The State of Couture

by Long Nguyen

Fall Winter 2012-2013 and Beyond
Looking at the swarm of people blocking the doors to the Hôtel Ritz on a normally quiet Sunday at Place Vendôme, I am reminded of swarm theory (colonies that do not swarm may go extinct) and that 1997 was a long time ago. Then, the crowd was buzzing to see Gianni Versace’s final atelier show. Now they’re buzzing for Donatella Versace’s highly anticipated return, after a prolonged absence—to the same runway inside, spanning the hotel’s covered pool.

Until last season’s small scale showing, the only way you could see Donatella Versace’s new couture designs was by appointment, inside a lounge of the posh Plaza Athénée hotel, and even then, the couture clothes were presented on mannequins. So when the three paneled revolving mirror doors at the end of the runway swung open to reveal model of the moment, Lindsay Wixson, I experienced the ceremonial thrill of inaugurating presentation, the announcement of a return, its movement blaring.

Fellow attendees Fan Bingbing, Pierce Brosnan, Lea Michele, Christina Hendricks, Matthew Morrison, Jessica Alba, M.I.A. and Elizabeth Banks, zeroed in on the model defiantly striking forward in an ivory flared, trenchcoat-dress, made of strips of interwoven beige and metallic gold patent leather. A boxer’s championship belt cinched at the waist bore the inscription, ‘XX.’ But there was also a message, something of a dare, in the ‘XX.’ I recalled Rocky’s rematch with Clubber Lang, the stone-faced poise of an old champion intent on regaining his title. I thought of Versace’s unabashed embrace of female sexuality, and the ongoing dialogue between past and present, tradition and innovation.

It is here—at the crossroads of concepts—that Ms. Versace’s new line struck a perfect balance—the PVC violet and beige strappy, cut-out stripes of a printed microdress; the strapless white corset dress with attached organza puff skirt; a similar version draped in purple-printed chiffons; the peach, Swarovski-embroidered chiffon dress with long layered panels—all these clothes exuded what felt like both fresh and classic Versace.

And just as Ms. Versace’s return to the runway attracted a swarm of attention, Raf Simons’ debut Dior show—one of the most anticipated in recent memory—had the crowds salivating. Investigating the essential role narrative plays in fashion, Simons’ show called upon the most storied aspects of the Dior label. By opening the show with a black silk crêpe tuxedo based on the famous Dior signature, the Bar jacket, paired with pencil slim pants shortened above the ankle, Simons bridged the history of the house from past to present, adhering to the rigid architectural cuts championed in 1947, while adding contemporary energy by employing slim silhouettes.

Undaunted, Simons unveiled the new plot twists (if you allow) under the watchful eyes of a well-respected audience, including Azzedine Alaïa, Marc Jacobs, Alber Elbaz,  Donatella Versace, and Pierre Cardin, and did not disappoint. The designer used the leitmotif of the Bar jacket—widening and lengthening the flip pockets over the hips in a bright red cashmere coat-dress, or softening the rigidity of the New Look skirt suit, eradicating the nude jacket’s interior paddings while adding a pale ice-blue skirt made of a slightly sheer mille-feuille mesh fabric.

Simons’ embrace of Dior’s heritage while transforming the house with his own initiatives will determine how far he can push not only Dior, but the industry’s approach to the historical narrative of fashion. Each piece was a stunning display of virtuosity; ostentation and minimalism, old and new, embodied in each respective outfit. By the show’s end, one thing was certain—this was a significant moment in 21st century fashion history. What’s not to love about a long fuschia dress corset split below the navel and worn with black crepe cigarette pants?

It is a banality to say history and the concurrent narrative of heritage are essential to the survival of the entire fashion enterprise—but that doesn’t make it any less true. In the ongoing economic and financial crises, couture houses must remind customers—mainly from fast developing markets, like Asia—that the craftsmanship and the endurance of the house’s heritage offer unmatched value. These signifiers are often embedded in the narrative of the couture designs themselves, necessitating a market of new looks each season. Take for example, the classic Chanel tweed skirt suit. It undergoes a renaissance each season, thus establishing it as a perpetually in demand commodity.

Karl Lagerfeld is perenially crafting the “in demand” and with his “New Vintage” show, he fast-forwarded his Chanel collection into 2012 while making the claim that Chanel’s heritage is now more relevant than ever.

In the upper reach of the Grand Palais Salon d’Honneur, with its specially painted walls and ceiling, Lagerfeld recreated a couture salon of the 1940s – white cotton and straw chairs surrounded by white painted tables bearing plates of amuse-gueules patisseries. It was the perfect setting to entertain the idea that to move forward in time, one must also travel backward. Some of Lagerfeld’s more inflammatory comments about not caring about the past seemed to dissolve in the air. He draped his Chanel couture collection in the fluid shapes of long coats, caftan dresses, and boxy skirt suits, all bearing a whiff of an earlier era while deftly avoiding the cloying stench of nostalgia.

As the stunning Kati Nescher breezed by in a light multicolored skirt suit, I scribbled in my notebook that the suit was made of sparkling metallic threads interwoven with colored tweed yarn, but at the showroom the following day, I saw, upon closer inspection, that it was actually finely cut pieces of shiny plastic, embroidered meticulously onto the silk tulle, giving it a three-dimensional effect. How much precise artistry one sees up close! A knit tunic suit revelead fine-line embroideries on chiffon, creating a pattern of trompe d’oeil knitting; a sequined fuschia and blue short sleeve V-neck T-shirt and matching pair of palazzo pants turned out to be reflective glass embroidery, like plastic on silk. The flowers on a long light yellow dress were, in effect, cut stripes of silk with tiny pearls manipulated into individual flowers of various sizes.

As I was able to examine the Dior couture up close and admire its beauty, a long look at Givenchy revealed more wonderous couture pleasures. I felt nothing short of profound admiration for the skills and handiwork by Riccardo Tisci’s Givenchy atelier while perusing the ten outfits mounted on white mannequins hung from Hôtel d’Évreux’s first floor ceiling. How different it all was, and again, the new compelled me to think of time.

In his seven years at Givenchy, designer Riccardo Tisci has completely renovated the house’s image, effacing any traces of the ladylike clothes for which founder Hubert de Givenchy was known. Tisci has infused Givenchy with his streetwear sensibilities and successfully cultivated a devout following. Here, styles prominent in the 60s—sharp clean lines, bell sleeves, elongated silhouettes—merge with the gypsy streetstyle embroideries, infusing his looks with a street credibility that has become the hallmark of Tisci’s Givenchy.

In one room a black floor length, finely cut lamb-leather fringed dress commanded my attention with its hand rolled leather threads tied into mosaic patterns around swarms of leather-covered Swarovski crystals. Wandering from there, I saw more bombastic, loud pieces—a fringed pullover made from strings of tiny glass beads that graded from ivory at the neck to deep capuccino fringes; a lamb-leather weave and shaved mink short sleeve belle dress; a leather beaded short sleeve coat made from hand-cut scupltured mink.

Just when learning about all these processes felt a little too academic (someone was standing next to me, delivering a lecture about the different techniques and special materials employed), a model entered the room wearing a black floor length silk halter dress.  She stopped, and suddenly raised both her hands to reveal the inside panel of an attached cape adorned with small sparkling metallic bronze sequins. I had to catch my breath! That’s the beauty of couture—the flash of an idea, extravagance executed with the utmost skill.

Giorgio Armani’s couture can be summed up similarly—the right technique for the right idea, formally and skillfully realized. When the designer took a bow at the end of the runway at the Palais de Chaillot, he was celebrating much more than a spectacular show (it was indeed that—syncing the colors of his designs to the video projection of a transitioning sky above the catwalk, ending in the thick of night as the moon rose).  Never one to follow trends, the designer steadfastly shunned extravagance and spectacular clothes—what is sometimes so painfully affected about couture—designs made solely for the runway and the ensuing media hype, the kind of over-the-top designs that have little to do with the reality of what women actually wear.

So many of Armani’s designs—the elongated jackets with purplish lapels, the crisp, silk-pleated and embroidered pants—recalled a time when the designer championed a masculine style of suiting for the modern woman. From a fashion point of view, this was the same as saying, “women and men are stylistically on the same footing.” But today, Armani has liberated women from the heavy weight of couture clothes. Here was couture that did not require hours and hours of hand embroidery nor exquiste and exotic fabrics. A blouse and flowing silk satin pants worn by Jessica Stam and Ava Smith accompanied the light green or camel tailored jackets, exuding an elegance and grace rivaled by no other couture show in Paris. But that’s the story of Armani’s approach. His vision for the narrative of fashion has been so consistently liberatory, perhaps in hopes that the rest of us may finally recognize what he has seen all along—that fashion is freedom of the self.

Yet every story must have a beginning. Some of the newer houses have yet to create a definitive narrative like Armani has. Within three days on the official couture calender, there were myriads of designers, a few recently espoused as ‘Guests’ (such as Mr. Alexandre Vauthier) of the Fédération de la Couture—the syndicate chamber that regulates what entity may be labeled couture—who showed in the shadow of the established brands. These smaller brands have energized the couture scene with their fresh perspective—perhaps because they lack the historical burden of operating within a brand or perhaps because we don’t quite know where their stories are headed.

For example, Mr. Vauthier, who trained under the venerable Thierry Mugler in construction techniques, before working as head designer for Jean Paul Gaultier’s couture collection, launched his own couture collection in 2009. “I am trying to evolve from the broad shoulder look that I established over the last few seasons,” Vauthier said, pointing to a peplum-waisted, white silk deep V-neck jacket in the hallway of his studio, the Sunday afternoon I paid him a visit.

On a table near the entrance lay a collection of gold chains, necklaces and bracelets just arrived from Goosens. By the window, a seamtress was mounting different pieces of metallic gold embroidered tulle from Lesage into a bolero sleeve jacket. “These three pieces here are the front and back of the dress, but we have to wait for the model to fit it on directly,” she told me as I looked at the shining sections of the final dress, lying flat in a carton box as though asleep.

“It’s really about the mixture of materials—silk jersey and gold chains. More sportswear fabrics, a jaunty jumpsuit with fox furs—all in white, gold and beige,” Vauthier explained. “Uptown/Downtown as you would call it.”

Two nights later these sinewy juxtapositions of proportions and tailoring cuts were on full display at the hypersexual show inside the Galerie Minéralogie.  A beige sleeveless jersey miniskirt suit followed an embroidered gold lace short sleeve turtleneck mini dress; a lace jacket with pencil pants; a white strapless side-slit short dress with fur bolero. These were like the opening salvos of a radical novel, an announcement to those in attendance, that Mr. Vauthier has big ideas.

It may seem cheap to return to swarm theory, at the moment, but the excitement and novelty of today’s couture is transforming the landscape of fashion—though change seems dependent on an individual’s agency—it would perhaps be more intellectually honest to ascribe these changes to the colony of fashion itself. Less than a decade ago these overwrought, embroidered dresses seemed so obsolete, more superficial and superfluous adornments than any significant design ingenuity that could move fashion forward. Now, as though independent of the interaction between individuals, the fashion world has intuited its own narrative (and by proxy, its faults), by interacting with a more common economic environment. Fashion feeds upon fashion, which has at its base, culture. Now couture is fashion’s main hive of change, and around it, the people swarm, keeping alive the prospect of future narratives.

Photography: David Bellemère for artsphere.fr.

Style Director: Long Nguyen.

Models: Onnys Aho for newmadison.fr, Paris, Kinée Diouf for imgmodels.com, Paris, Eva Doll for karinmodelparis.com, Magdalena Fiolka for marilynagency.com, Paris, Johan Lanista for rockmen.fr, Paris.

Hair: Patrice Delaroche for labelagence.fr.

Makeup: Natasha Leduc at Natasha-leduc.book.fr

Beauty Notes: Route Des Indes De Chanel Illuminating Powder with Shimmer; Joues Contrastes Powder Blush Malice and Espiègle; Ombres Contraste Duo Eyeshadow Duo Gris and Misty; Ombres Matelassées Eyeshadow Palette Montaigne; Ombre Essentielle Soft Touch Eyeshadow Complice; Rouge Allure Gracile, Secrète, Pimpante and Extatique; Le Vernis Nail Colour Frenzy and Beige All by Chanel. Lumière Liquide Luminous Perfecting Essence, Lotion Densitive Gl and Mousse Substantive All by Kérastase Paris.