There are some press trips that you just don’t say no to.  Try as I have done to limit my travel schedule this year, opportunities that involve the following…  Rome, Valentino – both the founder of the house Valentino Garavani and his successorsMaria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli (who Garavani repeatedly refers to as his “guardian angels”), the opera La Traviata and Sofia Coppola… are somewhat irresistible.

And so I found myself in Rome for the fourth time again within the last year, to witness the premiere of La Traviata at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, directed by Coppola, featuring costumes by Garavani for the lead character Violetta, with Flora and the Chorus outfitted by Chiuri and Piccioli, all constructed in the Valentino atelier and also financially supported by the Fondazione Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti.  That’s a lot of dreamy cross-field collaboration going on there.

During the press conference before the premiere, Garavani and the director of Rome’s opera house Carlo Fuortes described the project as “a dream come true”.  “When I met Mr Valentino and Mr Giammetti and we talked about La Traviata, I saw their eyes light up,” said Fuortes.  “In our business you have to catch this type of light.”  With Garavani’s help, the directing services of Coppola were secured, another coup for the opera house.  “I didn’t really know what to expect but when Mr Valentino approached me, I couldn’t really say no,” said Coppola.  “It really motivated me to take a chance and do something that was scary and unfamiliar for me.”

It might be unfamiliar territory in terms of directing for Coppola, the culture of opera is within her family with great uncle Anton Coppola being a noted conductor and composer.  “She was able to adapt to the typical Italian way of doing opera and in a way it’s like she was coming back to her origins as an Italian director,” said Fuortes, in reference to Coppola’s Italian heritage.  For Garavani, the obsession with La Traviata began when he was a young boy.  He was so enamoured with the project, that he managed to sketch out the four lavish costumes for Violetta (one for each scene in the opera), in just four hours.  “You will see that I gave the dresses a touch that reminds us of the time of the opera, but also a high fashion touch.”

From the perspective of Gavarani’s ‘angels’ – Chiuri and Piccioli, their approach to opera comes from the vantage point of an outsider, with both only really getting to grips with the art three years ago through working on their S/S 14 haute couture collection, which was inspired by famous operas and used the Rome opera house to paint the backdrops to the set.  “As an outsider, you can approach La Traviata with all its traditions and history, with fresh eyes and a new perspective,” said Piccioli.

Indeed, the injection of fresh energy, from having Maison Valentino behind the costumes as well as Coppola taking a character like Violetta and in her words, “finding a part of myself in her”, suddenly makes the idea of going to the opera – an art that still by and large struggles to connect with a younger audience – infinitely more appealing.  “Opera can be seen as something contemporary,” said Giammetti.  “The freshness and fragility of this woman is evoked through the dresses.  It’s not redundant or stuffy in any way.”  Chiuri and Piccoli also believe that this version of La Traviata can incite a fresh sort of excitement for those whoa are new to opera.  “We want to encourage curiosity,” said Chiuri.  “If you put a fashion house and a director like Sofia with La Traviata, that makes people curious.  Curiosity is what will bring the younger generation to the opera.”  The non digital nature (no waving of the mobile phone allowed during an opera) of the event could also be an added boon according to Piccioli.  “There’s something special about it being live.  In our digital world, there’s a bit of a distance and here you are so close to what you’re seeing.”  Clearly the lure of Valentino and Coppola behind the project has proved to be successful as they have already recouped EUR1.2 million in ticket sales against the EUR1.5 million cost of production, where opera productions are often loss-making ventures.

It’s an impressive culmination of creative entities that falls in line with Maison Valentino’s position as a Roman fashion house, whose output in recent seasons has of course taken direct inspiration from the opera and the performing arts.  It’s also a cultural exercise that adds a different dimension to Valentino’s haute couture, as it was emphasised that every costume was in effect, a piece of couture, fitted to a “real” performer’s body and made not out of fabrics that mimic luxury but ones that actually are the real deal.  Piccioli and Chiuri had the responsibility of fitting over 120 costumes for the cast.  “In a way, it was like real haute couture where you’re attuned to their needs,” said Piccioli.  “They’re chosen for their voices, not for the way they look and so it’s more intense in a way to fashion.”  Furthermore, it’s one of the few opportunities for us to see Garavani’s aesthetic blueprint sitting alongside with what Piccioli and Chiuri have created at the house.  His dresses for Violetta are unsurprisingly more grandiose and extravagant when contrasted next to the softly tiered tulle frocks and pastel Grecian gowns created by Piccioli and Chiuri.

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_MG_6686The train of Violetta’s opening act gown by Valentino Garavani

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_MG_6950The back of the red cape worn by Violetta at Flora’s party, where she is denounced by Alfredo

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_MG_7031The white dress worn by Violetta at her country house where she is happily in love with Alfredo

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_MG_7093Valentino Garavani adjusing sleeve of the nightgown ensemble, worn by Violetta in the final act of the opera

_MG_7143Dress by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli worn by Flora in the opening act

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_MG_7151The second dress by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli worn by Flora in the party scene

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On a tour around a largely empty atelier (in comparison the my last visit in July), some larger-than-model dress forms, padded out with strips of fabric and marked by black ribbons for measurements were dotted around, both to illustrate the demand that Valentino experiences for its haute couture (as it is currently finishing off its SS16 pieces for clients) as well as the extra work taken on for La Traviata.  The house’s connection with the opera were further stressed in a temporary exhibition of Valentino’s S/S 14 opera-inspired haute couture collection in the windows and shop floor of their Rome flagship store.  Resurrecting pieces like the on-theme La Traviata gown, made up of an embroidered tulle skirt that bears the score of the opera, or the lavishly embroidered Adam and Eve dress, only contributed to the connection between the house and this production.

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As a mild enthusiast of ballet and opera with a specific interest in the music (I’m a product of a very stereotypical Chinese upbringing, with my not so very virtuoso grade 8 piano skills), my knowledge of La Traviata was pretty elementary, having only seen the filmed Franco Zeffirelli version.  The story of course will be universally known by most (if you’ve watched Moulin Rouge for instance) and the Giuseppe Verdi score – particularly Violetta’s waltz – will also resonate, but for me, the primary point of difference with this version of La Traviata would lie in the costumes.  Coppola enthusiasts might have been expecting some sort of a twist but even before the premiere, it was asserted that this version of La Traviata would largely be a classical interpretation with some contemporary touches.  “I wanted to keep the focus on the beautiful music and beautiful costumes and bring the spirit of this young woman and make an opera that people can relate to and enjoy,” said Coppola.

And so, what played out was a faithful but strikingly stylish La Traviata, with perhaps the vulnerability of Violetta (played by Francesca Dotto), enhanced and brought out by Coppola’s direction and sensitivity towards young female characters, who are judged by society.  There were moments in the interaction between the staging and lighting that seemed to be solely focused on highlighting the costumes, particularly Garavani’s creations.  Violetta’s layered peacock-esque teal train as part of a black gown, that made dramatic movements as she walked, Nathan Crowley’s surreal white marble staircase in the opening act.  Her high-collared cape and gathered taffeta dress in Valentino red stood out against a sea of black at the Spanish-inflected party scene.  And finally as day broke just as Violetta’s consumption would claim her life, sunlight shone through the sleeves of her nightgown with roses embedded into the leg of mutton sleeves.  Chiuri and Piccioli’s contributions made their mark too, as even in a throng of female chorus singers, you could see that every tulle dress had a different detail or construction about them, be it in pastel shades in the opening act or entirely in noir at Flora’s party.  These weren’t identikit cast costumes and certainly helped to lighten the time period, from what is supposed to be a late Victorian-set opera.

Like their Mirabilia Romae show, this staging of La Traviata adds yet another Rome-rooted chapter to the history of Valentino.  The sincerity from all collaborators concerned made the occasion perhaps more about a gesture of goodwill and passion, rather than aiming for artistic subversion.  If you are lucky enough to see it, you’re in for a visual feast, one that tells you more about Valentino’s positioning and its prowess in haute couture, than the re-examination of an operatic masterpiece.

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STE_2676Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri, looking resplendent in a SS16 haute couture opera coat

L1250649Giancarlo Giammetti with Pieraolo Piccoli and their buddy opera binoculars

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http---prod.static9.netEschewing an opera gown… Valentino pre-fall 2016 pyjama set worn with J.W. Anderson “Pierce” bag and Maison Margiela boots

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Most of the photographs courtesy of Valentino

The quiet.  The minute.  The hidden.  The unsung.  These are the surprising elements of fashion that have come together in ‘Manus X Machina Fashion in an Age of Technology’, which is perhaps the most contemplative exhibition of all the “blockbuster” openings, I’ve seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.  Quiet doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful though.  In the Robert Lehman Wing galleries, reconfigured and designed by Shohei Shigematsu of OMA New York, to the celestial soundtrack of Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)”,  the fabrics, the hours, the skills of both hand (manus) and machine (machine) and the creative thinking that has gone into over 170 ensembles are laid out before you in a deliberately matter-of-fact and almost taxonomically detailed manner. 

The labelling and descriptions alone in Manus x Machina deserve recognition, as the sheer amount of information defies the general currency of social media, mainstream media at large and pop culture – as in, hazy on details, decreasing depth, and short and snappy Insta-worthy moments accompanied by razz-ma-razz.   It is perhaps head curator Andrew Bolton’s way of reacting to the state of an industry, that has undergone vast post-Internet changes and is still questioning its present modus operandi.  Manus x Machina therefore opens at a particularly pertinent time, with the capability to showcase fashion, not with fancy projections, props and special effects as has been the case in previous Costume Institute exhibitions, but instead, with functional dress dummies, zero glass separating the viewer and garment, and plenty of weighty information for you to take in and marvel at. 

Descriptions such as the following paragraph, which accompanies the bulbous-skirted Chanel wedding dress, opening the exhibition in the central atrium…

This ensemble, which Lagerfeld has described as “haute couture without the couture,” exemplifies the confluence of the hand (manus) and the machine (machina). Made from scuba knit, a synthetic material, the dress is hand molded, machine sewn, and hand finished. Maison Desrues (founded 1929) hand embroidered the buttons with gold, glass, and crystals, and Atelier Montex (founded 1939) hand embroidered the medallion with glass, crystals, paillettes, anthracite cannetilles, and gold leather leaf motifs. The train of scuba knit and silk satin is machine sewn and hand finished. Lagerfeld’s hand-drawn design was digitally manipulated to give it the appearance of a randomized, pixelated baroque pattern and then realized through a complex amalgam of hand and machine techniques. Atelier Lunas (founded 1993) used a heat press to transfer the rhinestones; Atelier Anne Gelbard (founded 1997) painted the gold metallic pigment by hand; and the pearls and gemstones were hand embroidered by Cécile Henri Atelier (founded 1982).”

This is the kind of detail that you barely find in brand press notes these days, let alone journalists’ write-ups on collections.  One might argue that the average person doesn’t need to know which metier house made the buttons or why a scuba knit has been hand-moulded.  It’s the sort of insight that perhaps isn’t particularly celebrated in wider media or perhaps doesn’t really matter to the end customer but for me, all of this detailed minutiae on the creation process of a garment, is an idealistically and gratifyingly archaic way of thinking of fashion.  It’s an approach that I feel will shift an industry from its frenetic breakneck speed to a slower and more thoughtful one.

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0E5A8532Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld wedding ensemble from Autumn/winter haute couture 2014–15

 As the title indicates, the point of the exhibition is to have hand and machine working seamlessly in collaboration together, creating synergy that has been present even in the earliest of haute couture dresses from when Singer sewing machines appeared.  It’s a tired cliche to look at hands and equate them to superior craftsmanship and technique and look at machines and see mass production and soulless factories.  Structured around the métiers or trades as outlined in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s famed Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia, or Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, 1751–72), embroidery, featherwork, artificial flowers, pleating, lacework, leatherwork as well as toilet and pattern making each get their own dedicated sections.  And each métier in turn is examined in the progression of its respective technologies.  Bird of paradise and ostrich feathers become feather-esque fronds created out of silicone plastic and household straws.  Traditionally shaped flowers as seen at Lemarié are pitted next to toy-esque acrylic flowers and laser cut shapes.  Hand-formed Fortuny pleats evolve into Issey Miyake’s machine created Pleats Please.  You come away questioning how one technique stands up to the other aesthetically and also the general conclusion that the standalone capacity of the hand and machine, is nothing without the right creative minds behind them.

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0E5A8536Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société de gens de lettres, 1758–71, vol. 1 by Denis Diderot

In the embroidery section, the great works of houses like Lesage, and the lesser known Hurel, Lanel and Montex.  Haute couture blurs into ready to wear with the pervasive presence of Sarah Burton’s pieces for Alexander McQueen (alas, consistently mistaken as Lee McQueen’s work by the general visitors that I overheard) and her metallic hand-shredded petals,embroidered with silver beads, clear crystals and feather palettes.  Ensembles and dresses are often grouped by colour and appearance to then contrast their period of origin as well as the techniques that have gone into the pieces.  Proenza Schouler’s dense astrakhan embroidery couldn’t be more different from Iris van Herpen’s alien-like rubber texture, hand sculpted with magnets.  Progress and advancement in technique over time is also a prevalent theme as sequin embroidery ranges from flat laid-out circular shapes on the Norman Norell mid-20th-century dresses to the iridescent coils of Nicolas Ghesquière’s bubble dresses from the Louis Vuitton S/S 16 collection.

0E5A8572Dior by Yves Saint Laurent “L’Eléphant Blanc” evening dress, Spring/summer haute couture 1958 

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0E5A8568Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton evening dress, Spring/summer 2012

0E5A8567Dior by Christian Dior dresses, Autumn/winter haute couture 1949-50 

0E5A8577Givenchy by Hubert de Givenchy evening dress, 1963 haute couture // Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton dress, Spring/summer 2012

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0E5A8589Proenza Schouler dress, Autumn/winter 2015-6 // Iris van Herpen dress, Autumn/winter haute coutuer 2013-4

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0E5A8601Saint Laurent by Yves Saint Laurent ‘Sardine’ dress, Spring/summer haute couture 1983

0E5A8596Norman Norrell dresses from 1953/1965 

0E5A8604Louis Vuitton by Nicolas Ghesquière dresses, Spring/summer 2016

0E5A8609cHalston evening dress, 1970 // Prada dresses, Autumn/winter 2011-2

0E5A8612Maison Margiela by Martin Margiela ensemble, Spring/summer 1996 // Louis Vuitton by Nicolas Ghesquière dress, Autumn/winter 2016-7

A shift from the natural to the synthetic can be seen in the leatherwork section.  Once upon a time, there were many maisons that specialised in the art of plumasserie – the treating, shaping and gathering of feathers to adorn hats and frocks.  The delicate soft strands of ostrich features lifting off of a 1960s Balenciaga dress become more rigid and sculptural when contrasted with Iris van Herpen’s laser cut silicone paired with a real silicone-coated bird-head skeleton on the sleeve or RCA graduate Maiko Takeda’s halo-esque acetate fringing. 

0E5A8621Gareth Pugh dresses, Autumn/winter 2015-6

0E5A8627Givenchy by Hubert de Givenchy evening dress, 1966-7 haute couture

0E5A8637cBalenciaga by Cristobal Balenciaga evening dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 1965-6 // Iris van Herpen dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 2013–14

0E5A8631Saint Laurent by Yves Saint Laurent evening dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 1969–70

0E5A8639Dior by Raf Simons dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 2015–16

0E5A8641Maiko Takeda “Atmospheric Reentry” ensemble, 2013

Like feathers, flowers have always been a significant part of haute couture embellishment.  The permutations of artificial flowers in fashion are probably even more varied, as designers have shifted from a flower’s organic and natural form to abstract interpretations.  The Chanel wedding dress from the A/W 05-6 haute couture collection covered in hand-shaped camellias, crafted in Lemarié, with each one taking up to ninety minutes to complete.  Taking longer to craft a flower though does not necessarily yield a superior result as Prada’s machine embroidery and and sponge-like dresses with floral appliqué demonstrates.  “For me, mixing the hand and the machine gives the best results,” says Miuccia Prada in the accompanying quote. “I don’t think the hand and the machine have any use or value on their own. What matters is the form in relationship with the idea.”

The idea of flowers takes on an extreme form in Hussein Chalayan’s “Kaikoku” floating dress from his A/W 11-2 collection where a cast fibreglass structure is painted with pearled paper and crystal “pollens”.  Via remote control, the “pollens” are released into the air through spring and swirl around the wearer.  On video, it’s a mesmerising feat of engineering.  With the presence of Chalayan and van Herpen’s work at the exhibition, we get to see the possibilities of pushing a metier to new limits, with unconventional materials and the use of circuit board technology (what come to mind for most people when they think of wearable tech).  

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0E5A8663Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld wedding ensemble, Autumn/winter haute couture 2005–6

0E5A8654Prada dresses, Autumn/winter 2015-6

0E5A8656cDior by Raf Simons evening dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 2012-3, Louis Vuitton by Marc Jacobs dress, Spring/summer 2012

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0E5A8674Boué Soeurs court presentation ensemble, 1928 haute couture

0E5A8677Hussein Chalayan “Duck” Dress, Spring/summer 2000

0E5A8685cAlexander McQueen dresses, Spring/summer 2009 // Saint Laurent by Yves Saint Laurent wedding ensemble, Spring/summer RTW 1999

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0E5A8686Hussein Chalayan “Kaikoku” floating dress, Autumn/winter 2011–12

0E5A8696cPrada dresses, Autumn/winter 2016-7 // Christopher Kane ensemble, Spring/summer 2014

0E5A8698Dior by Christian Dior dresses, Spring/summer haute couture 1952 and 1953 

On the lower level of the exhibition, we’re taken on a very in-depth exploration of pleating, so vast, it requires two parts.  It shows the advances made by pleating that takes it from something that was an exclusively haute couture technique, as seen in Mariano Fortuny’s gowns that had to be sent back to the workshops to have the pleats reset if they got wet or flat, progressing to American designer Mary McFadden’s patented “Marii” method of pleating synthetic charmeuse and finally arriving at Issey Miyake’s pioneering Pleats Please garments that aren’t just ready-to-wear, but ready-to-go with its heat-pressed wrinkle-free construction.  It also takes us back to the hand in one of the most notable examples of pleating, done by the house of Lognon (one subsidiary of the Paraffection group that I’m dying to visit!) for that sublime Dior S/S 15 collection by Raf Simons. 

0E5A8705Madame Grès dresses, 1968/1935 haute couture // Iris van Herpen ensemble, Spring/summer haute couture 2010

0E5A8709Mariano Fortuny dress, ca. 1920 haute couture 

0E5A8712cMary McFadden 1980s dresses 

0E5A8729Issey Miyake “Flying Saucer” Dress,  Spring/summer 1994

0E5A8721Issey Miyake “Rhythm Pleats”, Spring/summer 1990

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0E5A8731Dior by Raf Simons dresses, Spring/summer haute couture 2015

Pleating gets further exploration when the technique of folding fabric, is placed under a classical umbrella, from Madame Grès and Nicolas Ghesquière’s Grecian column-like pleats that mould onto the body to mathematic techniques in Junya Watanabe’s 3D geometric pieces and Nao Raviv’s distorted grid line constructions.

0E5A8847Comme des Garçons by Junya Watanabe dress, Autumn/winter 2015-6 // Pierre Cardin dress, 1968 haute couture

0E5A8848Comme des Garçons by Junya Watanabe ruff, Autumn/winter 2000–01

0E5A8850Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquière dress, Spring/summer 2003

0E5A8854Noa Raviv ensembles, 2014 RTW

0E5A8856Thierry Mugler “Neon dans la Nuit” suit, Autumn/winter 1990–91

The one section that isn’t informed by a categorised metier is the section of Tailleur & Flou, the way most haute couture ateliers are organised into tailoring and dressmaking.  This is where the foundations of a garment are revealed and perhaps is the least “visible” of all the sections in the exhibition.  It’s where toiles are exposed – either deliberately as a design feature as in a John Galliano for Dior gown, where layers of construction and draping are revealed, or in Martin Margiela’s stockman jackets that were of course later revived by Galliano at Maison Margiela.  Canvas, the fabric of patternmaking and toileing explodes in a Comme des Garcons ensemble.  Quieter pattern cutting prowess can be seen in both hand-finished dresses like Courrèges’ sleek A-line dress as well as Prada’s nylon dress from the 90s.  Form and shape can cycle through very different guises as seen in the central display of Dior’s New Look “Bar Jacket” pitted next to a Paco Rabanne dress and the combination of the two, Hussein Chalyan’s S/S 07 mechanical dress.  

0E5A8737cChristian Dior “Bar Suit” jacket, Spring/summer haute couture 1947 // Hussein Chalayan “One Hundred and Eleven” mechanical dress, Spring/summer 2007 // Paco Rabanne dress, 1967 haute couture

0E5A8741Hussein Chalayan dress, Spring/summer 2009

0E5A8742Dior by John Galliano ensemble, Autumn/winter haute couture 2005–6

0E5A8750Balenciaga by Nicolas Ghesquière ensemble, Autumn/winter 2010-11

Where wooly press releases fail, the exhibition excels as I could finally see the intricate layering of 3-D printed (done by Materialise, the lab responsible for most of the examples of 3D printing in the show) “quilted” polyamide that is then hand-stitched with beads by Lesage

0E5A8753cChanel by Karl Lagerfeld suits, Autumn/winter haute couture 2015–16 

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0E5A8759Vionnet by Hussein Chalayan dress, Spring/summer demi-couture 2014 // Maison Margiela by Martin Margiela coat, Autumn/winter demi-couture 1997–98

0E5A8762Maison Margiela by Martin Margiela “Drapery Study” Waistcoat, Spring/summer demi-couture 1997 // Maison Margiela by John Galliano jackets, Spring/summer haute couture 2015

0E5A8765Comme des Garçons by Rei Kawakubo ensemble, Spring/summer 2013 // Viktor & Rolf ensemble, Spring/summer haute couture 1998

In lace and leather work, the levels of intricacy which can be achieved by hand and more traditional jacquard patterns versus that which can be achieved by 3D printing is immediately apparent, when you compare a Victorian Irish wedding dress dripping with hand crocheted cream and Proenza Schouler’s “stone lace” created by ceramic yarn embroidery that is then dipped into acid.  The close-up details reveal a mind-boggling uniformity.  The same goes for leatherwork where hand-cutting replaced by laser cutting has yielded more precise work. 

0E5A8817Irish wedding dress, ca. 1870

0E5A8813cChanel by Karl Lagerfeld dress, Spring/summer haute couture 2013 // Callot Soeurs evening dress, ca. 1920 haute couture

0E5A8811Simone Rocha “Wet Lace Frill Dress”, Spring/summer 2014 // Balenciaga by Cristobal Balenciaga cocktail dress, Autumn/winterhaute couture 1963–64

0E5A8820Iris van Herpen dress, Autumn haute couture 2012 

0E5A8815Prada dresses, Autumn/winter 2008–9

0E5A8807cChristopher Kane ensemble, Spring/summer 2013 // Iris van Herpen dress, Spring/summer RTW 2015

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0E5A8802Yves Saint Laurent suit, Spring/summer haute couture 1963

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0E5A8790threeASFOUR “Interdimensional” Dress, Spring/summer 2016 // Proenza Schouler dress, Autumn/winter 2013–14

0E5A8799cIris van Herpen dress, Autumn/winter RTW 2011–12 // Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci dress, Autumn/winter haute couture 2010–11

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0E5A8779threeASFOUR “Bahai” Dress, Spring/summer 2014

0E5A8822Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton dress, Spring/summer 2012

0E5A8827Paul Poiret coat, ca. 1919 haute couture

0E5A8834Louis Vuitton by Marc Jacobs dress, Spring/summer 2012

0E5A8839Dior by Raf Simons dress, Autumn/winter RTW 2013–14

0E5A8837Comme des Garçons Noir Kei Ninomiya dresses, Spring/summer 2014 and 2015

I didn’t have the time to do so but if I did, I would have gone around the exhibition again in reverse order, revisiting the garments that sparked interest.  There’s something comforting in the level of detail and as some other reviewers have noted, the “geekery” involved in this exhibition.  It’s what you crave at a time when more unsavoury aspects of the fashion industry are constantly being levied and discussed and for that, you have to congratulate Bolton for reminding you of what happens when the mind creates magic with both manus and machine. 

“Manus x Machina” runs through August 14 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I finally got a chance to watch the sequel that was always going to be car-crash, strictly-for-plane-viewing, fodder of ridicule – Zoolander 2.  Not even the number of A-list cameos could save it.  But one line did stick out as the sort of truth, that made the original film so spot on in its spoofing.  Just as Mugatu is about to launch his explosive device to kill the upper echelons of the fashion industry, he yells, “Fashion has killed itself already.”  It’s a sentiment that has been ricocheting around the industry, but it is through the lens of sustainability, where you can see concrete evidence of this self-destruction.

Last month saw Fashion Revolution roll out from just being a singular day into a week, with more brands being taken to task over who made their clothes, and last week, Copenhagen played host to  what has been described as the “Davos of sustainability” as the fourth Copenhagen Fashion Summit took place, preceded by the gatherings of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and Planet Textiles.  For the first time, Copenhagen Fashion Summit managed to pre-sell out their tickets for attendance.  “For the first time, I sense that people are here to get ‘shit’ done”, said Hannah Jones, Chief Sustainability Officer and VP, Innovation Accelerator of Nike, who is finally making action happen. 

Over the last few weeks, I have myself, been thinking about the alternatives, the altruistic and the fundamental changes that the fashion industry can action, to not only… and I’m throwing a reference to the HBO show Silicon Valley here… “make the world a better place” but to really SHIFT an industry that in my mind has been resting on its creative laurels for far too long, and yes, to some extent slowly killing its core values.  

At Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the framing of the conversation has changed.  The call to action is stronger, even if there’s still huge swathes of the industry that haven’t efficiently dealt with the problems at hand or even acknowledge that transparency is an issue (in Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index, the average score for 40 brands surveyed was just 42% on their scale of transparency).   I’m glad that throughout Copenhagen Fashion Summit, there seemed to be a shirking away from the word “sustainable”.  Livia Firth, in her speech said that the word was in danger of becoming “meaningless”.  On the panel about the media’s role in communicating to consumers about sustainable fashion, Imran Amed of Business of Fashion said, “Our responsibility in the media to educate people that good design is sustainable design.”  Last year, Orsola de Castro also gave an interview with 1Granary, where she implored people to stop tagging what is essentially the true essence of fashion with the onerous and heavy-handed label of “sustainable”: “‘New fashion’? ‘Alternative fashion’? Anything but sustainable fashion.  Call it ‘Anything-but-sustainable fashion’.”

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De Castro further hits nail on the head with her delineation of sustainable fashion from what should be fashion at large.  The reality is that the industry completely lost touch with its main values ever since it’s only been about rapid growth, mass production, fast fashion, and disposable luxury. It so detached from its origin that it then had to go and create a shit name so that people could be stigmatised. The reality is that sustainable fashion really is fashion. It’s everything else that isn’t sustainable that should be called as such.” 

As such, the beginning of the summit had speakers that laid out more tangible ways of combating the status quo – or “everything else that isn’t sustainable”.  Statements such as outdoor wear company Patagonia’s attention-grabbing advert placed in The New York Times on Black Friday in 2013 that read “Don’t Buy This Jacket” got rousing applause.  According to vice president of public engagement Rick Ridgeway, it’s not enough just to repair, resell and recycle, but to also encourage customers to ultimately reduce consumption.  This was a strand of conversation that I would loved to have seen more of at the summit.  Fixing the processes and product in order to retain or grow existing levels of consumption is one way of looking at what we’re facing, but is there a deeper-rooted issue within our culture that can somehow be tackled?  

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At Nike, the word “sustainable” has been put aside in favour of innovation.  Jones was applauded throughout her speech because her words got to the heart of the matter, even if you don’t necessarily agree with the thinking behind the need for growth as Nike aims to halve their environmental/human impact, whilst doubling their business.  Whichever way you do the math, incrementalism and efficiency measures won’t get you there,” said Jones in her speech.  “Less bad is not good enough.  The difference between what we can do and what we must do is innovation on an unprecedented scale.”  For Jones, the innovation starts in the materials as 60% of the environmental impact of a pair of shoes is found in the materials and so Nike now currently have a palette of more than twenty materials made of recycled waste such as the plastic bottle polyester used in their football kits.  This shift from sustainable to innovating is an exciting one, and something that can be adopted by fashion brands at all levels to really kick this industry’s arse into finally seeing significant change in the 21st century – something that will be remembered as monumentally as Mary Quant’s mini skirt or Coco Chanel’s use of black jersey.

One of the other themes of the summit was collaboration.  Together, this movement is stronger when companies work together, co-operate with each other and share information.  Jones also pointed to the possibility of an industry uniting in their code of conduct and pooling resources to assess and audit supply chains.  This to me felt like sound, but idealistic, targets to combat the issue of transparency, which currently companies get involved in, as much, or as little as they wish.  We need to get to a place where we have one code, common assessment tools and common protocols on monitoring and we all disclose our supply chain locations to enable us to work together more effectively.  Some of these factories have 200 audits, to comply with so many different buyers and we could all be sharing audits and help the factories move forward.  Right now, it’s too fragmented.  At the end of the day, we’re all sharing the same suppliers so it makes sense.”

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Perhaps the most powerful call to action came, not from established companies or people with fancy titles.  Led by Dilys Williams, director of Centre for Sustainable Fashion, 100 fashion students from 40 countries gathered at the Youth Fashion Summit, to set out a vision for the future that comes from their position as the “first generation of people who really understand climate change, and the last ones who can really do anything about it.”  The full manifesto can be read here.  One of the points that really resonated with me was the one that I think sets the industry back from truly innovating and creating as it should be in a responsible way.  “We demand you all to collaborate as active investors in a fashion industry where capital, profit and success are redefined and measured in more than monetary value.”

In other words, success should not be measured purely by financial gain.  Success should be to judge the wellbeing of their workers and the ability to implement circular systems (another buzz word of the summit meaning, resources and energy being recycled/reused in the process of production).  Making this full manifesto come true, is a “moonshot” target, to borrow vocabulary from Jones’ Nike speech, but still achievable.  Especially if these young minds somehow come to the fore of the industry.  

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The role of the media is something that I was also interested in probing into and Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times gave a short and sharp speech on the power of sex in communicating about “responsible” fashion.  Factories, supply chains and the overuse of water in the making of garments, aren’t “sexy” subjects.  Well, at least for most people.  Me?  I love a good laser cutting jigsaw mechanism.  Or a CAD programme that does pattern piece placement efficiency.  Friedman’s point is a salient one though.  Using Michael Burry’s film The Big Short as a reference, Friedman suggests that sustainability needs the equivalent of Margot Robbie in a bath tub explaining about sub-prime mortgages.  Is that the equivalent of dumbing things down, in order to reach the masses?  Perhaps, but for mainstream media, the need for culturally-relevant hooks and potential traffic-drivers, means that what has been discussed at the summit is in danger of slipping into a niche ravine.  It will be interesting to see how that conversation swerves for instance, when hopefully the tables start to flip and it’s the advertisers that make responsible fashion their main agenda.

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A video posted by Susie Lau (@susiebubble) on

Those positives aside, there was still a lot of needless self-congratulating going around at the summit.  Brands trumpeting their mini victories of doing “less bad” and using philanthropy to detract attention away from their other less savoury practises.  H&M, who have been involved with the summit from the very beginning, had Anna Gedda, their head of sustainability, come and speak about their own ways of closing the loop with schemes such as their garment collecting programme, but perhaps failed to address the fundamental problem with the basic model of fast fashion, that impacts on labour and resources.  Is there a way of slowing down the drops of collections and still be a source of affordable fashion for consumers?  Are we exploring alternative ways of on-demand production with the help of smarter use of technology?  And are the changes really dramatic or innovative enough as opposed to just being small ‘make-good’ gestures?

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I had meant to post these images earlier to time in with Fashion Revolution Week but they’re pertinent all the same.  These photos were taken at a workshop at Edmonton’s Building Bloqs, conducted by de Castro to encourage fashion students to partake in upcycling, with the expertise of Dr Noki and Alex Noble, who know what to do with a surplus of clothing labels and old t-shirts.  I’ve been thinking about the words: “Get Angry”, “High Cost, Low Price”.  On this scale, perhaps these appliqued forms of protest, are certainly more vocal than the resulting actions.  If my biggest takeaway from the summit was that the overall vision was still perhaps grander than the actual actions, then it’s also because the protest from the public isn’t really loud or pressured enough.  And whilst I’m not the right person to galvanise people to “get angry”, I will carry on being curious and finding out the why’s and the how’s.  Sustainable, alternative, responsible… call it what you want.  What I’m after is what’s good.  I mean, really good.  The people, their hands and their clothes, that got me excited about this industry in the first place.

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Fashion-Revolution12771DONEImage courtesy of Fashion Revolution and Novel Beings

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Fashion-Revolution12832DONEImage courtesy of Fashion Revolution and Novel Beings

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Credits for the workshop photos – Photographer: Montana Lowery, Photo Assistant: Anna Michell 
Stylist: Alice Wilby, Hair: Khandiz Joni, Make-Up: Lauren Kay, Models: Sienna and Nancy at Profile

London Craft Week was an opportunity for me to get my backpack on, go to parts of London unbeknownst to me and learn about things outside of, but not wholly disconnected from the fashion realm.  Eschewing press days and product launches, where I’m given a well-rehearsed press spiel, I decided to go probe around an array of skilled hands and singular makers instead.  As Guy Salter, founder of LCW put it in his op-ed piece for The Business of Fashion, “Consumers need to experience “craft” not just as static objects or as brand-led ‘fashion,’ ‘luxury design’ or ‘art,’ but must also understand the full context in which they were made, why they are special, and meet the creators and see their remarkable skills up close.”

In its second year of running, LCW is a week of talks, demonstrations, open studios and workshops, where you’re exposed to craftsmen (and women) in both secret nooks and established quarters of London.  The crafts on show, range from bookbinding to ceramics to basket weaving to the more fashion relevant processes such as hand-bag construction, millinery and jewellery making.  LCW also highlights establishments like Angels Costumiers or the Royal Opera House, where skilled hands are essential to their day-to-day running.  Numbers of attendees are limited and you have to pre-book tickets in advance, but I wholeheartedly recommend taking the time out for a dose of LCW, as a slowed-down act of indulgence in listening, observing and ultimately, learning.  Do I learn and explore enough as a fashion blogger/professional?  Or have I become complacent and lazy?  LCW was in effect, my way of atoning.


Venturing to Patey Hats for instance, hidden on an anonymous industrial estate near Peckham, was perhaps the week’s biggest revelation.  You might know their sister company Hand and Lock (which I visited a while back), famed for their fine embroidery, but Patey’s history goes back even further to the 17th century when the French Huguenot came to England and bought their skills of Parisian hat making.  The most important thing I learn at Patey, was the difference between a hatter and a milliner.  Patey’s studio director Ian Harding, was brutally honest in his assessment of milliners, whose skills he considered to be inferior to that of a hatter, who essentially makes hats that are heavily structured and built-up.  Patey specialises in making goss-bodied hats like top hats, riding hats and ceremonial tricornes and bycorne, that you might see in mayoral ceremonies as well as hats for the military, Beefeater guards and the Queen’s guard.  Basically, hats that you associate with events like Trooping of the Guard or official Royal Family ceremonies, have probably passed through Patey.  Top hats – which you might think of as obsolete – are in demand because of the riding season in the UK as well as worn as part of uniform at establishments like banks and hotels.  They undergo a process where the shape of the hat is built up with strips of calico dipped in a shellac-based paste called “coodle”, that are ironed on in layers.  It’s an intense working environment where the smell of this pungent paste and the heat of the irons, are much the same as the processes dating back centuries.  “Why change a process that worked 400 years ago,” said Harding, who is also a stickler for making sure all the fabrics, trimmings and embroideries that grace Patey’s hats are also made in Britain.

It’s a made-to-measure and specific-for-wearer business that doesn’t stray from tradition.  It’s also a business and craft that thrives on rank and file, pomp and ceremony and the constructs of hunting, military and Palace seasons – facets of which might seem outdated and unnecessary to some.  And yet you have the humblest of craftsmen and women, honing away on these supremely made objects, in this South East London enclave.  “If we didn’t have these establishments and strands of British culture, we wouldn’t be able to support ourselves,” said Harding.  There’s also an emphasis on sustainability and fixing and repair, especially when it comes to Buckingham Palace bearskins, which Harding categorically doesn’t make from scratch, preferring to recycle and restore, because of the unethical nature of the skins.  “Our whole principle is about retaining the integrity of the hat, so we’re as much about restoring the hat as well as making new ones.  If somebody has a hat, I would rather restore and repair it despite the fact that it takes three times as long.”  Patey’s hats are the opposite of disposable garments and instead live on with wearers’ experiences embedded in the inside of these hardwearing shells.  You left, hoping that traditions are somehow retained and maintained, just so that businesses like Patey could thrive.

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0E5A7813A curious device used to measure the size of your head

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0E5A7887Patey also makes the heavily ornate epaulettes that will adorn military uniforms


I got to discover the hidden beauty of the Chelsea Physic Garden, where the excellent textiles publication Selvedge, had organised an immersive Indigo Day, that was probably the most in-depth LCW event on the programme.  It began with an entertaining presentation by indigo expert and writer Jenny Balfour-Paul, who happed upon the diaries and drawings of 19th century intrepid explorer Thomas Machell, who at one point was also an indigo planter in Bengal.  This led Balfour-Paul to take a journey that mirrored Machell’s travels, documenting every step in her book Deeper Than Indigo.  Then shibori textiles artist Jane Callender spoke about the science behind indigo during and led a workshop for people to create a deep blue tote bag, adorned with those distinctive resist patterns,.  I have been obsessed with shibori since discovering the work of Hiroyuki Murase of Suzuman and even in its simplest form, achieved by a line of running stitches and knotted beads, the effects are quite stunning, especially when paired with the deep shades of indigo blue.  Looking at Callender’s complex geometry-based shibori patterns, you can see why it’s so exciting to see what end result emerges, when the dye dries and you unravel the stitches.  Both the emotive and technical facets of indigo dyeing were revealed on the day.  Even my blue jeans dyeing disaster from when I was 14 (the blue-stained bath at my mum and dad’s house never quite recovered) isn’t going to deter me from giving indigo dyeing a go at home.

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0E5A7974Callender demonstrating how to start off a shibori pattern

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I got tiny glimpses in the world of ceramics and weaving thanks to a demonstration by a Wedgwood maker at the V&A and a weaving demo by apprentice weaver Ben Hymers of Dovecot Studios at the Ace Hotel.  They were more like little tasters that definitely make me want to go up to see the real thing, therefore visits to the World of Wedgwood in Staffordshire and the leading international tapestry studio Dovecot up in Edinburgh are definitely in order.

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In addition to physical craft on show, LCW also gave me another excuse to visit the wonderful William Morris Gallery, where the exhibition Social Fabric, exposes the politicised nature of African textiles like kanga fabric from Kenya and Tanzania.  Using fabric to communicate news and political statements of course chimes in with Morris’ own stance on social betterment through craft.  I loved the examples on show such as the kangas printed with figures like President Obama and Michael Jackson as well as South African artist Lawrence Lemaoana’s powerful hanging pieces.

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It was also an opportunity to rediscover names like shoe designer Georgina Goodman, who specifically chose LFW to showcase her first project in the basement of Black’s club in Soho, after her label shuttered two years ago.  Goodman is rebooting her label, albeit at a slower pace, and as such is concentrating on more freeing and creative ways of working, such as this series of sketches, artwork and ornate shoes that were originally intended for a film by Steven Shainberg (director of cult classic Secretary).  The film is still in-progress but some of the shoes for the main character, who is a shoe designer that falls obsessively in love, have been made – with love – by Goodman.  They feature remnants of delicate lace, gatherings of rare feathers and iridescent clusters of beetle wings.  They’re the ornate counterpart to an accessible line of slippers dubbed “GG’s” that are streaked with Goodman’s trademark brushstroke stripes and copper splatters.

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I was on surer ground with Chanel’s umbrella group of LCW events at Burlington Arcade, including learning about lace making at swimwear and lingerie brand Eres (which has been owned by Chanel since 1996), a glimpse at how Barrie knitwear and Maison Michel operate as well as an olfactory journey of Chanel No. 5.  There’s something reassuring about going to hear about Calais leaver’s lace, seeing Maison Michel’s wooden hat moulds and going over the main components of Chanel’s best-selling perfume (citrus, ylang ylang, jasmine, sandalwood and vanilla) because these talks were inflected with the ethos and narrative of Coco Chanel.  There’s a magical familiarity when it comes to the story of No. 5’s creation and there were also echoes in these intimate presentations of the way I previously experienced Chanel’s Paraffection houses.

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0E5A7664Stretchability applied to the lace used at Eres, echoing the ethos of their swimwear

0E5A8093Barrie’s S/S 16 collection

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0E5A8080Maison Michel’s blocks and felt hoods

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0E5A8104Sophie, Chanel’s fragrance expert explaining the scent make-up of No.5


Finally, perhaps the luxury brand that was the most genuinely invested in craft was Loewe, who had a significant presence at LCW this year, thanks to Jonathan Anderson’s initiation of the Loewe Craft Prize, awarded by the Loewe Foundation.  In the Loewe store on Mount Street, the work of Spanish artist/jeweller Ramón Puig Cuyás is being showcases, with a series of special brooches displayed next to his abstract sketches.  Cuyás aims to make jewellery that would “appeal to people who do not like jewellery” by deliberately using non precious materials.  As an infrequent jewellery wearer, Cuyás has certainly achieved his mission.

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For two days of LCW, a Loewe craftsman was also present in store to show how the 40-piece Puzzle bag, Anderson’s veritable bag ‘hit’ for the Spanish house, is put together.  I remember my visit to the Loewe factory in Madrid, before Anderson had taken on the creative reins and I’ve often wondered how the leather craftspeople there have reacted to his left field approach towards accessories design.  Once the unusual jigsaw pieces are cut and sewn together though, the construction of the bag follows the same principles that have applied at Loewe for decades.  In-store, the process was simplified and sped up for the sake of demonstrating to customers, but even then, the video that I posted on Instagram was by far the most popular of all my LCW posts.  Such is the lure of the Puzzle.

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“As a house, we are about craft in the purest sense of the word.  This is where our modernity lies, and it will always be relevant.”  In one quote, Anderson sums up why for-consumer participatory events like LCW matter.  Showing hands, revealing processes and engaging people with production processes give meaning to the accumulation of “stuff”, that shows no signs of slowing down.