On the day the Asian Couture Federation was inaugurated, Stéphane Rolland showed his Autumn/Winter 2013 haute couture collection in a ballroom setting, away from the main runway, to an audience seated for dinner. Unless you were at the VIP tables, and not at the back of what was called the Crystal Ballroom (overhung with 27 chandeliers), you would have missed the chance at seeing master craftsmanship up-close. More than that, you would have let pass the opportunity to witness an elegance that seemed new because it was the elegance that had lost its way among the noise that is fashion today.
Elegance is a modern rarity; it has become too restrained for our image-glutted age. Understated sensuality has been replaced by calculated effrontery. At Fashion Week, this was personified by Jeannie Mai, the LA-based Vietnamese-Chinese TV personality who was appointed as the event’s “Digital Correspondent”. Ms Mai appeared to prefer flash to dash. Like most of her Twitter-mad generation, she went by the motto: dress to impress, pose to post. As many of the attendees visually concurred, quiet fashion would not help you stick out of the online din. You could be mediocre, but you had to be meretricious. Miley Cyrus knew it, so did Jeannie Mai. Mr Rolland’s pared down clothes were, therefore, at odds with this fixation.
The show was accompanied by a flamenco dancer, but his energetic performance did not distract from the breathtaking grace of the collection. Mr Rolland’s streamlined style was a calm counterpoint to the vigorous Andalusían moves. Each outfit appeared serene—unruffled even with ruffles! So much of the body was covered up, yet sheer fabrics thoughtfully used and placed suggested that these were not for the prude. It was prim without the proper.
The silhouette was the most striking part of the collection, but it was not a silhouette that brazenly celebrated the female superbody. It was not about powerful shoulders, a constricted waist, twerkable derriere, and long limbs. While his clothes do perceive the body in shapely glory, they do not exaggerate the curves. It’s about gentle contouring: how smooth the shoulder, how even the hips, how relaxed the legs. Mr Rolland conceived quite a few pieces based on the column, his pillar of strength. For the woman who is statuesque, these are clothes that heighten her regal carriage. They allowed her to glide, a move reminiscent of the movie stars of the Thirties.
For all the formal control and the restrictive black-navy-white palette, there was dramatic whimsy, such as his treatment of sleeves: petal sleeves that drop to the ankle or puffed sleeves the size of balloon skirts or the silk chiffon fluted sleeves (of what could be a wedding dress) that dropped into trains! He provoked with clerical and school uniform collars (the prim) and teased with sheerness across the thigh (sans proper) so that the skirt looked like it had slipped down to the knees, revealing the petticoat. He had a weakness for halves: half capes, half jackets, half lapels; half solid, half sheer, all to affect something deliberately missing or cleverly omitted.
Some of the ideas were brought forward from his Spring/Summer collection. Continuity not being common in fashion today, this illustrated that good ideas need not be a one-season trick. Mr Rolland knew how to build on his strengths and it showed beautifully. But what stood out above the controlled designs and unmistakable refinement was the fit, whether in dressmaking or tailored form. It is a fit for comfort and a fit for beauty. This, for those who understand, is the true value of haute couture. Although these clothes were not worn by models from his original show in Paris, they sheathed each girl like second skin.
If haute couture is about refined luxury, Stéphane Rolland’s got it.
Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F from now till 19 October