I’m blaming the heat in both Paris and Rome for my two day blog absence. A sun-induced brain fug is not conducive to analysing the haute couture collections in any meaningful way. But waiting a bit has its rewards. Getting to the end of Paris haute couture fashion week meant I could talk about not one but two collections that revolved around art – specifically the Flemish masters. One went beneath the surface of those 16th-18th century paintings, delving deep to make you think, wonder and be excited. The other simply mined the surface for effect and as a result came off looking facile even though the initial reaction did yield rhapsodic cries of “It’s like art” on social media. That’s a comment doesn’t always have a positive spin, especially when we’re talking about clothes that are meant to serve a sartorial purpose – and here at haute couture, they’re purpose and custom made for real moving and paying clients.
At Dior, Raf Simons presented a Garden of Earthly Delights that dissected the meaning behind the forbidden fruit of Hieronymous Bosch’s famous triptych. This garden had purple astroturf with random globular shapes placed haphazardly and was housed inside a “Modernist, Pointillist church” with Georges Seurat-esque dots on acid shimmering all over us. That’s both Flemish and French art masters ticked off then. But there was a point to Simons’ multi-epoch, multi-genre referencing. He’s no stranger to traversing back in time to fine-tune the past into something new. This time round though, he was cherry picking through art epochs and the way they evolved from one to another (Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque). That dreaded comment “It’s like art” here isn’t just concentrated into the surface – instead it’s about the ideology and the way styles and eras can be taken out of context and be stratified into something else. A Hans Holbein-esque status-portraying sleeve can be transplanted onto a sweeping Dior manteau. 17th century criss-crossing chainmail motifs from regal portraiture can be paired with 1970s peasant dresses. Or going back to Bosch’s painting, Simons played with the theme of the loss of innocence by pitting raging sensuality and virtuous innocence See the virginal sheer high-necked gowns that flowed and fluttered. On the other hand, expanses of flesh would slyly appear out of nowhere when flower encrusted gowns were turned to the side, held with golden clasps.
There was a lot to digest, take in and think about here. But isn’t that what “art” – well at least the best sort of art – makes you do? Simons doesn’t do pure surface. Even a pretty frock covered in Pointillist dabs of paint (and stunning hand cut feathers ! ) or Monet-esque florals fall under Simons’ grandiose idea that art, like fashion, is there to be appropriated and decontextualised. That in itself might not be anything new but once again, Simons’ ideas make you think and rethink about what haute couture can be today. If anything, he might be ahead of the curve somewhat when you look at the way couture clients are currently trussed up (ballgowns, tulle, lace, embroidery and perhaps too much of it all). If I had the means, I’d be investigating those immensely majestic coats with their draped pleats that the girls were clutching (a vulnerable gesture that was also about concealing their modesty) or those column-like dresses with their painterly embroideries. Art in this case hasn’t been regurgitated and thrown out there with shallow intentions. And that’s why you need a few more days to mull it over.
On Wednesday, Viktor & Rolf tried their hand at performance art, which came off try hard. I loved their last collection, which announced their intentions to use haute couture as a forum for experiment and high octane vision. This one however was a head-scratcher. Collapsible gold frames with stretched bonded linen to mimic canvas engulfed every body. As the show progressed, so did peeks of Dutch still lifes or The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn. They were printed on the fabrics like cheap posters and then Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren proceeded to lift them off the body and arrange them like car crashed-paintings on the wall. It was all so… simplistic. It wasn’t “like” art; it was just the physical representation of art without any of the feeling. Not surprisingly, images of this show resonated on Instagram. How could it not? There was quickfire visual and kitsch appeal aplenty. Nothing to decipher or think about here. Just an instantaneous “Wow, that’s cool!”. This is what the audience en masse want out of fashion. A piece of cheap ploy theatre that doesn’t have any nuance to it. The title of the show? “Wearable art” – if the duo were making fun of the exaggerated way people use this phrase, you couldn’t detect it. I suppose they get the last laugh. The pieces have already been bought by art collector Han Nefkens for the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam.
And so the dual nature of haute couture today in Paris continues to be at play. A designer’s vision, executed at the highest level thanks to the skills of the many petites mains and craftsmen. It’s either a real and alive working industry with real and alive clients. Or it’s a pointless vanity project – a decoy used to sell handbags and perfumes. I know which I prefer.