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


Givenchy Couture Fall 2019 M1

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)