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.

IMG_8075James Buck, Matthew Bovan and Alexander Krantz from Central Saint Martins

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.

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IMG_8174 James’ handbag tied with a Dior ribbon

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.

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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.

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From the moment my mum had to painstakingly sew woven name tags into every item of school uniform and P.E. kit, I was hooked on the satisfying feeling of wearing (and misplacing… and finding again… ) something that was mine and mine only for a period of time.  Woe upon my sister who sometimes had to wear the hand me downs, with my nametag unstitched.  It only occurred to me how stupidly giddy I get when I see my name in embroidered form when I received an Opening Ceremony varsity jacket as a gift for contributing to their blog during LC:M and temporarily being a part of the OC crew.  The jacket led me on a personalised fashion trail that won’t be news to most but got me thinking about the value of personalisation, inspired by this Marketing Magazine (I know, I live a wild wild life…) article about the trend of creating personalised product to entice customers in an age of individualism.

I wondered if I liked the fact that the jacket had my name on it, and was therefore a somewhat unique (despite the many Susie’s in the world) item.  Or that I liked to broadcast my name to the world in the way that you would wear a name tag when you’re on a newbie in a big group or in fact, working in services where your name is given as a courtesy to the customer.  Laura Craik of the Times saliently observed in her article about personalised fashion that wearing her own initials felt “a bit smug, a bit ‘Get me!'”  Brands like Smythson and Anya Hindmarch have long been in the game of personalising diaries, wallets and phone cases, not just with initials and names but with meaningful messages and phrases, but they’re normally items that are for your eyes only most of the time.  Your name or initials amplified by a garment or a highly visible bag though is a different kettle of fish.  Does it take a certain type of person to gravitate towards personalisation or is it universally liked because it flatters one’s vanity to remind yourself (and your friends or colleagues) of who you are through a few stitches and letters.  The Marketing Week talks of the feeling of having a perceived “big” brand recognise who you  are, which is an individual being in a sea of millions.  Another ad-talk theory suggests that personalisation appears to feel more special and involved with people and personalities because some element of customisation has managed to take place in a period of time when third party outsourcing is rife and  trends and bestsellers are constantly refreshed and repeated.  Thus far personalisation has mainly been concentrated in the high end luxury accessories sector or in the case of the Opening Ceremony jacket and the Kenzo Kalifornia bag, reserved for a lucky few (guilty as charged), but fortunately Whistles has stepped into initial-based personalisation with their hit varsity jacket and clutches, something they’re going to be carrying on this year with new styles, with a view to carry it over into menswear.  Special commendation needs to also go to NikeID, probably one of the most democratic and pioneering customising mechanisms in fashion (it started in 1999 – say what?).

An even more exciting prospect is on the horizon though as much of the personalisation movement has been based around text, font styles and colour.   Consumer-determined design working alongside the rise of 3-D printing technology could well be a new and natural step for those that have dabbled with initials and lettering.

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ocj4Personalised varsity jacket from Opening Ceremony

nikeid Nike ID Liberty print Air Maxes which say Sus Bub at the back.

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kenzok2Personalised Kenzo Kalifornia bag.

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valentino1Valentino will be launching options to choose metal cast lettering to add to shoe and bag straps of their Rock Stud collection.

smythsoncaseSmythson initialled Blackberry cover.

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pradac1Pyjama designer Prada‘s personalisation options include varsity letter bags, initials on eyewear and customisable platform brogues.

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ovh1Pyjama designer Olivia Von Halle offers a variety of monogrammed pyjamas done in collaboration with London embroidery house Hand & Lock.

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mon-monogram-louis-vuitton-5Louis Vuitton Mon Monogram, a customisation service launched in 2008

CokePersonalised Coca-Cola bottles as part of their #ShareACoke campaign last year.

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whistlesc2Whistles personalised clutches rolled out in a pop-up monogramming last year.

whistlesc3Whistles personalised clutch carried by Caroline Issa.

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whistlesv2Whistles hit varsity jacket worn by Laura Craik for The Times

whistlesj3Whistles Harlow varsity jacket currently available to monogram in selected London stores.

In the spirit of questioning ethics or at least making a “half-arsed” attempt to probe and point the finger, I’ve got a bit of a Freaky Friday oddity on my hand.  Whilst browsing around the weird and wonderful wares of Harajuku’s Dog, I came across the name Tony Alamo.  Oooh, spray painted and diamante-encrusted denim jackets in a sort of theme-y Nudie Cohn vein.  A quick search on Etsy and eBay yields more examples of “The Tony Alamo of Nashville – For Designers for the Stars” – mostly denim jackets, intricately spray-painted and adorned with crystals.  They’re the sort of eighties   On Google though, the name Tony Alamo yields something far more alarming.  Forgive me on the count of ignorance on religious cult leader convictions in the U.S.A. but it turns out Alamo’s is prominent for being convicted for multiple counts of rape and sexual assault of minors, abusing his position as founder of the cult Tony Alamo Christian Ministries.  Alamo’s business of “Tony Alamo” branded sequinned denim jackets, later called “Tony Alamo of Nashville” was a surprising sideline to him and his wife Susan’s syndicated TV sermons – it adds a whole new spin to the word “cult”, when we used lightly in the context of fashion.  Eventually, the business was convicted for federal tax evasion in 1994 and of course, later Alamo’s other atrocities came to light and he is now currently serving out a life long prison sentence.  A fascinating article on the LA Times written in 1989 when Alamo was already on the run from arrest for felony-child abuse.  At one point, total sales of Tony Alamo jackets were anything from $500,000 to $1 million.  Whilst on the run, he took the time to be interviewed to say that he would send in sketches from his hide-outs, faxing them through – “Everything I do is a work of art.”  Interestingly, even as the charges against him were surfacing in the public, the stores still bought into them, apparently unable to resist their allure and their celebrity-endorsed cachet (Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson and Dolly Parton were Alamo fans), with only a handful of stockists pulling out.

It’s a sordid tale with a strange after trail of vintage specimens, that have since graced the likes of Nicky Minaj and Miley Cyrus, who in December last year was spotted wearing a Tony Alamo ensemble with Beverly Hills emblazoned across the back.  It’s unlikely Cyrus was aware of the origins of her spangled denim but it’s also hard to say whether the association would make it less or more appealing for her.  Weirdly, nobody else seems to care.  According to Miami legendary vintage store C. Madeleine, you can Shop This Look without any mention of Alamao’s past, and that there’s even a collectible value attached to Alamo’s pieces, because of his imprisonment.  The moral question behind even considering Alamo’s pieces as a fashion choice has one clear answer.  Especially when you read the slightly ludicrous statements like this, as seen on this fashion blog “You may find yourself asking, who is Tony Alamo anyway? Well on top of being a cult leader and a maker of awesome jackets, he is also a child sex offender! Neat-o!”  Neat-o wouldn’t be my first word of choice, but hey-ho, guess a convicted child sex offender and rapist isn’t exactly a shocking exception in a world when seemingly, entertainers offending in plain sight, are all coming out of the woodwork.

But why bother dwelling on this random defunct fashion line, you might ask?  Fashion has a long history of aligning itself with the debauched and the morally questionable.  A figure like Tony Alamo might well find itself on to a moodboard as a offbeat reference point.  It’s an industry that also unconditionally protects people like Terry Richardson (although it has to be said in the eyes of the law, he hasn’t committed a crime).  Only a handful have challenged this status quo, best summed up by this Hadley Freeman article.  She’s right – creepiness shouldn’t be confused with edginess even when the lines are increasingly blurred.  That applies to seemingly harmless ironic/cool/retro denim jackets.

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>> Yesterday, the one day winter sun in London – so few and far between in amidst the ridiculous amounts of rain – was cheering.  Even better when I had got wind of Craig and Karl’s range for Le Specs, making me even more determined that sunnies all year round should be mandatory, when such shades are available.  NY-LON duo Craig Redman and Karl Maier‘s and easy-on-the-eye, 21st century take on pop aesthetic is beginning to prove lucrative when it comes to product collaboration.  Their MCM collections showcased distinctive elements of their illustration that worked a treat when you had heavily lidded eyes staring back at you from a clutch or a backpack.  This latest collaboration with Le Specs is equally desirable.  In a 15 piece collection, with styles called “Houdini”, “Hi Brow” and “Lost Weekend”, the duo gets to carry on their fixation with their eyes, incorporating motifs like a key, in a play of metaphoric imagery.  Add their signature use of stripes, polka dots, an unxpected squiggle or two and a pretty pastel palette and you have yourself a pretty delicious looking set of shades that will be going into stores like colette in Paris, I.T. in Hong Kong, Five Storey and Creatures of Comfort in New York and more importantly for the rest of us, Net-a-Porter in February.  Snatches of sun in the early morning, winter sun accompanied by bitingly cold winds, sweltering heat sun, hell, even the super bright lights of my living room (have not installed a dimmer switch yet) – I’ll take all the light out there for an opportunity to sport any of these Craig and Karl x Le Specs specimens.

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