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Essay: Holy Ghosts

by Stephanie LaCava on 20 January 2012

As we prepare for haute couture, Stephanie LaCava looks at how religion crept into the Spring/Summer 2012 collections and continues to inspire.

As we prepare for haute couture, Stephanie LaCava looks at how religion crept into the Spring/Summer 2012 collections and continues to inspire.

Image by Nick Knight

Fashion lore places a wide-eyed thirteen-year-old boy in the carved church of a Basque village around the turn of the twentieth century. He is distracted from the Spanish sermon by the suit of a stately, older woman. Having learned from his mother, a seamstress, the young man is not shy about his skills. Intrigued by his piqued interest, the aristocrat offers him the look and fabric with which to recreate it. Cristobal Balenciaga is this boy, and the woman, Marquesa de Casa Torres, his first patron.  

Flash forward across the ocean to a conservative town in America where we find a boy envisioning cloak-clad figures dragging in the dust of an old, abandoned monastery. Rick Owens is this boy and Catholic school his early initiation to such visuals. The grown Owens is not known for his explicit spiritual devotion - he’s spoken of his lack of belief in mysticism, but also his love for it. Unlike Balenciaga, Owens' take is less literal. He’s talked of the longing inherent in his work, the desire to reach some sort of high, like that ecstatic moment when one meets one’s G*d. It's as much about religion as it's about sex. Balenciaga’s take is more of an immaculate conception. Pardon the clichés, but religion within fashion is full of them. How often do we hear of a designer’s acolytes or disciples? And that’s only two.

It was in similar terms that Karl Lagerfeld once explained his choice not to work for Pierre Balmain. 'Being at Balmain was not like being at Dior or Balenciaga, which were chapels,' he said.

Balenciaga referenced not only vestments, but the architectural beauty of the church as well. Within his seaside town was the church of San Salvador, with its Gothic altars, vaulted ceiling and rose windows. The latter showed up as a colourful print of stained glass saints on one of the house’s headscarves in the sixties. It was this piece that Nicolas Ghesquiere would interpret for the shirts for Balenciaga this spring. The same season at Comme des Garçons, Rei Kawakubo alluded to the passion parade of Holy Week in Seville, not so far from Getaria. Pointed white hoods appeared in the all white collection. The final three looks were fit for funeral trappings, each with the model’s head covered in a shroud of white lace, ruffles or flowers. Perhaps it all comes back to striving for the intangibles of beauty and grace, the clothes akin to relics. It was in similar terms that Karl Lagerfeld once explained his choice not to work for Pierre Balmain. 'Being at Balmain was not like being at Dior or Balenciaga, which were chapels,' he said.

As for Owens, his spring collection featured plenty of long dresses fit for priestesses in the designer’s signature palette, including that grey he likes to call 'dust.' Recall the line in the Old Testament, which reads, 'Keep faith with those who sleep in the dust.'

We all want to be closer to divine.

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