Steady Steps Up

While older houses such as Chanel and Dior are blurring the lines between haute couture and pret-a-porter, Givenchy under Clare Waight Keller is moving its couture in ways that can be considered to be fine form


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The Givenchy couture collection under Clare Waight Keller grabbed few by the collar when it debuted in the spring of 2018, unlike John Galliano’s in 1996 and Alexander McQueen’s a year after that (even when five weeks later he would call it “crap”). Ms Keller’s was mostly described as “confident” or “modern”, with one report claiming that she “nails how women want to dress in 2018”—prompting some to read that as “having a common touch”. Or, not of dramatic gestures. That, perhaps, explained her appeal to the future Duchess of Sussex.

Slightly more than a year later, in her fourth couture season, Ms Waight Keller has transmuted, if not into a far-out rule breaker, at least borderline radical (or, as the collection is called, Noblesse Radicale). The creations delight because they show that the créateur is willing to assert more than just confidence, but also creativity, which we began to notice in the spring show in January. The lightness, the quirkiness, the exaggeration—we had hoped that they were the foretaste of things to come. With head-spinning speed now expected of fashion at every price point, waiting is not a modern love, but this wait, as it turns out, is worth it.

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The spring couture numbered 42 looks. A season later, it’s 48. Although small in comparison to Chanel’s 70, six more is still a significant jump, considering that these clothes typically take 100 to 400 hours or more to complete. The increase in looks could be declaration of Ms Waight Keller’s belief in her ability to enrapture by expounding not only Hubert de Givenchy’s still remembered tailoring and romantic flourishes, but also by pushing her own vision of what is contemporary without traipsing into what-women-want territory, and finally taking advantage of what she once called “the freedom that couture offers”. In so doing, she was able to go big on shapes, and play with the extras that make couture requisitely special.

So many earlier shows failed to impress with the opening look, but Givenchy’s first draws us in with the stark simplicity of the skirt suit: those rounded shoulders and just-as-convex shoulders, under which micro-hound’s tooth fade away into plain white in a sort of pattern gradation. The bottom half of the jacket shows unwoven yarns that lead to fringing at the centre front. The treatment is repeated in the skirt, with the sum effect that’s also textural gradation. And it is Ms Waight Keller’s keen eye for textures—mostly soft and, hence, caressable sumptuousness—that is the cornerstone of this collection.

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On other looks, more textures draw the eye. Ms Waight Keller gathered fabrics, scrunched, layered, and on them she draws on the maison’s petite mains to apply even more exquisite touches, and always judiciously so: lace, beads, and feathers. Of the last, one particular treatment entrances us. The plumes—in white—peaked from under a bell-shaped skirt, drawn at the waist, with its multi-cords allowed to hang past the hem. Could the almost-humble skirt have been worn over a feathered crinoline the way some Arab women are known to cover their couture gowns with their abaya?

All the flou and frou, however do not overwhelm Ms Waight Keller’s flair for tailoring (she did, after all, design men’s suits at Ralph Lauren) and while the tailleur isn’t quite the stuff to make us quiver, Ms Waight Keller does introduce a vestige of surprise, such as the Two Face of a blazer or the skirt suit that would make a certain born-again Bar suit look decidedly fussy. We were discussing with one of our readers, and wondering if couture has taken a different turn now that two of the oldest houses are designed by women. “Givenchy is designed by a woman too,” came the quick rejoinder. “Why is Clare Waight Keller not like the others?” Because, for now, she’s just better?

Photos: (top) Givenchy and (runway)

Couture Does Not Have To Look Haute Anymore

Virginie Viard’s debut couture collection for Chanel could have been shown alongside the pret-a-porter, and you wouldn’t know the difference


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Change, as it’s often said, is the only constant in fashion. Some changes, we wait in anticipation, but when they arrive, we wonder why we bothered to cool our heels at all. At Chanel, change was something we’ve been waiting for, even before the passing of Karl Lagerfeld, but the change that eventually descended was no real shift, let alone a turnaround (no one is expecting a revolution). Virginia Viard played it safe—very safe—and while that might be acceptable for the cruise collection, which was the season she debuted in, it is not the high one reasonably expects from the couture.

It is telling when the media responses to Ms Viard’s first couture season vacillate between “simple” and “elegant” and, yes, “easy” tooill-disguised circumlocution to say dull. To be sure, even Karl Lagerfeld’s collection in 1983, his first, which was the couture, now appears not the thrill it gave fashion editors and show attendees then. But at that time, Mr Lagerfeld did take a bygone suit (also unremembered because it had, until then, become a cliché, widely and cheaply copied too) and made it hit the high notes to the couture customers, with accessories that had no monosyllabic description to adequately reflect the sizzle until, a decade later, ‘bling’ came along. He was plugged into and reflecting the zeitgeist even before fashion consumers knew what that meant, and truly giving them suits and dresses they never knew they ever wanted. He famously justified his changes to the classics of the house by saying, “Even if she never did it this way, it’s very Chanel, no?”

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We are not certain if what Ms Viard did is very Coco or very Karl, or very neither. Initial media reports suggested that Ms Viard was inspired by both (which sounds like what Maria Grazia Chiuri once, too, asserted when she said she was inspired by all who came before her at Dior). Sure, there were familiar elements: Coco’s sense of the androgynous and Mr Lagerfeld’s sense of the feminine. But in drawing from both, did Ms Viard proposed something that’s entirely her own, sums that can blow our minds?

To us, Chanel has exhausted the house’s so-called codes. Even Karl Lagerfeld, in his last five years, was not able to put exciting new spins on those elements that have afforded Chanel instant recognition and marketability. That’s not to say he has not made them more extraordinary, but perhaps Chanel, post-KL, is ready for a remake? We’re not suggesting that the house negates what have been closely associated with it, but would it be possible, Ms Viard, to be less precious about them.

We like to see those bouclé tweeds, for example, be less glamorous (the amped-up already explored by Mr Lagerfeld). This is not a textile issue—Chanel’s fabric director and one of Mr Lagerfeld’s key cohorts, Kim Young-Seong, we’re sure, is doing her part—but how the tweeds are used bother us. Could they be re-imagined, for example, the way Junya Watanabe did his, back in the fall of 2004 season? Surely something is amiss when the tweed suits are better at Ralph and Russo?!

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But perhaps Ms Viard can’t see the way forward this way. So she plays it safe, so much so that her couture is looking dangerously close to pret-a-porter, even if high fashion generally seems to be sliding from its lofty perch. We chose not to comment on her first collection—the cruise of two months ago—because we thought it might have been a little premature to see her as directional. Cruise, as we know, is conceived to sell. In the case of Ms Viard, being her first outing, it could be a shaky start. We overlooked the ridiculous bows and hoped it was not a prelude to things to come.

Sure, she did not revisit floppy details, but she sure did make some ensemble look decidedly cruise. It is hard for us to justify the existence of a jumpsuit, which looked like it defected from Michael Kors’s catwalk, or pajamas that even Grace Coddington might walk away from, or flounced dresses that Quan Yifeng would wear to Sunday lunch with her daughter. There is, oddly, a coat that reminded us that France once colonised Vietnam, a robe that tells us it’s time to get out of bed, and a pair of bustier gowns that would thrill every homecoming queen. Odder still are those dresses that seem to be homage to Maria Grazia Chiuri’s Dior! Absent (what we’d really to witness) is a tug between simplicity and complexity, between hard and soft, between the old masters and the new designer. And still be able to articulate, “Even if she never did it this way, it’s very Chanel, no?”

Let’s try to see into the future: Anna Wintour will not be a Chanel couture wearer (we aren’t sure if ‘customer’ is the right word). Her red carpet appearance at the Met Gala would not be in Chanel. She continues to wear the Chanel of Karl Lagerfeld, and she would not call them vintage.


Dior’s House of Bernarda Alba

It’s nearly all black. Who’s in mourning?


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We’re thinking Federico García Lorca and his house of women, but this setting is, of course, less rural, and could be set in the home of the 1% in Spain or outside. Even eastwards, all the way to Russia, never mind if the interior could be the set of Sleepy Hollow. As it turns out, our overactive imagination is not on the same wavelength as Maria Grazia Chiuri’s.

She is contemplating another writer, the Austrian-American Bernard Rudofsky—not nearly the contemporary of Mr Lorca, but certainly of Christian Dior. Reportedly, Ms Churia has been reading the essay Are Clothes Modern? that Mr Rudofsky wrote in 1947, the year Christian Dior himself created what would be dubbed the New Look. The prose came after a 1944 Museum of Modern Art exhibition of the same name that was curated by Mr Rudofsky, an architect, then also known in fashion circles as a “a sandal designer” for his Bernardo sandals (variant of Bernard again!) that appeared in 1946.

Like Mr Rudofsky, Ms Chiuri is a questioner. She is partial to questions to which she has vague responses, or no answers (such as last spring/summer’s “Why have there been no great women artists?”). She does not use clothes to reply to the posers she put out, usually across the chest, in the tradition of the slogan tee, which has become sort of a tradition for Ms Chiuri at Dior since the beginning of her tenure in 2016. Still, Ms Chiuri is a late entrant among the many women designers who have used the bodice as a screen for their own social and political convictions—Vivienne Westwood and Katherine Hamnett were two of the earliest, if we recall correctly.

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Ms Chiuri’s question this season—her first for the couture—appeared in the first outfit, a draped covering (with a T-shirt neckline) that looks like a toile of a dress, but is, in fact, a peplos, the body-length one-piece that women of ancient Greece typically wore. The rest of the clothes are a complete departure from this, which appears to act like an intertitle—those worded narration printed on screens, used between scenes in silent films, except that the dresses that follow don’t seem to answer the question. We can’t see the point of the peplos.

What’s notable is how monochromatic this collection looks, so black, in fact, that the darkness of the clothes and the atmosphere of the show are positively funereal. We are not sure if women go to couture houses for mourning clothes. Perhaps they do… for threads to attend the memorial service of a fallen dynasty? Or, an anointed individual? Frankly, we don’t know.

Everything, to us, are evocative of widows’ weeds (from the old English ‘waed’, meaning garments), including what could be ‘weeping veils’ (the netting now a signature?), perhaps even reflecting Ms Chiuri’s own Italian sartorial heritage: the appeal of the Sicilian widow (on that note, the Spaniard, too), an image so powerful in its dark austerity and severe elegance that it’s been used in films, as well as clothing designs, especially those of Dolce & Gabbana. Upon closer look, the dresses are supremely detailed—every couture technique available is applied, but what stands out is their serious lack of joy. Or, perhaps Ms Chiuri, too, desires what Bernada Alba wanted the outside world to see: “the perfect picture of grief”.

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Some, instead, see a goth who found glamour. Ms Chiuri alluded to that when she told the press that “I am Generation Black”. Christian Dior himself is partial to this darkest of colours—so all-ages, so every-occasion, so multi-purpose that he once stated that he “could write a book about black”. However black Ms Chiuri’s collection is, it is not an opportunity to surprise couture watchers and customers with unexpected expressions, the way a group of Japanese designers did in the early ’80s in Paris. Could black be a convenient way to avoid consulting the colour wheel or Pantone’s staggering chart? Or, to stand apart from her former co-designer Pierpaolo Piccioli?

The dresses have been compared to gladiators’ garb, but they could be what you see in the sorrowful court of Queen Victoria after the death of Prince Albert (the extravagant mourning clothes were not only trendy in England, they crossed the Atlantic and found likes among the society women in the US). Ms Chiuri adores a certain silhouette and the placement of sheer against opaque; she finds herself repeating the adoration as if she has forgotten that she’s now working with the maison’s petite mains. And all featuring waists that would have benefitted Kim Kardashian’s upcoming ‘Solutionwear’. Predictable are the one-shoulders and the wide V-necks. Annoying is the umpteenth appearance of the sheer skirt under which shorts/underpants peek. Curious are the ancient Egyptian usekh (or wesekh) collars that most recently first appeared in Chanel’s Métiers d’Art show that Karl Lagerfeld presented for pre-fall 2019!

If the first outfit was pointless, the last was even more so. The final model came out wearing a house-for-a-dress that we later learned is an actual doll house made to look like the façade of Dior‘s HQ, 30 Avenue Montaigne, created by the set (“scenography”) designer Penny Slinger. Never mind that the dress came unhinged as the model walked on—it appears that the House of Bernarda Alba reference may be quite apt after all. It does look like a casa that the matriarch would keep her daughters captive. Mr Lorca would have appreciated Maria Grazia Chiuri’s imagery: home as lockup. Or the body confined by couture?

Photos: Dior



Ivanka Trump may be pretty in pink, but she’s not powerful in pink, nor percipient 


Front and centre: Ivanka Trump at the G20 Summit in Osaka. Photo: AP

By Mao Shan Wang

Oh, to be snubbed! Most of us would have buried our heads in shame. Not Ivanka Trump. She carried hers high, along with her hands, moving them for emphasis and attention. Also referred to, perhaps a little derisively, as the “First Daughter”, she is, I concede, not one of us. She’s made of sterner stuff—her father’s go-to whatever.

In a video posted by the French government and subsequently shared by many news agencies, Ms Trump was captured eager to participate in a conversation that she possibly did not initiate. The members of this group chat were head of states Theresa May, Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron, and the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Legarde, and it is the IMF chief’s reaction that is truly—allow me to use Mastercard’s marketing tagline—priceless!

The now-diplomat-wannabe appeared to want to engage powerful players of world politics (or, maybe, interrupt), but was unable to even catch their attention, not even with her hand gestures, made more emphatic by the equally gesticulating trumpet sleeves that framed her wrists; she was frowned at. To me (and most of those who live online), Ms Trump appeared out of place, visually incongruous, not in the same league. Sesame Street fans will recognise this episode in the song/game “one of these things is not like the others; one of these things just doesn’t belong” (don’t mean to call anyone in the video a ‘thing’, but you now what I mean). And Taylor Swift fans, too!

Let me rub it in: Professionally, she’s not up there; intellectually, she’s not of equal heft; and sartorially, she’s not cut from the same cloth; she who has no more of her own label to turn to. Talking about cloth, is dressing like you’re going to lunch with your BFFs in a newly starred Michelin-rated restaurant a good look at the G20 Summit?

Professionally, she’s not up there; intellectually, she’s not of equal heft; and sartorially, she’s not cut from the same cloth


Admittedly, she did stand out, although not in a way that might be appreciated at such a high-level international forum, since this wasn’t a meet-and-greet at a Marie Kondo convention. Neither did Ms Trump rock it (to borrow a term often associated with Rihanna) in the pink Valentino, with what the brand called a “snowdrop” print, however sweet it was. Perhaps, she merely wanted to show the world how she had contributed to the US retail performance of Q3. Frankly, looking at her, I don’t know who or what she was representing—the White House, the United States of America, or the Miss Universe Organisation (even if her father doesn’t own it anymore). The floaty dress looked lame on her, a femininity enhancer and little else, something Jamie Chua might wear to host a program for her sadly inane YouTube channel. And I have not even started on the insipid white belt.

The thing is, we may not be able to see through that dress, but underneath it is a person with skin that can only be described as thicker—a lot thicker—than the fabric that sheathed it. We know her father has never stopped their family outings, not even after taking up residency in the White House, but that does not mean she should avail herself to what has been largely foreign-affairs occasions, even if it is often said that her husband Jared Kushner runs a “shadow State Department” (settling the Israeli-Palestinian problem/conflict a pet project)! Even the G20 Summit wasn’t enough. After Osaka, she went along with her father to North Korea, and no one knows what the president’s daughter is doing at the DMZ. If the Trumps wanted to see how “surreal” the hermit kingdom is, they should have joined a tour.

Okay, I forget. She did have an agenda at the G20 Summit: to sing the same song of “women’s empowerment” as she did—if you don’t remember—at the last G20 in Hamburg where she marketed her also-in-pink self. The sad thing about Ivanka Trump is this: it’s not the pink (Angela Merkel wore pink too in Osaka). She not only often looks like she’s done for the day and is off to the spa to spend quality time with a therapist and scented candles, she sounds just as inconsequential—in fact, trite and unoriginal.

At the summit, she called women “one of the most undervalued resources in the world”, and felt they should not only be a social justice issue, but one of “economic and defence policy” too. Didn’t Theresa May, responding to Emmanuel Macron comment on social justice, earlier say something to that effect in that conversation Ivanka Trump was not welcomed?