On the threads of the haute couture collections on the forum The Fashion Spot (my old internetz stomping ground), lines of criticism often run like this: “Ewww…. this is NOT couture!” and “This is not special enough to be shown at couture.” Everyone seems to have a very definite opinion of what constitutes haute couture. The subtext of their critique is that from the haute couture shows, they expect to see an elaborate spectacle and from the clothes, extravagant attire.
By definition, anything made by hand by houses, that have been given the appellation by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, and adheres to their rules (at least 15 employees in an atelier, presents twice a year comprising both daywear and eveningwear and provide clients with multiple fittings) is technically “haute couture.” Even within those constraints, nothing stipulates that haute couture must consist of ritzy ball gowns. That said, our own projected desires for haute couture is that we have come to expect that elusive element of magic. Those aforementioned TFS comments come from the perspective of a spectator rather than consumer. We want it not because we (and I’m assuming no billionaire’s wives/daughters or haute couture clients are reading my paltry blog) are going to be the ones buying the collections, but because for us haute couture exists as a barely-profitable spectacle to flog the rest of the trickled-on dream (the bags, the perfume, the make-up etc).
And yet, all this week, every critic and haute couture commentator has talked about the “modernization” of haute couture. They were attributing wearable, light and even casual qualities to many of the collections we saw. They are comments that come from the perspective of the couture clientale. As evidenced by the growing trend for houses to open doors to ateliers and market this their savoir faire, the focus on “les petites mains” has meant that skill is trumping spectacle and perhaps that will result in a loss of love from the fairweather fashion enthusiast, who might just looking at Style.com pictures only and passing judgement. For haute couture as an industry entity and as a collective craft, this week’s collections felt like a positive shift for those would-be clients. If the super rich echelons of the world are growing (rich-poor gap widening and all that) and they can afford it, then they may as well benefit from the expanded repertoire of that haute couture now offers.
Curiously, Chanel and Dior both seemed to be on the same page, at the forefront of this lighter and more dynamic mood in haute couture. The trainers were of course the big talking point. If there was another house, that had shown trainers at couture, trend spotters and analysis might have started to foam at the mouth. Yes, those £3k tweed-flecked trainers made by Massaro (you can’t actually buy them on their own unless you buy the accompanying look as well – so yeah, mega-mega bucks involved…) did slightly overshadow the show itself but the biggest takeaway point for me was the lightness in step as the models skipped down the stairs in a jolly manner and the way those clothes looked anything but stiff, even though they were results of hours and hours of embroidery, feather and beadwork by the skilled houses of Lesage and Lemaire. Club Chanel’s giant revolving wheel of a set of course gave us the BIGGEST show on a physical scale, along with a performance by Sebastian Tellier of La Ritournelle. Spectacle box duly ticked. It did make for poor pics on my part but also a legitimate excuse to go to the showroom to feel and touch it all up close. Cycling shorts, short jumpsuits and tennis dresses were all given the most decadent fairy dust treatment. The textures are mind bogglingly intricate when you get up close to them. Looking inside the Chanel couture closet, it’s like a girly box of all things nice (iridescence, pastels, feathers, sequins) has exploded. And who knew corsets – once a woman’s shackle – could in fact look so liberating when paired with the trainers, the bum bags and that recurring sporty cropped shape. Trust Karl to give us a dichotomy that works.
Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino are like the school prefects of fashion. They haven’t really put a step wrong since their took over the maison and that’s down to a gradual but assured build up of a very recognisable language. The long sleeved, ankle-grazing gowns, the prim peter pan collars and the overall feeling of sweet femininity with an edge, encapsulated in their hit accessory collection, the Rockstud. Their ready to wear already blurs into the demi-couture realm and so their couture collection is almost like the ultimate cherry on their already pretty perfect cake – it allows Valentino’s Rome atelier to show off its skills but they don’t need to make a big statement or indeed put on a spectacle of a show. The clothes speak for themselves. In fact, where I was sitting, the runway was so narrow that you could audibly hear the physical rustle of chiffon and lace trailing the floor. With the clothes in such close proximity, it also made you gasp at the level of technical perfection of everything. With Chiuri and Piccioli inspired by the animal kingdom and the theatricality Rome Opera House, there was a danger of falling too far into a thematic vortex. They avoided that because a) everything was executed so immaculately and b) had the sense to balance out tulle ballet frocks embroidered with snakes, peacock and swans (a refined version of Marjan Pejoski’s Bjork swan frock, no?) and floor length feats of embroidery with jungle scenes and depictions of Adam and Eve with simpler and more pared back pieces such as the monastic-looking column dresses in forest tones. Even a lion’s head staring back at you from a double faced cashmere cape didn’t detract from the seamlessly smooth applique double technique used. And yet, all this faultlessness and perfection didn’t come off cold either. It was just gob-smackingly impressive.
Another way of looking at the future of couture is by looking back, which Maison Martin Margiela has done so well with its Artisinale line. This season, you could really feel the past as this estate sale trawl of a collection gathered up pieces from collections – Frank Lloyd Wright interior fabrics, Sailor Jerry tattoo embroideries, a mass of jewellery and trinkets – and remade, repurposed and revived them into a brilliant feat of upcycling. Where Artisinal has sometimes felt overly crafty in the past, in the last few seasons, it’s really felt like is a wearable and desirable collectability about the pieces. MMM even said this was a “collector’s collection” in the press release. I especially loved the use of interiors fabrics and well-worn blankets that come with their own stories and tales and the way they have been re-appropriated in the context of dramatic opera coats and snazzy trouser suits. Cutting, pasting and collaging the past in the way that MMM do seems to add a weight to the conversation about preserving couture as an industry. Instead of freeze framing on past glories, they’re dissecting and breathing new life into them.
Two houses have also been given a new lease of life with new creative directors. I was mega excited about Marco Zanini’s debut at Schiaparelli as I was such a fan of what he did at Rochas. The idea of this Schiap fan boy (see the extent of Zanini’s love of Schiap in this piece by Alex Fury for the Independent) being let loose at Schiaparelli, a house that has been slated for a comeback for years now. The anticipation is now over and we can see that this collection is only the mere beginning of merging his own sense of whimsy with Schiaparelli’s rich archives. I do think the collection was more archival referencing than Zanini but who could blame him for being so giddy over paying homage to his heroine. There were real moments of loveliness such as the bouillonné bubble stitched polka dot dress, the frothy mint green tulle skirt and the satin opera coat worn with casual insouciance. Stephen Jones and Eugene Souleiman did an amazing job in giving this eclectic cast of characters their own identity. The collage of Wes Anderson film soundtracks at the show is more than a hint of the offbeat interpretation of elegance to come from Zanini.
Hussein Chalayan’s collaboration with Vionnet’s demi couture line (the pieces are created in ready-made sizes and then adjusted accordingly to the client) was also another new addition to the schedule. In contrast, Chalayan was eager not to turn to Vionnet’s much-referenced archives. The bias cutting and the plissé are no longer exclusive to the house so instead, Chalayan looked to bring something unexpected into the mix. In a preview, he showed us moodboards of industrial buildings, electrical wires and a palette of gritty street-led colours. Chalayan is adept at elevating the mundane. He does it exceedingly well in his own work. For Vionnet though, there was more of a push n’ pull between the language of Vionnet and his own interests. The opening organza dresses with laser cut out concentric circles layered up were incredible when in motion as they floated over the body. Sunray pleats coated in a fibrous texture paired with red coral-esque beading flowed well. I liked that both Chalayan and creative director Goga Ashkenazi both feel that embellishment and elaborate embroideries aren’t the only ways of expressing haute couture. However it wasn’t 100% worked out in execution but it seems Chalayan had only been given a short period of time to turn around a collection. Nonetheless it’s Chalayan. Even his slightly wobbly moments demand respect.
One Night Only, Giorgio Armani ‘s global “happenings” came to Paris and coincided with the Privé show, and this time was digitally curated by film maker Loic Prigent. Part of the experience was the Eccentrico exhibition – a retrospective of Privé’s most spectacular pieces, where you can get to grips with big shoulders and big embellishment. Armani is someone else, who commands your respect, not necessarily for everything he is doing currently but because his contribution to the industry is undoubtedly great. I’m not entirely sure what this specific Privé collection adds to the bigger existential question of haute couture, but I did enjoy the nomadic midnight blue jaunt through pyjama silks, lace and tulle with an Erté-esque elegance. All very House of Eliot when Evie and Bea do their blue collection.
I didn’t make it to the Giambattista Valli show but in the showroom, you kinda get why frows of super rich leggy things love his adorned frocks, heavy silk cloques and voluminously sculpted skirts that were ruched up into mini form. It is couture as you sort of know it in that ultra embellished way but sprightlier than its predecessors.
There are elements about haute couture which you hope will remain a forever constant and Roger Vivier’s Rendez-Vous line (shoes available in one of each size only) is exactly that. It’s a headonistic and defiantly decadent affair where Bruno Frisoni turns one of the rooms above the Roger Vivier store into his playground and immerses us into a fantasy shoe land. This time, it was a Central Asian-tinged disco night club, giving Frisoni the opportunity to revive Vivier’s 1954 “boule” heel. Frisoni was keen to assert that Vivier was the first to create this ball shaped heel and so he takes ownership of it here in these bijoux styles. I especially liked the contrast of the floral beaded chelsea boots and the unexpected disco ball heel.
I have just arrived in Rome and I turned on the TV to see Jean Paul Gaultier‘s haute couture collection being featured on the news. For the audience at large, especially in France, Gaultier is still king. Again, he’s a great that commands respect. I will forever be seeking out Gaultier vintage pieces and wearing them with pride. That said, his butterfly/carnival/showgirl hybrids complete with a tease of a walk from Dita von Teese was as another journalist noted, “as camp as Christmas” and that’s not always a good thing. The Gaultier exhibition opening both in Paris and in the Barbican in London this forthcoming spring will shed greater light on why the l’enfant terrible of fashion is a hero. This collection though just doesn’t do him justice.
I went to Ulyana Sergeenko’s show for the first time. It was definitely a theatrical trip and a half as Sergeenko imagined a train journey where her heroine stopped off at various places along the Trans-Siberian rail route. The theatrical and costume elements of the collection are part of the schtick (which is why whenever I see her in person, she always looks like a black and white film still) and there’s definitely room for that. Especially the people that like their couture given to them as a theme-y “dream” as it were.
Charlie le Mindu is back to his extreme wiggy best. His show was a definite respite from all the frocks and salons of the week as one night in a modern car showroom, his cyber/space punks vamped their way around a room in painstakingly created phosphorescent hair pieces. Le Mindu took months and months to achieve the right colour so that they would glow in both U.V. light and daylight and in real life, they were astoundingly neon. Any collection reminiscent of Cyber Dog, the trance attire store in Camden, gets a thumbs up from me.
Winner of most Insta-friendly show goes to Viktor & Rolf. Sure, the whole thing was basically an exercise to promote their new perfume Bon Bon but a troupe of ballet dancers from the Dutch Ballet Company in uniformly latex dresses, going en pointe across a room, with a cloud of crimped hair partially obscuring their faces invites a visceral reaction, be it love or hate. On my vid, it got 208 comments that ranged from amazement to horror. They did look eerie as their expressions were blank under the wispy mass of hair created again by Eugene Souleiman. But the sight of ballet dancers en pointe and dancing as though they were floating in air is always going to be arresting. Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren wanted them to look “elevated” and so up in the air they went on latex covered ballet shoes, no less. It was also a wonder to see what the duo did with latex, a material that doesn’t really feature in haute couture. They used it to create second skin dresses where you didn’t know where flesh and garment began and ended. In shades of pink, flesh and mauve, I got Deborah Turbeville’s Bathhouse vibes from them. The hand painted bows, corset detailing and tattoos revisit Viktor & Rolf’s past theme of surreal trompe l’oeil. Despite the ulterior commercial motive, Viktor & Rolf contributed food for though to the idea of haute couture as spectacle for the general public. The show definitely captured people’s eyeballs. But the clothes still captured the imagination as well without resorting to haute couture tropes and cliches. It was a fitting combination to finish Paris Couture with.