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Essay: Did Couture Just Get A Face Lift?

by Hetty Mahlich on 29 January 2021

Hetty Mahlich returns to the age-old question: can couture be relevant in our contemporary, ever-shifting world?

Hetty Mahlich returns to the age-old question: can couture be relevant in our contemporary, ever-shifting world?

Couture, couture, couture. One needs only think of the 20ft dresses Pierpaolo Piccioli unveiled back in July, or the spectacles of the not so distant Karl Lagerfeld Chanel era, to see that the clothes bought by only a select few, offer unprecedented fantasy to the many. Fashion is a global, billion pound business, however the growing power of money-driven conglomerates means that it is often the commercial pursuits which triumph over the creative. At the core of haute couture (which has a limited clientele of roughly 4,000 worldwide), is creative innovation. In a post-pandemic world, fashion designers, brands and consumers are considering what their new normal might look like, and what they'll be wearing when it arrives. And so the seasonal question of couture's relevance couldn't have been more pertinent as four days of Spring/Summer 21 collections came whirling round the corner. When SHOWstudio asked our viewers in an Instagram poll whether couture is still relevant, 83.48% of respondents said yes. Parties for extravagant frocks may be no more, but that doesn't mean never again. With a new vanguard of designers taking siege of the Paris ateliers, there's hope still for a couture that moves with the times. This season it wasn't just the familiar faces on the runway who'd had facelifts, but the clothes too.

Before we're able to look forwards, it's only right to look backwards and see what came before. Paris, Milan, London and New York have been considered as the fashion capitals of the Western world for hundreds of years, however it's generally agreed that Paris became the undisputed fashion capital of the world in the 18th century, a reputation which it owes to haute couture. It was in the century previous that the French court in Versailles became somewhat of a rule book for European dressing, with Marie Antoinette setting the style stakes (and set them high she did). Fashion became recognised as an economic tool, in addition to its social and artistic attributes. In other words, there was money to be made.

Panniers (side hoops or undergarments) were introduced in around 1750 to exaggerate a woman's hips, allowing her rivals a better look at the new silk fabric she had chosen for her robe à la française. Styles worn in the court of Versailles, created by the guilds of dressmakers in Paris, were sent out to Europe on fashion dolls (poupée) and in pamphlets. In 1845, Englishman Charles Frederick Worth moved to the French capital and, after establishing the shop Worth and Bobergh in 1858 (later House of Worth), transformed the female world of dressmaking into the world of haute couture more familiar to us today. He elevated female couturiers to a higher status, although the world of dressmaking became increasingly dominated by businessmen - a fact which remains true today if we look to LVMH's Bernard Arnault and Kering's François-Henri Pinault, who have been in a race to control fashion's puppet strings since the late 1990s.

Worth presented collections of multiple dresses on live models, which female customers could then order and customise, establishing a model known as 'grand couture'. This would later become known as 'haute (high) couture', to differentiate French fashion from the mass produced ready-to-wear sweeping through America, Europe and Paris; 1838 had brought with it the first department store, Le Bon Marché in Paris. The curator and fashion historian Valerie Steele concluded in the exhibition Paris, Capital of Fashion (2019, Museum FIT), that by the end of the 18th century, Paris can be considered as the capital of European fashion. Steele notes in the accompanying podcast series that '...couture became integral to Paris because it was organised and institutionalised'. The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture would give birth to the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode in 2017, encompassing Paris's very own ready-to-wear (prêt-à-porter) and couture, which comes with a strict set of rules for acceptance.

Silk evening dress, Charles Worth, c. 1882, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The stakes remain high when it comes to couture today, Paris still being its official home. To be accepted onto the schedule, members must design made-to-order clothes for private clients with a minimum of one personal fitting. The atelier must employ at least 20 full-time staff (petite mains), and present a collection of a minimum of 50 original designs, taking you from day to night, every season in January and July in Paris. The house be based in Paris, but guest designers may apply. It's a time consuming and expensive craft; Chanel holds an annual show in honour of the 26 Métiers d’Art ateliers it works so closely with (although officially these collections are prêt-à-porter). This year the couture house, founded by Mademoiselle Coco in 1910, is set to open new dedicated workshops in Aubervilliers for the maisons including milliner Michel and the embroiderers Lesage.

The latter half of the 20th century was a turning point for the couture houses which had established themselves in the first. Fresh blood at Dior and Chanel saw their couture DNA reborn and revitalised; Karl Lagerfeld is the reason Gabrielle Chanel's name lives on (versus the Madame Vionnets or Jean Patous who, for the general public at least, have been somewhat lost to history). Lagerfeld's knack for giving storied houses a good old face lift extended to Chloé and Fendi, where he made fur luxurious once more (for the audience of the day), later introducing his very own version of couture Haute Fourrure. In recent years, Dior has seen its own revolving door of designers, finally settling on Maria Grazia Chiuri in 2016. Generally viewed by critics without contractual obligations as repetitive and uninspiring, LVMH considers Chiuri the apple of their eye (but don't tell Louis Vuitton). Olivier Rousteing's couture fit for a Balmain army has also divided opinion. Finding a balance between the two audiences is no mean feat, and whilst a good review helps, the fashion press aren't usually part of the 0.1 percent who are buying couture. The past twenty years have seen more and more names installed at couture houses to make them relevant to a new generation all over again, ensuring their founder's names live on in public memory; the success of Pierpaolo Piccioli's Valentino is case in point, whilst despite it's 2013 reboot, Elsa Schiaparelli's name was more firmly in the history books than public imagination before current artistic director Daniel Roseberry's tenure made her surreal legacy accessible to a new generation.

This S/S 21 season we were promised another shake up. LVMH brought their other favourite child Kim Jones to Fendi for his debut couture collection, and Alber Elbaz returned to the fashion schedule to unveil his new project AZ Factory in partnership with Richemont. Daniel Roseberry hit the nail on the head with his fourth Schiaparelli couture collection, and Lagerfeld's successor Virginie Viard finally carved a clearer path for her Parisian cool girl. With newcomers Sterling Ruby and Area also on the schedule, and Jean Paul Gaultier's Sacai takeover, Matthew Williams's Givenchy and Demna Gvsalia's Balenciaga couture reboots still to come, might 2021 be the year we turn another corner in couture's history?

Fendi S/S 21 haute couture by Kim Jones, photograph Paolo Roversi

The lead up to Kim Jones's Fendi debut really had fashion frothing at the mouth. It may sound like a broken record, but Jones's ability to make savoir-faire relevant to a millennial audience, having spearheaded the merger of luxury and streetwear (see Louis Vuitton A/W 14 menswear's Supreme moment), is unprecedented. We'd seen Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell in custom LV or Dior menswear, but we were yet to witness a dedicated womenswear collection from the British designer - nevermind couture! - until now. Leaving out a trail of breadcrumbs with Paolo Roversi's captivating preview shots and Moss' British Vogue spread, Jones was looking to Charleston, home to the Bloomsbury Group and Virginia Woolf, whose 1928 book Orlando formed the backbone to Jones's Fendi story. It's a collection Jones has always wanted to do, but he knew it had to be womenswear. Embodying the time and gender bending nature of Woolf's text, Jones's debut was set to be a corker, the highlight of the week, the pièce de résistance. To say it was a letdown would be too harsh; we've come to expect far too much of new designers in their first season at fashion houses period, and Jones's success here was to set the precedent of what's to come. It was a show all about the legacy of women: both Kim's and Fendi's. Working closely with Silvia Venturini Fendi, Jones brought her daughter Delfina Delettrez Fendi into the fold for jewellery. Rather magnificent hair pieces created with Sam McKnight together with pearl lattices were inspired by the romantic notion of being caught in a down pour of rain in the grounds of Charleston. Woven jacquards referenced the marbled book covers of Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard's books for Hogarth press; Jones is an avid collector and several of the first editions he owns were scattered across the 'F' vitrines which made up the set. Calling upon his extended family to model; Moss and her daughter Lila, Campbell, Demi Moore, Christy Turlington and Adwoa Aboah amongst them, Jones presented a concise collection of 19 looks, made with both the personality of his muses and Lagerfeld's archives in mind. The menswear however, was the standout. Drawing on the splicing of masculine tailored jackets with evening gowns from the women's, James Turlington's striking red lip together with the pearl encrusted cuffs peaking out of his tuxedo left us with the biggest criticism of them all: that we wanted more, which can't be a bad thing.

Schiaparelli S/S 21 haute couture by Daniel Roseberry

The boy did good at Schiaparelli this season. Unveiled just days after Lady Gaga chose Schiaparelli to sing the national anthem at President Biden's inauguration, Daniel Roseberry cemented his take on Elsa Schiaparelli's modern spirit for S/S 21. Rather than relying purely on her Surrealist motifs like his predecessors, Roseberry was also looking to the designer's flair for innovation. Since the house's relaunch in 2013, Roseberry is the first creative director to have write a recipe which looks like it might stick. Not a single Dali lobster has been spotted since Roseberry took to the helm, and his fourth couture collection placed emphasis on the accessories he launched a couple of seasons ago, melding them into outfits which questioned the couture wardrobe. Elsa Schiaparelli was the first couturier to use zips and synthetic fabrics in couture, innovation was her most important legacy. From the leather muscle moulded bodices which reference the 1938 skeleton dress, silk bows in Schiaparelli's 'Shocking Pink' to the unusual couture silhouettes found for example in a white silk bomber jacket with gargantuan sleeves complete with a corseted elastic waist, and biker boots finished with gold toes, this collection was eccentric, creative, and intelligent, just like its namesake.

With Lagerfeld's passing in 2019, his right (and to his mind left) hand woman Virginie Viard has been masting the helm. Whilst Viard is not so much about the supermarkets and rockets taking off in the Grand Palais which defined the Karl years, it's the clothes which haven't struck the right chord. The poisoned chalice of a legacy house like Chanel is appealing to the grandmother, the mother and the teenage daughter all at once. Viard was on the right track for S/S 21 haute couture, which was presented as a Chanel family get together; a small audience of house ambassadors included Vanessa Paradis and her daughter Lily-Rose Depp. We finally saw that Chanel could be a cool girl in the city with Jill Kortleve's ankle length boucle jacket-cum-dress, with tweed waist coats and the white silk wedding dress finale also adding to the appeal. Although the Chanel girl will never follow trends, this season she woke up from a slumber.

Area S/S 21 haute couture

Alber Elbaz's return really set the tone for flipping the couture rule-book on its head. Elbaz first became the undisputed darling of the fashion world during his 14 year long Lanvin tenure (a couture house which has seen sales slump since Elbaz's exit in 2015 - a rather nasty and public breakup). His highly anticipated return to the fashion schedule brought couture back to its roots with a focus on the individual and technical innovation, but here's the twist: there's no need for a dress fitting. AZ Factory have developed a knitwear technology, Anato Knit, which uses 13 different sewing tensions to create dresses from viscose and lycra which sculpt and support the body. Dress zips feature pull devices inspired by scuba suits so you know, women can actually unzip themselves out of their own dresses (Elbaz was thinking about how men's zips are always at the front). Boning has been moved into the backs of dresses to promote better posture and there's also a satin balloon skirt dress you can zip in and out of quicker than you can say ZOOM! Immediately after the digital showcase designs were available to purchase online at Net-a-Porter and Farfetch. Starting at €250, this startup was talking to the women of today, with perhaps the most diverse and inclusive line-up in recent couture memory.

That is of course, until Area came along. 20th century grand couturier Madame Grès, known for her bias-cut dresses which clung to the natural female form, is a regular fixture on Area's mood-board and their Paris debut was no different. Like Elbaz, they plan to present a new couture which doesn't necessarily require so many prescribed couture fittings, whilst paying the utmost attention to flattering the female form. One half of the design duo, Piotrek Panszcyzk, told US Vogue: 'I’m quite confident in saying that if you look at a Parisian brand, I feel we’re operating on the same level of craft...But it’s a more modern approach.' And they're not wrong. Thousands of Swarovski crystals are individually placed onto the hand-drawn patterns created to piece together an Area creation, which often feature their staple braille-like embossing. For S/S 21 couture, the five year old label named after a New York nightclub made a virtual trip across the Atlantic to present dresses which this season featured a carved foam foundation. Here then, are clothes which move with the body and adapt to and emphasise the figure, just like Grès did all those years ago. Area had the muses to match, with model Precious Lee serving up some of the looks of the season. Just like the original couturiers all those years ago, Elbaz and Area are looking to the female body and presenting innovative solutions for how to dress it, but via their own more democratic points of view which reflect real, modern women.

S.R. STUDIO. LA. CA. S/S 21 haute couture

Also presenting couture for a new clientele was the artist Sterling Ruby, who graduated from ready-to-wear to couture this season. His acid-wash, paint splattered art works made their way into couture before in Raf Simons' first Dior collection, and S.R. STUDIO. LA. CA.'s sub-line UNIQUE is considered by the artist as couture due to the time taken to make them and their individual nature. He's made a smart move by bringing the sensibilities of a limited edition artwork into his fashion venture; you can just see the sorts of women who own art galleries on the West Coast or buy Ruby's art works for hundreds of thousands of dollars lapping it all up.

Filmed in a deserted paintball park in Southern California on the final day of Trump's presidency, Ruby's penchant for political commentary (see his S/S 20 Veil Flag) couldn't have made couture feel more relevant or of the now. His staple denim and canvas reframed Puritan collars and oversized bonnets and shawls, worn by ghost-like projections of this season's line-up. Together with the American folk band who provided the soundtrack, the film and collection brought to mind colonial civil war dress, abruptly interrupted by the floors of Ruby's 122,000 square foot LA studio scattered with oil paint, pattern scraps and the coloured yarns one might find in a school art studio. The well-edited collection, which referenced Ruby's own pastoral upbringing and questioned America old and new, presented a more direct and political pathway for couture, unconstrained by the values of its past.

Chitose Abe of Sacai and Jean Paul Gaultier

Jean Paul Gaultier was noticeably absent from the schedule, not because the designer hosted his final hurrah last year, but because the guest designer who he's passed the baton to, Chitose Abe of Sacai, has had to push back their debut for the second time (damn you Covid!) Gaultier might have skipped fashion school, but he is one of the few remaining designers to have trained under those from the Golden Age of couture - his mentor Pierre Cardin passed away in December 2020. Gaultier, who launched his own couture line in 1997 presented fashion inclusivity before its time, from age and gender to body type and ethnicity. Dita von Teese, Erin O'Connor, Sophie Dahl, Julia Schönberg, Tanel Bedrossiantz, Boy George and Rossi de Palma are just a handful of the names who have come to represent Jean Paul Gaultier Couture just as much as the man himself. Jean Paul Gaultier is glamorous, subversive, androgynous, sexual, street meets club and patchworks of cultural references, not forgetting the sailor stripes, conical bras and tattoos. Sacai meanwhile is about patchworks of the more literal kind, formed via her deconstructive approach, complete with razor sharp tailoring to match Gaultier's own. The Paris-based, Japanese designer established her brand in 1999, and having trained under Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe, she's a promising fit for the rigour required when it comes to couture. She also holds the eye of millennial and is already familiar with the concept of collaboration - Sacai's Nike pieces have gone down a storm with fans worldwide, so it's no surprise that the Jean Paul Gaultier x Nikevaporwaffle was recently teased. Although Gaultier sits on a pretty magnificent fashion legacy with DNA ripe for the taking, the issue facing many design houses, couture or not, is connecting with the millennial, who is the fastest growing consumer. Ralph Toledano, President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, told Vogue Business; 'To keep a hand on the future, brands are learning to "talk millennial"'. With their past credentials, Sacai could offer the JPG brand just that. However, questions still remain; will the Gaultier muses and models be no more? Is Sacai up to the task of interpreting the l'enfant terrible's legacy?

'Code Temporal', Valentino S/S 21 haute couture

Pierpaolo Piccioli closed the week by taking a bold leap of faith into artificial intelligence. Although the couture collection itself might have felt underwhelming in contrast to previous seasons, one cannot help but respect the designer's ability to re-write the codes of Valentino. Piccioli is certainly not afraid to embrace a modern couture, having presented the aformentioned gargantuan dresses digitally in a film with Nick Knight. For S/S 21, Piccioli worked with SHOWstudio collaborators Robert Del Naja aka the British artist 3D of Massive Attack and artist Mario Klingemann on Code Temporal, an 'audio visual artwork' presenting the process behind the collection. Looking at time as a code and a value, and couture as an equally timeless craft, this accompanying film explored how machines can emulate human processes, presenting couture in a new way. There's promise in exploring how the human touch can be translated into a digital language, but here, it felt somewhat underwhelming. One couldn't help thinking that the maximalist gowns of Piccioli's recent past might have made for something more visually striking. It felt as though the film didn't quite do the petite mains and premieres the justice they deserved, and at the same time we could have done with much more of Del Naja's digital artwork, and sooner. However as the atelier's creations warped on their mannequins, and close-ups of the fabrics swirled and metamorphosed into one another, we were left with the sense of Valentino couture's ability to adapt and change.

After all that, we're still waiting on dates for Demna Gvsalia's Balenciaga and Matthew Williams' Givenchy couture. The fashion disruptor will be waking the sleeping Balenciaga beauty; the first to do so since Cristobel's final 1968 offering. Meanwhile Williams, who together with Gvsalia, Virgil Abloh and Kim Jones are leading the charge for a new generation inside the Paris ateliers, is set to follow up his womenswear with couture later this year. If couture is to survive it must be relevant for the very audience the men's trio have been born out of. So perhaps, the best is yet to come.

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