Show report

by Sue-Wen Quek .

While the week was sectioned into ‘Asian’, ‘Japan’ and ‘French’ nights, nationality was not an indicator of talent or aesthetic, though it certainly reminded others of prejudice. Residue of an inferiority complex got the better of a certain Asian designer who threatened to pull out after feeling that his own people were treating him as second-class to the French.

In the middle of Singapore French Couture Week 2012 (SFCW), Balenciaga announced the appointment of its new creative director, Alexander Wang, the American-Taiwanese designer behind the super-hip eponymous New York label. This decision from one of France’s most prestigious houses, while sending the industry into a flurry of love or hate, provided a beneficial backdrop for the event in Singapore. It hinted that those who still find the idea of a hallowed fashion elite opening up to new cultures unpalatable would now have to rethink.

During the tail end of November, seven Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture members together with a selection of designers including the Paris-based Junko Shimada and China’s top couturier Guo Pei flew to Singapore for a lavish event conceived by Fidé Group’s president Dr. Frank Cintamani to promote and develop the French tradition in the east. With their latest collections and archive pieces, designers charmed an audience still learning about the value of creativity and craftsmanship. It was in this open, warm and, to many visiting, unknown space that new ideas bubbled to the surface and fundamental questions about couture were readdressed.

While the week was sectioned into ‘Asian’, ‘Japan’ and ‘French’ nights, nationality was not an indicator of talent or aesthetic, though it certainly reminded others of prejudice. Residue of an inferiority complex got the better of a certain Asian designer who threatened to pull out after feeling that his own people were treating him as second-class to the French. Regardless, the diversity was harmonised by a collective experience of creativity. This is thought to be the ‘globalisation of haute couture’, a topic that was also discussed at a symposium that was attended by the Chambre Syndicale members, their president Mr. Didier Grumbach, IHT’s fashion editor Suzy Menkes and NOWfashion.com’s Jessica Michault. It was a subject so broad and compelling, requiring more than just the hour of discussion. But it was clear that while globalisation is sometimes regarded pejoratively – indicating sameness and a loss unique, local traditions – individuality still marked each international designer’s work and vision, in spite of a more diverse clientele or the current cultural blender we live in.

The question that remained to be thoroughly examined was how couture is going to evolve, though inklings were to be discovered throughout the week.

Fashion is a powerful tool that can help change a country’s image. Increasingly, China is shedding its reputation for being the world’s best copycats, producing designers who create their own momentum and set their own standard. Beijing-based couturier Guo Pei, whose show kick-started the week and was so breathtaking some even say closed it, is a fine example. The 45-year-old designer, who has never been to a single fashion show, uses the body as a base for fantasies so elaborate it is often hard to believe her designs are crafted from just fabric, thread and human hands. Launching her brand 15 years ago, Guo trained up a group of artisans from nothing and now dresses China’s top film stars, high society and political leaders.

‘It doesn’t really matter where you show now, though the most important place for me is still Beijing as it’s my country and I can manage everything. All that matters is that I show my work in its perfect environment,’ she says. Denying the importance of showing on the Paris calendar may seem suicidal for any serious fashion brand, but it has allowed Guo to develop a distinct way forward.

Designers might find her vision of contemporary Chinese women useful for breaking into the market, even if the message is merely to stick to what you know best. ‘It is important and wise for Chinese women to appear cute and feminine and to not wear their bravery on their sleeve. Strength should be hidden in their heart; as this is the year of the dragon, I want to remind the younger generation the importance of its spirit,’ says Guo, explaining the dragon symbolism at the center of her latest collection, which was also an unapologetic show of China’s prosperity. Observing Chinese superstitions and finding their modern expressions is essential to the success of her designs.

Considering what women want today is unquestionably integral to modernising couture. If the past three decades in women’s style have mainly been about communicating power and strength, it seems the prevailing movement now is about adding fragility and sensuality to the mix.

The word protection has been bandied about in recent seasons, and it is not dissimilar within the couture dreamworld. Yiqing Yin, the newest member of the French couture syndicate and already widely loved for her elegant-experimental approach to the old tradition, opened the ‘French’ night with July’s Autumn/Winter 2012 collection featuring what she calls ‘protective, moving shells’. These were not the obviously decadent showpieces some new couture designers feel the need to do. Neither were they experimental for the sake of it, resulting in pure costume. They were highly considered designs for women to wear, move and be themselves in, made with the intense attention to detail expected from couture craftsmanship (and when she does go experimental, as with the cage-gown SHOWstudio filmed made of corset bones and feathers, you wished life allowed more room for such dressing). Yin believes that women today, more than wanting to look beautiful or expensive, want to look unique. Injecting certain values and know-hows from traditional couture heritage into her generation’s ideal of beauty – ‘the one I understand best’ – is quite simply her advantage.

‘The couture ideal and female mentality have changed. There needs to be a combination of sensuality, strength and sexuality, not as an object but perhaps as a predator with a fragile, ethereal side, one she cannot communicate until she feels protected,’ adds the designer, who is in her late 20s and one among few woman haute couturiers. With her Chinese descent and French sensibility, Yin seems vital to invigorating a new haute couture.

It is no secret that the fashion universe has long had hawk eyes pointed east. But as some of the industry’s top people gathered for a couture extravaganza on the tropical island, a question begged to be answered: does Singapore have what it takes to be a fashion capital of prestige, providing the enduring center for Asia beyond a floating Louis Vuitton store and other sprawling, sparkling malls?

‘Nobody quite knows, but I don’t see an immediate alternative. You always start from where there is a need. There was a request from Singapore and a possible answer on our side,’ Mr. Grumbach says in response. Recognised as world-class for other lifestyle ventures – food, property, nightlife – fashion is still an area yet to be conquered. As Yin observes, ‘Singapore is a very elitist place and people here love luxury, rareness and exclusivity. Maybe they have yet to be educated on the values that we call luxury in Paris and in couture - why it is so expensive, what is the value of creativity and artistry - but I think they have an amazing optimistic attitude to what they don’t know.’

Many Asian-based designers use Singapore as their bridge to the wider world outside of their home countries, while the French use it as their gateway into Asia. Surely for the organisers the concern is what will happen when that bridge becomes redundant as both sides find more direct ways to trade. Singapore, while extremely advanced and far more connected to the world than much of Asia, is hampered by its size – it may have the greatest concentration of millionaires in the world but it is also less than half the area of London. And as Mr. Grumbach notes, ‘Singapore by itself is not enough. What SFCW will become depends very much on the relationship with us and with China because that’s a market closest to Singapore and obviously the market to conquer.’ Why not go straight to China? ‘Well, I like Singapore and I like the team here,’ he says, revealing the mutual goodwill between the partners.

In a way couture has always followed the market, whether it was America or the Middle East, in order for it to survive, but the way forward is not just in upping the audits – it has to attract and support new blood. New events like SFCW can help instill a curiosity and understanding that connects with all levels of society and not just the wealthy elite, particularly since the couture culture as it was created more than a century ago is disconnected from a population that increasingly shuns elitism.

Reconfiguring haute couture in the minds of many may attract talented designers who simply don’t consider couture a place to start their business today. Yet why not? ‘Couture is a service, a savoir-faire and a calendar. For designers, it is total freedom,’ Mr. Grumbach says. He also explains that the couture title gives brands, ‘ephemeral by nature’, a firm position in the world and lends prestige to subsequent ready-to-wear lines. The beauty in haute couture for others such as Maurizio Galante, also present at SFCW, is that ‘when clients pay, they become part of the project’. The growing number of fashion-savvy consumers means the couture option should appeal to even more.

Young independent designers – particularly those who’ve recently started their own labels in London such as Phoebe English – already work like couturiers, making garments so special they can only be created by hand. But the lack of a modern couture culture makes it difficult to sustain this, causing many to struggle in an awkward place between couture and ready-to-wear. Young designers fighting against the flood of uninspiring fashion may make some extraordinary work, but often they only feel failure when faced with industry pressures forcing them to realign their ethos to ‘fit in’.

Others in East Asia seem to have found a comfortable place. As part of the Japan group, Tamae Hirokawa, the designer behind Tokyo-based label Somarta, thinks that couture for the future is about adapting it to high-tech times. True to her visionary Japanese roots and Issey Miyake-trained spirit, she says, ‘remembering how to use our hands is important but we don’t have to insist on this aspect of couture because machines are invented by people. They are a metamorphosis of human hands and I want to make that hybrid between hand-craft and high-technology machines.’

Fashion without hierarchies is a questionable concept if it concerns abolishing standards. Abolishing prejudice instead, to consider all ideas of taste and aesthetics on the same level, is perhaps a better idea. The man who truly went by this mantra was none other than Kenzo Takada, the first Japanese designer who galvanised the international fashion set with brightly printed clothes inspired by his global travels and love for the world. ‘When I was young, to really learn about fashion I had to move to where it was made and that was in Paris. I would stay in Tokyo if I was starting today,’ says Mr. Takada. The now-retired designer’s presence at SFCW was more than as the token Asian, it was a reminder of 1970, when his debut show, set away from the gilded couture salons, made a statement of assimilating difference. Soon after the addition of Japanese design changed the world fashion. And as a sentiment for a prospective future, it certainly feels right and real for this moment.