What Is Couture? Baby Don’t Hurt Me. No More.

by Matthew Bedard

A Revolution Is Not A Dinner Party, But Shouldn’t We At Least Have Some Bubblies?
I still remember the trouser suits, the smoking tuxedo, and the geometric Mondrian dress—images that lingered in my mind as I left the Centre Beaubourg on a cold evening in mid-January, 2002, after Yves Saint Laurent’s 40th collection show. At the time, it seemed a generational shift was coming to fashion—in particular, to Couture.

It was an uncertain time for Paris Couture. Some of the craft’s devout adherents, like YSL’s long time business partner, Peter Berge, pronounced with certainty that Couture was on the verge of death. His prophetic words seemed a bleak reality, with the closing of many premier fashion houses, from Thierry Mugler to Christian Lacroix, who succumbed to bankruptcy in July, 2009.

Despite the global economic downturn and the prolonged financial crisis severely dampening wealth, Couture has survived its apparent external threats and is miraculously thriving, avoiding what the French laconically called la crise. Since January 2009, when Alexandre Vauthier launched his first show inscribing his signature of exaggerated shoulder and extreme deep-v navel cuts with an intermix of structure and fluidity, designers like Bouchra Jarrar and Iris Van Herpen have energized Couture with their unique and uncompromising approach, defining the meaning of Couture for a new generation accustomed to fast fashion. And the recent appointment of Raf Simons at Dior has not only sparked a renovation of the house’s heritage but also abetted the transformation of Couture.

Vauthier was in full command of his spirit and techniques—from his black tailored wool biker jacket with black fox fur trims, and silk crepe harem pants with tapered legs, to Lindsey Wixson’s Lesage embroidered v-neck short dress with Lemarié baby blue marabou feather train that closed the show.

Vauthier’s mathematically precise cutting and draping techniques, as seen in the asymmetrical waistline of a gold satin strapless long dress, or the open back one sleeve white dress, aren’t haphazard but honed over his years spent working at Thierry Mugler and at Gaultier Couture where he mastered skills directly imparted by the seasoned premières atelier who took refuge at Gaultier after the closure of Yves Saint Laurent in 2002.

“Couture has always been the same over the years to me,” Vauthier says. “When I first started in fashion in 2002, they were already saying that Couture was very near its deathbed. Couture today is awakened again by a new wave of people, both designers and customers, who are interested and seduced by Couture. I launched my company in the worst period of the financial and economic crisis our generation has ever known when I showed in January 2009. Business today is spanned evenly across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, the Americas, and Russia.

“Time is the ultimate in luxury—the time required to measure and to cut the clothes, to embroider, or to think about the right color of the fabric to match the client’s skin. Before it’s a spectacle, Couture is about technicalities or savoir-faire and also about the artisans behind the scene.”

The day after her showing at the Musée Bourdelle, Bouchra Jarrar echoes a similar sentiment. “Couture must adapt to our times, to our new techniques. For me, Couture only makes sense if it is part of our times. We are in 2013 and Couture must testify to our epoch. I work in a contemporary manner. I attract my clients because my strength is to create a wearable Couture. My Couture is for the daytime.”

In her eighth collection, Jarrar reinforced her signature elegant and meticulously cut daywear clothes with a street-wear sensibility by mixing her clean-cut silhouettes with low-slung leather and metal chain belts, or a lamb leather sleeveless biker jacket worn with a flawless white satin trouser.

“Women today are very free and very active and Couture must accompany this modernity,” she says. “I am very sensible to the women around me and to the women in the arts and cultures, but not one particular type of woman is my inspiration because I design for women in general. It’s the force of femininity and sensuality that inspire me, because I am a woman. It’s my sense of elegance for the women who wear my clothes. What makes me really happy is that my clients are international, a lot of Americans and Europeans. I am starting very well in Japan and we also have clients in the Middle East...

“The most important thing for me is to propose a very clear idea to my customers. To disperse is not my style and I am not comfortable with the bidding.” To this respect, she dispensed with frivolity in her evening clothes, free of elaborate embroideries or decorations, creating instead a black white and nude crepe satin and a long silk panel dress.

“The technical skills and my specific work on cuts guide my creations,” she explains about the work required for each collection. “It is the focus on research and on the technical work that my ideas are nurtured and realized. I work with many of the Haute Couture ateliers around Paris. Each atelier has specific techniques and they worked on the select part of the collection that I guided them each season...Couture is about time and about being human.”

For Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen, Couture is “the laboratory of fashion, a place to discover, to love, and to seduce.” Following her fifth show in Paris, appropriately titled “Wilderness Embodied,” Van Herpen remarks backstage, “Without Couture, the dream of fashion is dead. Commerce needs that dream. I see the future of Couture as the place where process is made and inspiration is found. Personally I like the interdisciplinary approach, to combine the craft of fashion with other disciplines like science, art, architecture, biologists, et cetera. Craft will change and traditional Couture will change but the essence [of] the art of fashion will stay. Slowly technology and craft are mixed, but so much more is possible. Couture creates freedom to me...In my work I discover the art of fashion, the movement of the body, the identity of a women, and the technology of the future.”

To fabricate her unique treatment of materials, Van Herpen engaged in high tech 3D printing and laser cuts. She uses the process to create her poetic vision of Couture, this time a surreal exploration of body structures, like a shiny metallic grey dress with strings of rubber protruding like coils and exoskeletons, all in the form of 3D black rubber.

For her nude rubber sheath dress, Van Herpen says, “I saw this terrible website online with silicone masks for horror movies. I found the three-dimensionality of the masks incredible when I looked past their ugly facade. If you look at animals like tigers, iguanas, snakes, et cetera…and you compare [them] to humans, our skin is quite boring. Our beauty lies not in colors, in patterns, or in lines. It’s inspiring to see how people decorate their skins, by scarification, piercings, and tattoos. I translate these skin decorations into dresses using the silicone material…The bones are 3D printed, the dragon skin (silicone) is handmade. They are merged together into one material.”

Van Herpen insists that the old and the new must combine to foster a harmonious transformation of fashion. “I do not consider technology as central in my work; I would say it is in balance with traditional craft. For me, they both need each other. They both fight for a place in my work. In the beginning they stood next to each other; now they are merged together and [have] found more harmony. I 3D printed my first piece for my Crystallization collection for Fall 2010 and I have used and refined the technology ever since. Technology creates freedom and more possibilities when you use it right. Combined with craft it creates a balance between the old and the new. It triggers me to not only design a new dress or garment, but to think about new ways of making that dress. The process becomes more exciting instead of only focusing on an end product.”

In fostering a new idea of Couture, Vauthier, Jarrar, and Van Herpen’s distinct voices have swept away Couture’s stodginess and have made opulent and meticulous clothes constructed by a small army of artisans and craftspeople using traditional techniques. Vauthier and Jarrar rally these essential crafts unique to Paris to the service of creating clothes that matter to the lives of modern women; Van Herpen seeks a symbiosis between tradition and technology to fathom a new mode for creative fashion. Couture remains a human enterprise—a tangency these designers wholeheartedly share.



Photographer: Taka Mayumi for office-sept.com. Style Director: Long Nguyen. Models: Pau Bertolini, Bria Condon, and Leaf Zhang for Ouimanagement.com, Paris and Kinee Diouf for IMGmodels.com, Paris. Hair: Sandra Lambazi for Modshair.com. Makeup: Christopher Kam for Airportagency.com

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