Memory, All Alone in the Moonlight Or I remember the time I knew what happiness was

by Long Nguyen

Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2014-2015
Can a petticoat made with ancient gold-lamé embroidered with flowers and landscapes of pearls, paillettes, and silk threads worn with toga muslin beads and pearls and aqua marine crystals—baptized The Princess from the Land of Porcelain after an 1865 painting by the American impressionist artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler—that required a minimum of 1,400 hours of laborious handiwork by skilled specialized atelier hands—be considered modern? This elusive and overwrought word describing the latest trajectory of development?

“Classic style reinterpreted as an expression of progressive thought as an instrument to define the moment using the roots of the past to strive towards and embrace the future” is how Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli, designers at Valentino, describe their stellar fall show. Think elements of pre-Raphaelite art morphed with silk georgette dresses and cashmere sleeveless turtlenecks.

History serves as a poetic narrative that Chiuri and Piccioli use to deploy the house’s expert handicrafts and create unique clothes that reflect the new crop of global clientele. In addition, their work and techniques in couture often find resonances in their ready-to-wear collections that have a greater commercial impact.

“I was interested in the process of finding something extremely modern through something very historical, particularly through a juxtaposition of different themes,” Raf Simons, Creative Director at Dior, similarly describes his latest collection. “The historical inspiration is not the justification of the collection; it isn’t its entire meaning. What I was attracted to was the idea of architectural construction—that is a very Dior attitude—and how the foundations of one era are based on another, how the future is based on the past; that is what I found interesting.” Simons’ eight-part collection show transformed different eras of French fashion: the 18th-century Marie Antoinette pannier shapes were now lightened with tulle structures. Masculine Versailles “court coats” were rendered as cashmere long flowing double-breasted coats paired with flared pants and casual open neck sweaters, or as floor-length mink or chinchilla cape-coats. Flapper lines of the 1920s reemerged as elaborate embroidered black sheath dresses with 3-D flowers, or a white and electric blue embroidered loose dress. Even the Dior Bar silhouette that dominated French fashion in the 1950s underwent a transformation into slimmer black pantsuits with less exaggerated hip silhouettes to endorse the real lives of more mobile female clientele today.

Over at Chanel, they recreated the lost 1930s Parisian apartment of the architect Le Corbusier, right in the middle of the Grand Palais, where a terrace overlooked the Champs Élysées and the décor mixed the most modern elements like a streamlined chimney with a gold oval baroque mirror from the 18th century incrusted into a concrete wall. The Chanel set, however, is far simpler, more minimalist. Old and new co-existed to point the way to a future, and Lagerfeld’s mixture of baroque ostentation with the vision of a pioneer paved the way forward for couture.

Always keeping a close eye to how women adapt their wardrobe—replacing jeans with yoga pants, for example—Lagerfeld added the cycling shorts as the foundation under the tweed dresses, coat-dresses, and jackets and skirts giving the looks an air of athleticism while the flat sandals tied with a simple silk bow enhanced the ease of movements.

We now move on to Donatella Versace, who says, “I want to celebrate the construction and deconstruction with a challenge: removing the fabric to make couture more modern.” Her Atelier collection has never relied on any distant past but the hyper-sexy silhouettes from the late ’90s. There is a need for making couture relevant to the current generation, much less versed in finer points of fashion history.

By modern, Versace means dissecting a traditional outfit and remaking it by combining different elements together in unexpected ways. A black silk crêpe tuxedo pant has only one leg and shorts on the other worn with a midnight blue satin dress wrapped around a matching sleeveless tank; a black jacket has shoulder cut-outs replaced with gold clips and paired with a mini-skirt with bone corset waist; a transparent tulle bodysuit embroidered in white crystal metal with a black satin floor length skirt or a one-sleeve T-shirt is beaded into a skirted ball gown.

Maison Martin Margiela follows similar lines of reuse, recycle, and reinvent. Under head designer Matthieu Blazy, this ethos means silk panels added to old Japanese bomber jackets from the 1950s—found at garage sales in London—and converting them into evening dresses: a long sleeve asymmetrical dress cut from 18th-century Second Empire silk lampas, old French francs embroidered into a sheer tulle strapless dress, or a colorful corset and pant combination comprising of silk from the Napoleon III era. Historical fabrics and found clothes sewn together making a new garment show how the material of fashion can be transmitted from one era to the next, like the passing of clothing from parent to child.

Yet borrowing from one’s own past can be a complicated matter. Take the case of the designer Marco Zanini who’s facing the dilemma of how much past DNA lives in his collections in attempting to revive the long-dormant house of Schiaparelli, purchased in 2011 by Tod’s Group. In his second Schiaparelli show, the clothes can stand up to couture’s standards—a red silk velvet long dress or a marigold embroidered flared gown, for example, but details like the embroidered ES on the broad-shouldered light pink coat, while paying allegiance to the house’s glorious past that unfortunately clouded the collection’s potential relevance today.

But if couture is intrinsically linked to the past as a necessity for invention, then what about the work of the younger generation like Alexandre Vauthier, Giambattista Valli, and Bouchra Jarrar, among others who labored under different circumstances, drawing from the context of contemporary fashion culture surrounding them?      Lacking a historical context or a heritage as a secure base for their collections, couture’s newcomers serve well by relying on their own instincts and ethos. Jarrar’s fetish for daytime couture, for example, focuses on clean clothes for her clientele (this season her classic street biker is embroidered with feathers) and Vauthier’s focus on those new global girls with his ultra-sexy and well-constructed dresses that lends an air of nowness. These younger generation designers rely on their gut feeling rather than combing history to find solace for their work.

Looming over these fall-winter couture shows is the opening of the exhibition Les Années 50—La mode en France, 1947-1957, at the Musée Galliera that examines the Golden Age of haute couture from Dior’s 1947 New Look collection, which revolutionized fashion till the end of the 50s with the advent of ready-to-wear. Drawn from the museum’s vast internal collections, the exhibition parades the famed Dior 1947 Bon Bon afternoon dress along with a fuchsia taffeta “Baby Doll” dress from Balenciaga 1958, a bustier and full skirt of gold metal with red roses from Pierre Balmain, an embroidered wool felt dress from Lanvin, a 1954 ivory silk dress from Chanel, and clothes from lesser known French designers like Jacques Fath, Carven, Jacques Griffe, Jean Dessès, and Jacques Heim. Alongside the display of couture garments within the exhibition is the parallel display of the emergence of wearable clothes destined for the beach, city, or the countryside—simple dresses, linen pants, and pullovers that had set the stage for the emergence of ready-to-wear fashion in the late ’50s.

Is it a surprise that couture—once considered backward looking—is now a genesis for fashion by turning its focus toward the future with douses of innovation combined with the adherence to traditional crafts? History is an opportunity for invention and reinvention, for prodding today’s creative couture designers forward into the future with a seamless interplay of past and present.


Photographer: Pierre dal Corso for Style Director: Long Nguyen. Model: Nykhor Paul for Makeup: Julie Nozières.

Beauty notes: Dentelles Précieuse Illuminating Powder, Les 4 Ombres Eyeshadow in Tissé Vénitien, Tissé Gabrielle, and Tissé Riviera, Crayon Sourcils Sculpting Eye Brow Pencil in Brown and Black, Inimitable Intense Mascara Multi-Dimensionnel Sophistiqué in Purple and Brown, Rouge Coco Shine Hydrating Sheer Lipshine in Candeur and Style, and Le Vernis in Secret and Ballerina by Chanel.