An Army Without Couture is a Dull-Witted Army

by Long Nguyen

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Washed faille high-neck collar long dress embroidered with crystals and beads by Chanel Haute Couture. Plume Enchantée Earrings in 18k white gold, pink sapphires, and diamonds by Chanel Fine Jewelry.  

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Black velvet and suede dress, silk organza flared skirt embroidered with geometric metallic forms, suede thigh high boots, and patent leather waist belt by Chanel Haute Couture and Plume 1932 18K white gold and diamonds necklace by Chanel Fine Jewelry.

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Self Portrait by Karl Lagerfeld shot Paris July 2013.

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Silk tulle long dress embroidered with multicolored silk chiffon petals and patent leather waist belt by Chanel Haute Couture.  Soleil 18k white gold and diamond watch by Chanel Fine Jewelry.

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Short belted dress embroidered with rose, blue and black silk chiffon origami and superposed organza handkerchiefs on sleeves by Chanel Haute Couture.

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Ribbon tweed four pockets coat and an organza and crêpe de Chine dress entirely embroidered with blue sequins and trimmed with a row of jeweled buttons by Chanel Haute Couture.  

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Tulle long dress and bolero entirely embroidered with square pattern upright vinyl strips and patent leather waist belt by Chanel Haute Couture.  Fontaine Necklace in 18k white gold and diamonds by Chanel Fine Jewelry. 

An Army Without Couture is a Dull-Witted Army

Chanel Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2013-14

From his studio at the rue Cambon Chanel headquarters, Karl Lagerfeld notes, “I wanted something that is like a transition between the old world and the new world.” It’s the afternoon following his Fall couture show in Paris, one that propelled the idea of couture into the future. “Fashion still has an appeal and it’s really the best ambassador from one time to another.”

For the haute couture show, Lagerfeld transformed the interiors of the Grand Palais into a decrepit Parisian theatre—torn curtains, falling plaster, shattered windows, dusty wooden folding chairs. Meanwhile, sounds from an old opera recording lingered in the background.

The dark velvet curtain parted, revealing a cinematic backdrop of a seaside metropolis with sparkling high rises and glass towers. Models walked along the isles wearing linear day-suits layered with short suede skirts, and slim evening dresses in mostly gray, black, and white, with hints of colors interwoven in the fabrics. Large patent leather belts at the hips anchored and reinforced the straight silhouettes. The models’ dark eye makeup and the raised hairdos, some with black two-corner hats, brought to mind the cult film Blade Runner, referencing a projection into a future world with an element of underground cultural zeitgeist.

Lagerfeld recalls the evening he started this 2013/14 Fall-Winter Collection. It was in Singapore, after another show. “I had a party at my apartment at the hotel, and when everybody left I fell asleep in the living room and suddenly, I had a vision of something and that is the hairdo and the head and the silhouette you saw....you don’t have one idea, you have the idea of the mood. The idea of the line and the details can come earlier or after and can be adapted. It’s very strange.”

The collection exudes certain ascetic cleanliness—straight linear shapes that dominate the variety of day jacket-suits, worn with matching short skirt and an ultra thin suede underskirt, barely visible under the heavy tweed, specially twisted and embroidered. Even the evening pieces emanate minimal shapes and sophisticated handiwork.

“I don't like to look in the past,” says Lagerfeld. “I am only interested in the future. If you start to look behind too much, then you do old, dusty and boring things. I find it unhealthy. But I guess that the heritage left by Mademoiselle has already been brought to this new world, and my job is to reinvent it all the time. I think I am not too bad at it.”

For Lagerfeld, change is what’s interesting. “I had to bring something very new, because the past of Chanel is very big...If you stay, by respect of tradition, with the same stuff, people would fall asleep...You know my secret for Chanel? Take the roots and make different trees.”

These streamline silhouettes are intended for women constantly on the go. Underneath the light embroidered dresses are razor-thin suede short skirts, and matching thigh high boots made by Massaro, that emphasize the mobility of the garments. Mobility, another of Chanel’s heritage (the 2.55 shoulder handbag was made to free women from having to carry a bag), means the clothes have to function in the lives of women or they are obsolete.

I ask Lagerfeld how Haute Couture can still resonate today in markets like China, Russia, and Southeast Asia, where new wealth affords the extreme luxury of couture. He explains, “[Haute Couture] has evolved and followed the evolution of fashion. With all the new fabrics, materials, and techniques, Haute Couture is incredibly modern. Young women want to dress in Haute Couture today, and they look very modern...it is not only for old ladies anymore.”

Fashion, at this highest level, isn’t all about highbrow and intellectual concepts. The meticulous execution of couture garments requires craftsmanship of precise cadence, with years of trained expertise. Couture’s real secret resides in the sheer details and work engendered.

Craftsmanship is heritage to Chanel as much as the coveted tweed skirt suit. Each garment is a menagerie of the skills of the ateliers, inside Chanel and outside fournisseurs with specialized skills. In 2002 Chanel established a subsidiary, Paraffection, to preserve the various manufacturing skills of struggling ateliers around Paris—embroideries at Lesage or Montex, ornamental flowers and feathers at Lemarié, buttons, glass ornaments, and jewelry at Desrues, fabric flowers at Guillet, gold chains, and silversmith at Goossens, millinery at Michel, shoes at Massaro, gloves at Causse and knitwear at Barrie.

“The access to the right knowledge and expertise is critical and these artisanal skills do not exist anywhere else in the world,” says Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s President of Fashion. “By insuring that these artisanal companies survived, the entire Paris fashion [industry] benefited.”

In essence, Lagerfeld needs the collaborations of these experts. The designer notes, “I am lucky to have the best teams to work with. The Chanel ateliers, the Studio, but also the maisons d'art such as Lemarié, Lesage, Montex, Massaro…Only they can create such amazing pieces; without them there could not be a collection.”

The four ateliers— two flou (soft materials) and two tailleur (suitings)—observe a strict hierarchy according to functions with the première d’atelier, known simply by their first name Madame Martine and Madame Cécile in flou, and Madame Jacqueline and Madame Josette in tailleur, acting as headmistresses overseeing the army of petits mains who work on specific garments from origin to completion.

Madame Jacqueline shows me two pieces: the tweed, in the process of becoming sleeves to a long coat or a suit, which took about a month and a half to complete, and the golden, silver, and bronze square rhodoïd modules (transparent cellulose acetate plastic based on structural components of plants created in 1917 by French chemical company Rhône-Poulenc), which were applied with needles by the embroiderers to the skirt, then sent back to Chanel atelier to be assembled with the top of the dress. “The skirt portion alone took over 300 hours of handiwork,” Madame Jacqueline says.

Short leather pieces, in dark and light grey, are cut and arranged in L-shaped rows, forming an illusion of an irrigation network on charcoal tulle. In between each row are tiny pearls embroidered to enhance the lighting effect. “This produced the effect of the dress changing from light to dark depending on the movement,” says Laurence, the atelier petit main who worked alongside Madame Martine in the flou atelier.

The designer notes that he is working with the most modern of fabrics. But the complexity of the techniques employed demonstrates how antiquated skills can be used with new materials. Often in couture appearances may be deceiving. The pressed and embossed colorful organza look like feathers—that look like flowers—on an evening dress.

Couture is based at Chanel’s headquarters in Paris but now the atelier has the ability to travel to the client. “In the past, couture was primarily focused in Paris and the U.S. Now we are going all over the world—China, Japan, for example—and that means our people in the ateliers have to travel everywhere,” Pavlovsky says.  “We have trained more people with atelier skills in order to match the demands for services and to be able to carry all these activities at the same time. An outfit requires at least two fittings and takes a minimum of two months to hand make, whether it’s a cocktail dress or a day suit.” A client can purchase a look at anytime during the season or can special order looks from past seasons depending on choice of materials.

When asked if the ideas from couture eventually filter into ready-to-wear, Pavlovsky explains, “Couture is another mindset completely apart [from ready-to-wear].  Couture is the perfection of each individual piece. Even if you duplicate the look for a specific client, it is still a unique garment. When we work on ready-to-wear, the objective is to sell as many pieces of each garment as possible. There are surely some infusions as you cannot connect and disconnect from one collection to the next, but the objectives are not the same.”

While ideas for each ready-to-wear collection are filtered down to the store level, in terms of inspirations and products, couture remains a unique and separate operation. The gold lamé pillows, the stain glass tables, and the carpets that transformed the Paris salon into an intimate Istanbul boudoir for Byzantium pre-Fall collection in 2011, also serve to decorate stores’ windows when the merchandise from the show arrives in stores.

The complexity of couture fashion surely blunts the easy imposition of neat categorization. Changes are often subtle and less perceptible. Couture is the opposite of the dematerialization and standardization now prevalent not only in fashion but throughout industrial production. It may be hard to imagine that in Paris there is a company that specializes in making flower pistils. Lagerfeld affirms couture’s future quite simply: “There will always be women for handicraft clothes. Clothes made just for them, a guarantee for quality and perfectly fitted clothes.”

Photography: Thierry Le Gouès @ Agency JR & Associée, Paris Style Director:  Long Nguyen Model: Bara @ Ford  Model Europe, Paris Hair: Martyn Foss Calder @ Airport, Paris Makeup: Mayia Alleaume @ Calliste, Paris and Bryan Bantry, NY

Beauty notes: Base Lumière de Chanel Illuminating Makeup  Base, Highlighter Face Pen Light medium,  Les Beiges de Chanel  Natural Light,   Automatic Liquid Eyeliner Black,  Ombre Essentielle Soft Touch Eyeshadow 97 Infini, Inimitable Intense Mascara Black,   Aqualumière Gloss Lipstick French Toffee all by CHANEL.  Vegetal Sculpting Gel, Glossing Spray and Vegetal Finishing Spray by Vegetal Styling by René Furterer Paris.