Among the first things fashion students learn at school is this: haute couture means “high dressmaking” in French. Getting to know fashion’s equivalent of the alphabet and understanding its significance is, well, fitting for several reasons.
Haute couture is a lofty ideal—it is after all produced by hand by the highest skilled designers and artisans. These special made-to-order creations can take months to produce and require rounds of fittings to ensure that perfect fit. Oh, and if you aren’t in Paris, a dedicated team of seamstresses will fly to you.
As such, the price tags on couture are astronomically high. It’s said that only 20 women in the world today are regular customers of the couture houses, and only 2,000 women have ever bought couture.
Sounds extra, right? It’s why, just like champagne, the rarefied status of couture is protected by French law.
To even be considered a member and legally use the prestigious designation, a couturier must adhere to strict regulations set by the French Ministry of Industry and the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. It must keep an atelier in Paris with at least 15 full-time staff and 20 full-time technical workers, and produce two collections a year of at least 50 original designs for both day and evening every January and July.
There have been efforts to slowly chip away at the forbidding borders of couture. In response, the couture houses have also taken steps to keep up with the times. Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld turned craft on its head with 3-D printed jackets for Spring 2015. Then, for Spring 2017, streetwear favourite Vetements made headlines by collaborating with brands such as Brioni, Comme des Garçons, Levi’s and Manolo Blahnik. Meanwhile, the Chambre Syndicale has also invited (often young) guest couturiers to present their works alongside legendary houses like Schiaparelli and Poiret, which have been revived in recent years.
The point of couture, then, is to serve as a display of savoir faire and might for fashion houses. It feeds into our insatiable appetite for beauty, and couture, with its incredibly complex creations, provides delicious fodder.
Our growing leisure economy has become fixated with social media by encouraging consumers to post everything online, and casual one-upping is now public sport. As actual purchase becomes secondary to exposure, consumers are simultaneously spoiled and exploited.
According to credit card company Barclaycard, nine per cent of its customers buy clothes just for an #ootd (and then return it). While couture can’t be returned, some parallels are unavoidable, in particular, how we go above and beyond to project an image of ourselves.
It wasn’t always like this in the last decade, where people were incredibly shy about being extra and, hence, were careful with their decisions. Ready-to-wear spoke volumes for this.
During her decade-long tenure as creative director of Céline, Phoebe Philo gave women microscopic logos for their everyday bags and clean-cut silhouettes for their work attire. All this actually appealed to the fashion set and convinced us of the sheer value of a thoroughly curated wardrobe. This was powerful fashion, communicated in an understated way.
It was appropriate as the world endured the effects of a global recession. Normcore was in full swing as chic became fuelled by guilt — even the rich didn’t want to admit to being rich or to look the part. In trying to create a new vocabulary, they wanted to dress like the working class without looking like the working class. Soon, even the working class bought into it.
Now, we’re headed in the opposite direction. We’re done with over-thought fashion. We want something to escape to while we deal with reality more prudently. Excessiveness serves as a protest to the mind-blowing mental and physical stress of dealing with a catastrophic accumulation of problems. We can look like aliens as we work towards buying a new car. Does this make us out of touch with what’s going on in the world as we descend further in a dwindling socio-political climate? Au contraire.
I don’t trust anyone who says that couture is not about the clothes, because it very much is. But it doesn’t have to stop there. What do the clothes say about our world today? What moments have these collections and shows created? How do they impact our future, not just in fashion but as a society?
Just as musicians use music to express their thoughts, fashion serves as an effective mirror on today’s state of affairs. The fact that we’ve been able to talk so publicly about and call out income and wealth inequality, climate crises, systemic racial discrimination, gender fluidity and rampant classism, or even criticise government schemes, decisions, stances, we have fashion to thank with its perverse, non-politically-correct ways.
Take the Spring 2019 haute couture shows: Viktor & Rolf turned out the most resonating, viral meme-as-fashion collection yet, with cartoon-like slogans and graphics emblazoned across its rainbow parade of diaphanous gowns. Titled Fashion Statements, the show ends with a most dramatic, mournful finale dress that says “I want a better world” with a smiling sun in the centre. Terrible things are still happening in our world but Viktor & Rolf gave us comic relief. Life sucks? At least you can laugh about it! I dare say that this has been the most relatable couture has ever been.
Pierpaolo Piccioli’s exploration of romanticism and craft at Valentino resulted in an explosion of colour and florals. Mixed with a diverse cast of models, the collection drove Celine Dion and Naomi Campbell to tears. Restraint, homogeneity, injustice and pain do not exist in Piccioli’s world of Valentino couture. Instead, he gave us utopia: one that showed us how diversity, beauty and nature can coexist. Campbell even brought up that this show made her efforts in fighting for racial equality feel rewarded. If we learn to live with our differences and stop destroying mother nature, this dream is possible. Valentino couture is where to look when you crave the beauty that seems to be lost from the world.
Others were not so utopian. Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld cited an 18th century reference that showed us how the wealthiest of Parisians lived. Alas, the story is the same today: the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. It’s a matter of time until someone tells us to eat cake, and for one of us to bring out the chopping block.
And look at Iris van Herpen, Maison Margiela, which produced voluminous silhouettes larger and more colourful than ever before; Givenchy’s Spring 2019 bag featured a gigantic bow that functions as a backpack. Even singer Björk deemed Kardashian-favourite Balmain couture appropriate for her Cornucopia tour, arguably the most elaborate stage concert of her entire three-decade career.
Couture is relevant, more extra than ever, and here to stay. Couture is zeitgeist and it’s saying that, sometimes, being extra is the only way to move forward.
This article first appeared in the July issue of A.