Intermittently, in the past 20 years, French haute couture has been reported to be dying. Hand-made, one-off clothes of exorbitant prices, it was speculated, wouldn’t be able to attract clients affected by an increasingly unpredictable world economic climate. Five years back, at the height of the global financial meltdown, which the International Monetary Fund called the biggest financial shock to the global economy since the 1930s, both big and small couture houses had to scale down to the point that many observers thought the business wouldn’t survive. And for one of them, it didn’t. In May 2009, Christian Lacroix, filed for bankruptcy and by the end of the year, it was shuttered. Since its inception in the 1980s, the house was never profitable. In 2008, a year before it closed, it was reported that Christian Lacroix lost €10 million.
However dismal the situation, French haute couture cannot be obliterated—it is a survivor. The business—more than a century old—has carried on remarkably well despite two World Wars, the US-Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, and several economic slumps. In the past two to three year, interest in high fashion soared as Asia yields ever-increasing number of haute couture customers. Boding well for the business was the return of the house of Schiaperelli last year, which, ironically, was kick-started with a one-time collection by Mr Lacroix. The business of high fashion is not under threat… again.
French haute couture is so dominated by storied couture houses such as Chanel , Dior and Givenchy that others not of the same league are often overlooked if they do not have the marketing muscle to alleviate their names to marquee status. In fact, the average consumer of fashion may not even have heard of them. Despite lacking in big-time publicity, these designers are not doing anything less extraordinary than their more esteemed counterparts. In fact, quite a number of them are producing rather impressive work and maintaining a clientele large enough to keep their maisons sustainable. The three names that showed at this evening’s second last night of Fashion Week are a collective testament that haute couture is not a moribund French institution, but one that can be repeatedly celebrated through creativity, charm, and complete chic.
Of the three designers to show us what they can do in Paris, Alexis Mabille is the most traditional. His silhouettes celebrated the female body unapologetically, with an emphasis on the waist and hips that seemed rather late Victorian. This became understandable when Mr Mabille claimed that he was inspired by the nineteenth-century Italian artist Giovanni Boldini, who was considered the most fashionable portrait painter of his time. Some of Mr Mabille’s dresses were evocative of those worn by the artist’s subjects such as the actress Sarah Bernhardt or those in Ladies of the First Empire.
It was a collection that eschews hard lines in favour of liquid drapes, rounded shoulders, and curvy hips. Mr Mabille’s love for evening dresses—possibly a source of fine income—was palpable but they offered no sparks to ignite your fervor. Most were confined to the fitted bodice and flared skirt or the mermaid shape, all with the obligatory embellishments. The sleekness was, however, oddly, disrupted by the appearance of a ball gown with massive leg-O-mutton sleeves that recall those by a certain Dutch designing duo!
Unlike Mr Mabille, the pair behind On Aura Tout Vu, Bulgarian designers Livia Stoianova and Yassen Samouilov, depended less on the standard feminine codes of haute couture. The collection, which comprised some pieces from the Spring/Summer 2013 collection as well as the current season’s, was a happy synthesis of tradition and innovation, with tongue-in-cheek stirred into the mix. You sensed irreverence, too, in the use of non-luxury fabrics such as PVC, which were teamed with leather and digitally-printed silk satin. Such street sensibility, for some, is where the charm of On Aura Tout Vu can be found, and the reason why their clothes look young.
The ornamentation, too, tended to lean towards the unconventional. There were the strung plexiglass cutouts, between which crystal beads were sandwiched to form vertebrae-like shapes that were attached to bodice, sleeves, and necklines or the Thai beetlewings ((traditionally applied on jewellery or shawls known as pha biang), iridescent ovals that were used like giant sequins. They were perhaps aiming for the fresh and modern (the entomological idea being on-trend) or even exotic, but for many in Asia, both of these materials are not entirely novel as they can easily be found in Chatuchak weekend market of Bangkok.
Closing the French Couture segment of Fashion Week was Julien Fournié, who started his own house in 2009 after working for Torrente (before that, there were experiences with Givenchy, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Claude Montana). Mr Fournié has a certain way with the female form that reflects his training at past houses: a femme fatale that is old Hollywood and new anime. For the current season, his was a strong silhouette, augmented by cuts of such precision that the clothes sheathed like second skin, as well as by details that mildly suggested a sort of space-age femininity seen through the eyes of a medieval princess.
Mr Fournié showed such eye-catching day separates that he could easily tempt women to expand their couture purchases beyond evening wear. There was a bolero with oversized rosettes at the shoulder, a comfortable-looking corset that possibly paid tribute to his grandmother who was a corset maker, a shirt with a bib-front that had its top-end corners rise to give the illusion of pagoda shoulders, and those high-collared blouses with beautifully shaped bishop sleeves. These were clearly wearable clothes. The flounces, the frills, the pleats were never over-the-top, employed as much to lend graphic interest to the clothes as to skew the traditional silhouettes towards the modern. Mr Fournié was able to lend newness to areas where you thought inventiveness could not reside.
The three designers that showed this evening have very different styles, yet they share common traits: a taut embrace of haute couture traditions and techniques, and the passion for clothes that reject the vulgar. What they did was also not a slavish adherence to the aesthetics of the past. Their work reflects their own métier that is clearly moving in tandem with the times, and their clothes destined for the wardrobes of women other than social sirens or provocation-crazy pop stars. In their hands, French haute couture not only has a bright future, but a global one.
Fashion Week 2013 is staged at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Hall F and ends on Saturday night