Rules were made to be broken, right? Haute couture, which translates literally as 'high dressmaking', is a unique and integral part of the French fashion system. Established in the 19th century by the first grand couturier, Englishman Charles Frederick Worth, couture is an art form painstakingly finished by hand. The biggest brands in luxury today were all founded as couture houses; Chanel, Christian Dior, Balmain, Saint Laurent and Givenchy being the wider known examples. It's an expensive business with an exclusive clientele. To qualify as an official haute couture house, members must design made-to-order clothes for private clients, and must present a collection of no less than 50 original designs in January and July. Season after season, the debate of the relevance of couture in an increasingly democratised and digitised industry rages on. The upcoming A/W 21 season holds the promise of a revolution.
The creaking doors of the Balenciaga couture atelier will be flung back open in July, over fifty years after Cristóbal Balenciaga closed the house. Enlisting a dedicated new team and returning to the intimate salon format, after six years as artistic director, Demna Gvasalia will bring couture back into the fold of the Paris maison. The Georgian designer has closely referenced iconic Balenciaga couture silhouettes season after season, from the monastic Zurbaran-inspired hoods, to the sculptured shoulders and bulbous hips of the A/W 15 herringbone suit jackets taken from 1954, and the A/W 17 striped balloon dress from 1958. Just like the brand's namesake, however, Gvasalia is a disruptive force. He has reframed Balenciaga ready-to-wear with DHL jackets, puffer coats and sock boots. If Gvasalia is to stay true to the designer's legacy, he won't be sticking to the rules.
Another industry change-maker is the New York-based brand Pyer Moss who closes the schedule as a guest designer on Thursday 8 July with their first venture into the often ancient seeming world of couture. Kerby Jean-Raymond is the first Black-American designer to be invited by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode to show on the couture schedule.
Using the runway as a platform for activism, Raymond is one of the most exciting and important new additions in Paris this season, and we're hoping he might shed some light as how the exclusive, ultra-expensive and closed world of couture can work for future generations. Recently launching 'Friends in New York' with Kering, a platform to even the playing field for young designers, Raymond sees his brand as an art collective, where activism and social commentary are central, and stories are told via vibrant graphic prints, sportswear codes and artist collaborations.
His on-going partnership with Reebok, where he is also Vice President of Creative Direction, reflects the brand's roots in a sports and street-influenced aesthetic. Notable graphic t-shirts have featured slogans such as 'Stop calling 911 on the culture'. Each season, Raymond focuses on moments from black history, from Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the black woman who invented rock 'n' roll, to 19th century black cowboys. Runway shows also often feature live choirs.
Will Chitose Abe's long-awaited collection for Jean Paul Gaultier haute couture ever happen? First penned for release in 2020, the guest designer's take on Jean Paul Gaultier has been delayed repeatedly due to the pandemic. Although they've released a collaborative take on the Nike 'Vapor Waffle' trainer, we need more! Having recently launched a ready-to-wear collection where designers including Ottolinger gave their spin on 'Les Marins', Gaultier's iconic mariner stripes and penchant for all things nautical, we're yet to see what Abe's take on the couture side of the things will be. From Madonna's cone bra to gender-defying tailoring, there's a wealth of ways Abe could take it.
Kim Jones will show his second collection for Fendi haute couture, having unveiled his debut for the Italian house back in January with an extravagant set made up of 'F' shaped vitrines housing original copies of Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1982). It was a deep dive into Jones's personal obsessions as both collector and designer, and featured a stellar cast including Demi Moore, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and James Turlington, setting the bar high for a more gender-fluid vision of couture.
We'll be wrapping the season up with a discussion on couture's relevance in a digital world. Hosted by renowned stylist Andrew Davis, fashion communication students from Central Saint Martins will be reflecting on the couture schedule, and debating whether it lived up to the hype. Tune in on Thursday 8 July at 16:00 BST for the final verdict.