'Couture' is one of the most heavily-policed words in the fashion industry. Used to refer to an elite form of fashion which is bespoke, available to only a select few and made by artisans – also referred to as petites mains – with some of the finest, most expensive fabrics in the world, the term signifies status and historically has been closely monitored. These regulations, enforced by the Fédération de la Haute Couture, first came into effect in 1945, almost a century after Charles Worth became the first official 'couturier' in 1858. It is for these reasons, as well as the status of 'couture' as an art form, that the Fédération’s official stamp of approval is still highly sought after.
In a modern context, certain designers have broken with these rules, twisting and subverting what it means to be a couturier. Belgian iconoclast Martin Margiela’s disruptive vision blurred the lines between couture and ready-to-wear. A graduate of Antwerp’s prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Margiela quickly earned a reputation as a trailblazer. He became known for sewing four white stitches into his designs as opposed to conventional labels and his earliest shows were more performance art than they were Fashion Week. Masked models skulked down derelict runways, their bodies swathed in deconstructed garments, their feet bound in leather iterations of the Japanese 'tabi' sock.
The queer sensibilities of this enigmatic designer are written in the exposed seams, jagged hems and bricolage aesthetic of his collections. In this sense, Margiela thrives on challenging notions of what 'fashion' could, and should, be. He expanded on this ethos in 2006, officially launching an 'Artisanal' line. In 2012, three years after its namesake founder had departed the label, Maison Margiela Artisanal was awarded a guest spot on the couture calendar before eventually earning the fabled title of 'couture house'. Comprised of garments made from 'found objects' including – but not limited to – wigs, crystal doorknobs and even thimbles, the innovative range employed couture techniques to upcycle trash into treasure. In the hands of these skilled artisans, even the ugliest of random objects could be transformed into a piece worth tens of thousands of pounds.
'Artisanal' is revolutionary in the sense that it popped the elite bubble surrounding the couture world. Its unique blend of cheap, used-up materials and couture techniques queered the high/low binary which dominates the language of fashion: high-end/high street, couture/ready-to-wear. By literally deconstructing – and then reconstructing, with added quotidian embellishment – garments, and by theoretically deconstructing and expanding the rigid definition of 'couture', Margiela fucked with a century-old system specifically intended to exclude.
Another visionary whose work is similarly difficult to define is Alexander McQueen. Like Margiela, the late McQueen often supplemented shows with performance pieces which featured, to list but a few examples, gigantic robotic spray-paint guns, simulated thunderstorms and oversized beds of nails.
Although his ready-to-wear shows spawned commercial hits including the 'bumsters' – a rebellious garment cut low to expose a salacious strip of bare buttocks – and the revamped Victorian tailcoat, his most impressive, elaborate and downright daring pieces were hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind and almost impossible to preserve and sell. His genius 2001 show, VOSS, was a musing on vanity and insanity which saw models prowl through a two-way mirrored asylum. The show had started two hours late; meanwhile, McQueen reportedly giggled as fashion editors saw tables turned and began to feel uncomfortable at the sight of their own reflections. The centrepiece of this collection was a fragile yet serrated evening gown made from razor clam shells, which model Erin O’Connor famously ripped apart on the runway.
McQueen’s queerness – and by this I mean desire to disrupt – is often exemplified by his close affiliation with club kids, drag queens and the iconic Mr. Pearl, but his perversion of what qualified as 'fabric' was arguably more incendiary. In his hands, clothes could be constructed from animal skeletons, perspex and live maggots. His brief tenure at Givenchy was so disruptive that he sent shockwaves through the notoriously conservative French fashion press. It was during his time at the esteemed house that he conjured up gilded, floor-length gowns teamed with bestial horns and LED bodysuits which, according to reports, would have electrocuted any model who dared to sweat.
Although McQueen always incorporated couture techniques with his shocking showpieces, his successor Sarah Burton has flirted more explicitly with the idea of 'demi-couture' - a term which has been used sporadically throughout fashion history to describe a fusion between couture and ready-to-wear. By streamlining the amount of looks, using couture techniques and occasionally replicating the private ateliers of couture’s mid-century heyday, she has joined designers like Margiela, Yohji Yamamoto and Vionnet in the pursuit of cementing 'demi-couture' as a viable reality. The term has floated in and out of fashion vernacular over the last few decades; despite its obvious intention to blur binaries and deconstruct the system, this unique approach to creation has never truly caught on.
But it’s arguable that language is nowhere near as important as it once was; the system appears to be shifting in a more progressive direction, with terms like 'resort', 'pre-season' and 'cruise' trickling into fashion terminology and coagulating into an amorphous whole: ‘fashion’. The rigid binaries that once dictated fashion are starting to dissolve little by little. Co-ed runways are increasingly commonplace, threatening extinction of the 'menswear' / 'womenswear' categories we’re socially conditioned to see. Even the authoritative Fédération has made some controversial decisions over the last few years; Vetements, the divisive brand masterminded by Demna Gvasalia, was granted a coveted guest spot and chose to use it to show collaborative looks – including a Juicy Couture tracksuit – in a Parisian department store. Naturally, pockets of the fashion media were bewildered.
Ultimately, society has progressed since the couture rules were written, but the industry is struggling to keep pace. It’s not just the couture division either – CFDA’s ill-advised 'non-binary' Fashion Week category is exemplary of an industry with a progressive reputation trying its hardest to adapt to the newfound visibility of queerness. After all, the purpose of ‘non-binary’ as a gender descriptor is to transcend the labels of a rigid system; it’s a term which is deliberately fluid and resistant to any kind of conclusive definition. So why impose it as yet another label to set queer and trans designers apart from their contemporaries? It’s also reductive to suggest that the gender or sexuality of a designer necessarily informs their work, plus there’s one crucial point to make: 'non-binary' is about self-identification. Clothing can’t self-identify.
Despite these clumsy attempts to usher in a new, more progressive fashion industry, the subversive sensibilities of 'queerness' have always been present, they’ve just operated under a different name. If queerness exemplifies disruption, a resistance to definition and a more general fluidity, surely Margiela’s up-cycled couture hybrids fit the bill by challenging what we think 'couture' should be? McQueen’s disintegrating dresses reconfigured the notion that ready-to-wear should be ready to reproduce, whereas the unconventional materials they were created from threw two fingers up at the idea at that clothing should be made from 'fabric'.
In the eyes of a visionary, rules don’t matter. That’s why the language and the ethos of queer theory – which aims to radically deconstruct systems in order to call them into question – works so well in the context of fashion. Few industries have historically been more hierarchical, more regulated and more exclusive than the fashion industry – the archaic definitions of couture exemplify this. But designers have continually proved that these categories have limitations; perhaps now more than ever, it’s time to embrace the possibilities of what could, or should, be deemed worthy of the Fédération’s seal of approval in future. It’s time to acknowledge past rule-breakers and to pave the way for new, disruptive minds to truly queer the idea of what fashion should be: limitless.