the Louis Vuitton’s Les Parfums but equally, three or four of them might take your fancy, hence why they have produced miniature sets comprising of all seven as well as travel atomisers that allow you to switch around.

To begin this journey of LV’s Les Parfums, after Paris Fashion Week, I flew to Nice to experience Grasse and more specifically, a dream of a fragrance laboratory for Louis Vuitton and Parfums Christianne Dior, known as Les Fontaines Parfumées.  Housed in a former tannery that harks back to Grasse’s roots as a centre of leather goods dating back to the 12th century, Belletrud has a pretty idyllic setting to experiment, create and explore.  The perfume project for Louis Vuitton of course is an ongoing one, which is why we got not just a presentation of the now released parfums but an insight into the working life of Belletrud.

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But this initial seven is what we came to discover.  Nestled in a recreation of a flower-filled trunk known as the Malle Fleur, which Louis Vuitton once sent to clients as a token of goodwill, are the chosen seven fragrances that form Les Parfums encased in the French-made flacons designed by Marc Newson.  As we smelled each one, it was clear there was definitely a strategic thinking behind the diversity.  The journey begins in Grasse’s field of roses where Rose des Vents was born.  The distinctive smell of lily-of-the-valley continues that floral wave in Apogée.  For fans of sweeter fragrances, you have the heady Madagascan and Tahitian vanilla of Contre Moi.  The intensity of tuberose is worked into Turbulences along with a jasmine native to Grasse.  Naturally leather would somehow be involved.  The tanned leather used at Vuitton’s Asnieres workshop is incorporated with two kinds of jasmine and narcissus in Dans la Peau.  Upon seeing a raspberry leather at the workshop, Belletrud also managed to weave in the contrasting scents of leather and raspberry into Mille Feux.  My personal favourite is Matière Noire, perhaps the most masculine of scents with its notes of agarwood, contrasted with an intense mix of blackcurrant and jasmine.

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In Belletrud’s office, a custom made Louis Vuitton trunk houses the myriads of scents that form the tools to a craft that is difficult to illustrate in words and pictures and yet evocative to see. We went one step further and got to sit in Belletrud’s laboratory space where the delicate and scientific task of mixing up a fragrance is done. Working with milligram scale, pipettes and precise formula, we got an idea of mixing our very own perfumes. Going for a woody scent, it was up to us how much of the key components named ‘Coeur Floral’ and ‘Bois Moderne’ would go into our fragrances.   The result?  Something that probably smelt quite crude and common to Belletrud’s fine nose but for me wasn’t a bad fragrance to tote around when travelling.

The simplicity of the fragrances we created of course pale in comparison with what Belletrud has achieved with Louis Vuitton.  By the time you’ve had a whiff of all of Les Parfums, the combination lingers like a storied voyage around the world, where different places leave their olfactory traces on your skin.  Belletrud doesn’t have a prescriptive method of mixing Les Parfums.   “It’s not my property anymore,” he says with a shrug.  Meaning you do with the seven bottles as you will.   Just don’t spritz the perfume and rub furiously into your wrists, which kills the perfume.  That’s apparently the equivalent of trampling all over a bed of flowers with your feet.  Duly noted Jacques.  Duly noted.

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0e5a0217Wearing Molly Goddard dress, J Brand trousers, Missoni x Converse slip-ons and Off-White bag

“You’re going to Tokyo… straight after fashion month… and you’re six months pregnant….”

I didn’t consider the madness of that sentence until someone strung it together in that way, in addition to the raised eyebrows that went with it.  Under any other normal circumstances, I don’t really need a rhyming reason to go to Tokyo.  It is my happy place, where the simple act of going into a convenience store instantly lifts my spirits.  Therefore I saw a three day jaunt to Tokyo as my last random trip hurrah, before I really have to nest up and wait for the pending arrival of Lau-Salter sprog.  

I have to thank Gucci for giving me this condensed opportunity to see my favourite city one last time as a pre-motherhood freedling – or as a child at heart that is about to have a child of her own.  What was the occasion?  Gucci were celebrating the debut of Gucci 4 Rooms, an immersive installation featuring four artists that get carte blanche to interpret the codes of Alessandro Michele’s Gucci at their flagship store in Ginza as well as in the window of Dover Street Market nearby.

Tokyo as a location for Gucci 4 Rooms is of course a natural one, given that the current AW16 ad campaign was shot in the city amongst a backdrop of pachinko machines and dens of iniquity in Shibuya.  It’s also an important market that accounts for 10% of Gucci’s revenue and it’s easy to see why.  All those wonderfully adorned surfaces that Michele has been creating with their animal motifs, prints, textures and accumulative we candy fall perfectly in line with the Japanese penchant for the kawaii – I don’t mean the  ‘cute’ definition of the word but more a general aesthetic that favours anything that is instantly eye-catching.  

When Gucci’s CEO Marco Bizzari gave his speech to introduce the exhibition, he talked about the need for a luxury house like Gucci to take risks and to look at their agenda from different angles in order to move forward.  And so Gucci 4 Rooms was conceived initially as a digital only project that then became a physical one.  Four artists.  Four rooms.  And you can experience the true essence of each artist’s intent online in the form of slick mini films and animated visuals.  Guests that happened to catch the exhibition in Tokyo get the bonus backdrop of the city of course.

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The Tokyo-based contemporary artist known as Mr. ‘s Gucci Garden is perhaps the most ostensibly ‘Japanese’ of all the installations as the artist Mr. is fascinated with placing the geeky otaku world within an art context.  And so anime character heads roll around in amongst a manga interpretation of Gucci flora and fauna.  It’s more of an urban jungle than garden as graffiti and apocalyptic messages like “Stay with me absent Tokyo-minded’ are scrawled across the walls. 

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Berlin-based Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota’s trapping of the Gucci Herbarium print in the form of toile de jouy covered bed and matching accessories is a mind bending maze of luminous red thread.  It’s as if a game of cat’s cradle has been enlarged and engulfs anything that comes into its twine-based path.  Superficially it makes for an impressive backdrop to our Gucci outfit antics, in particular the coat I wore to the party, which blended right in.

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Gucci Words by Daito Manabe is an interactive experience where viewers can play pinball with Gucci pieces hanging on the wall, melding seamlessly with a digital backdrop.  The ball pings around hitting bags and jackets, causing them to spin, reminiscent of the clanging noise of the arcades of Tokyo.  Japanese literature on love inspired by Michele’s slogan of L’Aveugle Par Amour forms the backdrop to this surreal pinball game. 

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Brooklyn artist Trevor Andrew otherwise known as Trouble Andrew, of course is by now no stranger to all things Gucci as his graffitied GG and Gucci Ghost take over the window of Dover Street Market Ginza in the Elephant Room, housing an installation of his lo-fi films, Gucci Ghost accoutrements and all the accompanying merch that debuted in the AW16 collection.  I in turn, got my chance to be Trouble Andrew GG’d by pretending to be a Gucci baller on not one but two nights, wearing both graffitied denim jacket and the orange fur coat for the trip. 

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The bits in between the serious business of appreciating the art were padded out by hanging out with my real life bezzies Bryan and Tina in Tokyo.  They’re the peeps to rely on when one wants to sing karaoke in a Kigu animal suit, eat ramen AND fried chicken at 3am in the morning or go hunting for second hand Comme.

As Gucci feted their 4 Rooms with a rave-ish party at the store that was all UV walls, laser lights and glitched up video installations, which later morphed into an after party at Shibuya’s legendary Trump Rooms, Tina and Bryan were also on hand to provide the sort of japes and hi-jinx, that perhaps I’ll tell Baby Bubble about when she’s a bit older.  All that remains to be said is… Tokyo, you still slay me.  I’ve loved you every time I’ve seen you.  Even a three day trip is a fix worth having.  Next time, I will be back with a new addition.  And you’ll feel completely different. 

Gucci 4 Rooms on until November 27th at Gucci Ginza 7th Floor

img_4505Arrangement of some Gucci-appropriate garms in the Peninsula Hotel where we were staying

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img_0425Draping a Gucci chain mailed hand across a course of kaiseki dinner

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img_0453Karaoke is defo more fun with a) animal suits and b) a mic booth that lights up

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img_3739Getting Gucci Real at the official Gucci 4 Rooms party held at the Gucci Ginza store

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img_0647Tina in the Gucci Ghost UV universe at the party

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img_0669Playing Mannequin outside the Gucci Ginza windows

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img_0679Ending the night as most fashion parties do in Tokyo… in Trump Room

How often have I typed the words “petite mains” on this blog?  Or “atelier”?  Or “craftsmanship”?  You’ll have to bear with this broken record of mine because they’re words that constantly bear repeating.  Even if within the fashion industry, those words are thrown at us consistently to the point where the seasoned journalist becomes weary, but beyond that, it’s still a special insight into a world that isn’t necessarily widely known about.  Case in point, anytime I put up a video of a craftsman or woman working away in an atelier on Instagram, the pouring-in of love is evident.  Whilst there may be a hardened cynicism over the nuts and bolts of the business of fashion, at the very least, there’s still still unadulterated admiration for what skilled hands can do.

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And so we come to Chanel’s AW16 -7 haute couture show, which took place back in July.  It’s a collection that has a life in it that goes beyond that singular show, because as I learnt, orders for haute couture pieces were still being taken at trunk show events in London, Hong Kong and Dubai as late as mid October (I believe the collection is currently in Hong Kong), and the meticulous fitting and making process means that orders are still being fulfilled long into the next year.  See now – buy for a good half a year or so – wear forever… it’s buying pattern based on patience and longevity.  Despite the selling beginning as soon as the show finishes, I love that the process and lifeline of the collection extends far beyond that.

This particular collection spelled out all that hard work, back and forth fittings and waiting in a way that was literal.  No razz-ma-tazz mechanical set or kitschy theme.  Instead you took the time to round the circular catwalk, looking at the very real petite mains, drafting up calico toiles, pattern cutting, handling pieces of embroidery from Lesage, draping on the mannequin – all related to the collection that would be shown.  The set-up mirrored the ateliers down to the minutiae of personal knick knacks of the seamstresses, chains of thread bobbins and paperwork that accompanies this very real and working atelier.  In a way this collection carries on neatly from the ‘eco’ couture of the SS16 collection with its zen message.  Here, the takeaway was, “Look at the hours of work work that goes into this fifteen minute show.” 

Flash forward to September in London, and the collection was made available for prospective clients to see up close, in all its pleated and embroidered glory.  Despite SS17 ready to wear shows taking place, Chanel’s AW16 haute couture is in the midst of its world tour, going directly to the customers that couldn’t make it to Paris for the show.  Orders and fittings were being done in London ready for the ateliers in Paris to tackle. 

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Last time I was allowed into the Chanel haute couture workrooms of Rue Cambon, I saw one of the tailleur (tailoring) ateliers, headed up by the most longstanding of all four Chanel HC premières, Jaqueline.  During Paris time round, I went in to take a wee peek at one of the flou (draping) ateliers, overseen by Cécile, who was at the time busy with a client fitting.  I was interested to contrast the day-to-day functioning of Chanel’s HC ateliers versus the mightily impressive display of over hundred petite mains working away at the show at the Grand Palais back in July.  The difference wasn’t as stark as one might thinks.  It seemed the seamstresses were just getting started on the orders, dealing with measurements and pattern pieces rather than doing the finishing touches.  It can take up to two months to finish a piece depending on how the client takes to each fitting of the toile replica before receiving the final piece. 

Just to illustrate the length of time that haute couture warrants, even at the beginning of October, Cécile’s atelier were still working on pieces from the January SS16 eco couture collection for clients.  That’s nearly ten months after the collection was first shown.  No doubt the same lifecycle will occur for this AW16 collection as its lampshade pleats, Edwardian-esque silhouettes and sharp shouldered suits are adjusted for the individual clients.  No radical changes though as Lagerfeld’s sketches must be respected and adhered to more or less.  With each Chanel haute couture collection that I get to go behind the scenes at, I seem to be gathering another piece to what is a mysterious puzzle, one that will probably never be completed, no matter how many times I enter those hallowed ateliers. 

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Despite having written two young designer round-ups for BOF during the course of the month, I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t get much time during fashion month to digest anything truly “new”.  As in, something I’d never discovered or didn’t have a mild inkling of beforehand.  On my last day in Paris though, The Broken Arm came to my rescue.  The much-vaunted, rightfully-respected store, founded by Guillaume Steinmetz, Anaïs Lafarge, and Romain Joste, nestled oin Marais has become something of a destination shop during fashion week.  With just a handful of labels, they seem to be able to capture the here and now of what’s making fashion hardcorers’ pulse race and do so with a limited amount of rail space.  During Paris fashion week though, what took over their windows wasn’t the column inch-garnering Balenciaga or the critic hit of the week Jacquemus (a personal survey around the critics’ quarters say so anyway…) but a young French graduate from the esteemed La Cambre Mode (s) school in Brussels Belgium, whose alumni are littered throughout the fashion houses for good reason.

Joste discovered Marine Serre whilst on the jury for this year’s graduate show at La Cambre and promptly decided to showcase her graduate collection, as well as selling and aiding production of select pieces, during the high-people-traffic period of fashion week.  That’s quite a chance to take on a graduate to sit alongside the likes of Celine, Loewe and Raf Simons in the store but knowing nothing about Serre or her work, I was immediately struck by the mix of fabrics and the fluid silhouettes, tinged with hints of sportswear.

Upon further research, that’s when Serre’s collection really hit a high for me.  Entitled “Radical Call for Love”, the collection was conceived as a way of emphasising ties between the Arab world and the Western one, compounded by the sense of urgency, in light of the atrocities in Paris, Brussels and of course more recently in Nice, within the last year.  Serre used a combination of 19th century Arabic or in Edward Said language, “oriental” fabrics and elements of traditional costume and then worked them into sportswear.  Most potently, the crescent moon, one significant part of the symbol for Islam, is adapted into a repeat logo pattern that you might find in branded sportswear.  On a widened headband (or resembling the under bonnet of a hijab depending on how you look at it), it becomes a subverted take on say a Nike sweatband worn by elite athletes.

Serre says the collections is about “establishing links and connections, or rather about expressing links that are actually already there, already made, in Brussels but equally in the world at large.”  Or to put it in more emotive language, and borrow from the late Jo Cox’s maiden speech in Parliament, “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”  That’s a sentiment that emanates from Serre’s collection.  Serre seems to be saying that the evils of putting up metaphysical walls, barriers and divisions between a “them” and an “us” can be mediated through the very fabric of fashion.  The William Morris-esque fabrics that are woven through the collection find their roots in Islamic Art.  The intersections between a kelim tapestry fabric and heavy crepe de chine is a visible to-and-fro dialogue.  You could also draw parallels between the pairing of sportswear traits and silhouettes with the traditional fabrics and the way kids dress, on their way to prayer at mosques in Whitechapel, with their Adidas trackie bottoms and Nikes peeking from underneath their shalwar kameez.  It’s a compelling message from a singular graduate collection, demonstrating that fashion enter the fray of political commentary without a) being self-righteously heavy handed and b) missing the aesthetic point.

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marineserre40Photography: Tanguy Poujol, assistant Axel Korban, Consulting: Benoit Bethume, Make Up: Isabelle Bertrand

Because it was the aesthetics that lured me into buying this particular dress from The Broken Arm.  I hadn’t gone deep into Serre’s work at that point.  Instead, I was drawn to the interesting mix of fabrics and the way the sleeves detached from the halterneck.  My pregnancy bump is of course obscuring the dress from the way it’s supposed to fall on the body (not that it’s going to stop me from wearing it anyway…) but buying a piece of this collection felt like something of a future collectible as a piece of clothing that really says something.

Serre is currently working for Demna Gvsalia at Balenciaga, deciding to gain experience first before launching anything on her own.  That’s a wise move in this climate of a crowding of young designers jostling for attention.  Whilst in employment and figuring out her next move though, it’s great to see retailers like The Broken Arm helping powerful voices like Serre get their point of view out into the world.

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