Traditional French fashion houses and opulent ball gowns come to mind when couture is mentioned. Yet on the Parisian fashion scene today, a wave of young designers is breathing new life into Haute Couture Fashion Week, proving that couture’s exquisite standards need not be restricted to any particular aesthetic.
Bouchra Jarrar shines at Lanvin
Bouchra Jarrar made headlines this season as the newly appointed artistic director of womenswear at Lanvin, but the Cannes-born designer is best known for her eponymous couture house, founded in 2010. Jarrar began by presenting her collections in Paris as a guest of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the governing body of the French fashion industry and gatekeeper of the official and legally protected term ‘haute couture’. She finally earned her full haute couturier status in December 2013, an achievement which few designers ever reach.
The Chambre Syndicale bestows the honour only on the most skilled and creative couturiers, who must fulfil a number of requirements. A designer must create made-to-measure clothing for private clients, requiring one or more bespoke fittings. They must also have an atelier in Paris that employs no fewer than 20 full-time staff. The maison must present two collections a year, of at least 50 original designs, comprising both daytime and evening garments.
‘I’ve been exploring the paths of sensuality and intimacy, building clothes around the body, unveiling and veiling the silhouette,’ says Jarrar of her Lanvin ready-to-wear debut, in which she has carried over signatures and tropes from her couture line. ‘I’m searching for essential and harmony. I love to dress women, to reveal them to themselves, to sublime them, to cross borders between femininity and masculinity.’
History is made at Dior
Christian Dior has a storied haute couture history. The couture concept has been interpreted in various ways by successive creative directors, from the drama of John Galliano’s creations to the modernist looks of Raf Simons, whose first haute couture collection featured in the film Dior and I.
Simons left the house in late 2015, and the spring 2017 collection was the couture debut of newly appointed creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri, formerly of Valentino. Nipped-in waists, voluminous skirts and structured jackets made the collection distinctly Dior, while Chiuri brought her own signature to the collection via the overt femininity of layered tulle and intricate embroidery.
The creativity of couture
This spring/summer couture season, the most exciting brands challenged conceptions of the couture aesthetic. At Viktor & Rolf, pieces from shift dresses to blouses to ball gowns were patched together from myriad colours, textures and shapes. At Maison Margiela, artistically rendered women’s faces adorned sheer layers over coats, dresses and more, appearing to float across the garments.
The Vetements effect
Another designer adept at crossing borders is Demna Gvasalia, who first found fame as the face of design collective Vetements. The Georgian creative made the news when he was appointed artistic director of historic fashion house Balenciaga in 2015, crossing the border between the cult and the established. At Balenciaga, Gvasalia has won acclaim for his ability to balance his characteristic streetwear-inspired aesthetic with a genuine reverence for the heritage of the house.
Vetements captured the imaginations of fashion lovers everywhere with its ability to combine high and popular culture. It therefore came as no surprise that the label’s first collection at Couture Fashion Week, where it showed as a guest of the Chambre Syndical, followed a similar pattern to its ready-to-wear collections, reinterpreting wardrobe classics through a distinctly Vetements lens. For spring/summer 2017, the Vetements team chose to present a full collection of garments made in collaboration with other brands, from suits by Brioni to denim by Levi’s, tracksuits by Juicy Couture to outerwear by Mackintosh. ‘We thought we’d go straight to the brands who make all these things best, and ask to do something in our way with each one,’ said Gvasalia at the time.
The collection may have been unexpected in the arena of couture, but somehow it made sense. Couture has always been about the best of the best in terms of design and manufacture, and in his own way that is exactly what Gvasalia was highlighting. Behind the hype of Vetements lies a sharp intelligence and forensic attention to detail.
Couture of the future
While designers such as Jarrar and Gvasalia experiment with ideas of how couture can look, other houses are upending notions of how it can be created. For brands such as Louis Vuitton, the challenge of couture lies not in establishing a name, but in remaining innovative. To that end, designers at such historic houses are boldly embracing the use of technology. At the recent Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, examples from the Louis Vuitton archive were on display. One tulip-bottomed dress by the maison’s current creative director, Nicolas Ghesquière, featured a combination of hand-appliquéd overlay and laser-cut metallic strips. In anyone else’s hands this might have been overkill, but Ghesquière’s mastery made the effect just as glorious as any Chantilly lace.
While modern visionaries such as these continue to push the boundaries of fashion’s potential, haute couture will remain as fresh and exciting as ever.