Haute couture - the art of hand-crafting one-off garments for the privileged few - is still the highest echelon of fashion. However, it is no longer the leading fashion force it once was. Haute couture has dwindled from a post-war high of fifty thousand devoted customers to an estimate that oscilates between an optimistic few thousand to mere hundreds worldwide. On the flip side, designers now create ready-to-wear clothes that use the needlework know-how of couture to assert their superiority over the increasingly-ubiquitous mass-market.
This Givenchy sweatshirt is a prime example - a casual, even utilitarian garment given a high fashion twist. Hubert de Givenchy himself earned a reputation early in his career for knocking the stuffing out of haute couture, creating clothes inspired by simple sportswear. His most famous design, the Bettina blouse, was a breath of fresh air for fifties females used to whaleboned bodices and padded basques on even the simplest day-suits. Today, Givenchy is one of a handful of haute couture houses still left in Paris: creative director Riccardo Tisci showcasing the expertise of the Givenchy ateliers through intricate haute couture collections, and utilising their enviable skills in his ready-to-wear.
Here, Tisci draws on all the skills traditionally employed in the decoration of elaborate couture gowns to reinvent the humble sweatshirt. Embroidery, appliqué and hand-painting are applied onto velvet - the fabric, but above all the handicraft, making this functional garment precious. Precious is the word - this Givenchy sweatshirt retails in four figures.
For all the value in the technique, however, this sweatshirt seems a supreme example of kitsch - sporting a cheesecake Betty Page pin-up circled with hibiscus blooms, colours glistening like tacky seventies velvet paintings of Elvis Presley. Jean Baudrillard reasoned that kitsch is a physical embodiment of mass culture, therefore the very antithesis of haute couture.
Nevertheless, Baudrillard also defines the socially assigned function of kitsch as expressing affiliations of mass-produced objects with the forms, manners and markers of the upper class: the idea is to create a mass-market counterfeit of the precious, a copy of couture. Success is unremarkable. It is in falling short of that aim that an object is transformed into kitsch. In this sweatshirt, we see an inversion: with its laboured surfaces defying mass-production, this Givenchy piece pretends to be kitsch, imitating the imitation and inso doing transforming it back into something of value, both material and cultural. If this garment speaks with the visual syntax of crass Las Vegas, it is nevertheless in a decidedly French accent.