When the folks at Dior called me up to let me know that there would be a third couture show (to add to the usual two) because they had especially invited, flown in and put up sixty-eight fashion students from sixteen colleges from all around the world to attend the show, I think I might have audibly shrieked. I’m no fashion student but I couldn’t contain my excitement on their behalf because this was really an unprecedented move by any big maison to open up their doors in this way to “spread the word about the magic of haute couture”. When I was asked whether I would like to experience their Dior rêve with some of the students, in particular the ones from London, the answer was of course “Hell, YES!” I can’t emphasise enough how generous an opportunity this is on the part of Dior, without any particular business motivation other than to communicate and educate what haute couture is all about and why it is something so special in an increasingly watered down mass of product in the fashion world. In addition to seeing the show, the students were also given tours around the haute couture ateliers, to watch the petites mains at work. Nobody has ever been given access to the ateliers on the day before the show and here were sixty-eight students walking through cutting tables, mannequins and busy-bee artisans in white coats, followed by camera crews and nosy bloggers (guilty). Before the show, they also attended lectures about the house of Dior and were given the chance to meet key employees from the other LVMH houses. All in all, a fashion student’s dream – a sanctioned invitation to a fashion show where normally they might have gatecrashed their way in and a prime opportunity to get one’s foot in the door at maison.
My first question was how the students were selected in the first place. Dior chose the colleges internally but left the responsibility to the respective tutors. From London, Central Saint Martins, London College of Fashion, Westminster, Conde Nast College and Royal College of Art were the lucky participants and globally, Parson’s, Bunka and Instituto Marangoni to name a few were in the mix. When I asked Matthew Bovan, James Buck and Alexander Krantz, who have all started the MA course at CSM (who I shadowed for a separate write-up on this Dior student experience for Dazed Digital), how Louise Wilson picked them, they shrugged and couldn’t really pinpoint a reason. Not to big up the cliche but as a trio, the CSM kids stood out from the rest of the students just by their attire and the video crew documenting the whole shebang seemed to gravitate towards them.
I plucked up enough courage to go up to one of my personal heroes Walter van Beirendonck, who was with his two fourth year students from the Royal Academy of Antwerp, to ask how he selected them and he explained that he chose people who had a possible synergy with Dior. At MA level, prospective placement and employment is not far away and it’s interesting to see students and tutors walking around the offices of Dior, looking at it as a prospective place of employment.
“Surreal” and “OH MY GOD!” were the words uttered by the students when asked how they reacted when they found out they were going on this trip (although it wasn’t clear up until the last minute exactly how extensive the trip was). Group by group (separated by country and college) students with their equally excited tutors shuffled in to the Dior headquarters to get their name badges. If Dior ever set itself up as a by appointment museum they would ace it because the organisation level was pretty amazing.
We were asked to be quiet as we moved through the ateliers, first the “flou” dressmaking room and then the “tailleur” tailoring room. At that point we had not yet seen the show so we were only seeing glimpses of garments being altered or finished. Fittings were taking place elsewhere with Raf Simons. The intricate cutwork and delicate embroidery would all make a whole lot of sense when it was later revealed that the collection was really dedicated to the work of the atelier and their revered skills. These tireless artisans in the atelier also got to see the third extra show put on for the students. What struck me was the number of people dedicated to each garment. Wearing white lab coats and a serious expression, two or three people would be working on a dress, concentration unbroken even by a rabble of students and cameras. It’s the sheer quantity of people and their skill and experience that produces such finessed and special work. Even without seeing the silhouettes in full you could see that in detail.
Matthew from CSM remarked that it was so different seeing the embroideries up close as so much of the detail is lost in images onlune, even with the ultra zoomed shots. It struck me that this was largely a generation that had experienced unprecedented access to fashion online and that increasingly they were missing out on tactile touch and firsthand experience. Especially when it comes to something that is seemingly as intangible as haute couture at Dior.
I was told that Dior really just wanted to share the magic of haute couture with the future of the fashion industry – to make them understand the full scale of works that goes on behind the scene. Seeing the show gives the students a perspective that are normally only afforded to select press and clients. Most students said they had attended shows before but none at the level of Dior. Beyond creating a democratic and inclusive environment for this couture show, the bigger picture is that we are still questioning the future of haute couture. Can it grow? Is it a viable and sustainable business? Will those petites mains have a future twenty years down the line when these students might be senior creative directors up at houses or helming their own labels. Yes, it’s a two day magical jolly for the students taking them out of the doldrums of college but the way that haute couture operates might linger on their minds – the way that ateliers strive for absolute technical perfection without being constrained by cost or time. In a fashion world where speed, product and profit matters, it’s an idyllic sentiment to take away.
Another part of the answer to how haute couture is moving forward can be found in the Dior SS14 couture collection itself. Admittedly I’ve been a fan from the beginning but the last few couture and ready to wear collections have seen Raf being….well more Raf in his approach at Dior. There is something less forced and tentative with what he is doing now. In contrast to the last couture collection which had a lot going on in its narrative and execution, this one was in Simons’ words more “abstract”. In a sculpted space that felt meditative and intimate, Simons explored the private side to a woman and the relationship between client and atelier hands. This wasn’t a simple homage to craftsmanship. That’s a given. Instead, technical supremacy in all manner of cutwork married up with an emotional connection to the clothes. The slits and circular cut outs read like sensual peeks into a woman’s mind. The surreal dreamscapes depicting a woman on top of an unknown planet are imbued with meaning as well as technical proficiency. I could go on and on but I guess the point is with this one is that craft overrides concept. Hence why I’m glad that I along with the sixty-eight students got to see the ateliers and join up the hands, needle and thread with what we saw on the runway.
Oh and hello to what was at the time I think couture’s first pair of trainers (until Chanel today happened of course). Obviously they make me jump for joy. Or literally I can jump for joy. Or run. Or skip. Whatever.
After the show, the students were invited to go backstage to see the clothes up close and in some cases meet Simons. Some even got his autograph and he happily obliged. Of course Simons was once a professor at the Applied Arts School in Vienna. He, compared to most creative directors appreciates the value of firsthand experience for a student’s benefit. Some of the students remarked that they didn’t think there would be this level of access. Journalists were also curious to know how the whole initiative was for them and some faced their first experience of the media. As they boarded the bus to take them to a dinner to round off their trip, you wondered which of them would have the tenacity and talent to stay for the long haul. In a week when we celebrate fashion’s greats, it was wonderful to be mindful of what the future holds.