Skimming The Surface

Reading a recent story on Chanel by CNA Luxury, we sensed we would be confronting something unsatisfying when, from the start, we had to be reminded that the 112-year-old maison has an “exclusive atelier in Paris”. We were not wrong. Superficial observation is one thing, trite description is another

Just like the ceaseless supply of Chanel tweed jackets, there have been never-ending media stories on Chanel’s haute couture. A report by CNA Luxury shared online last week is another, and it won’t be the last. More than a century after Gabrielle ’Coco’ Chanel founded her eponymous label and nearly 50 years after her death, there appears to be constant craving, not about her, but the couture studio that she left behind that is still generating what CNA imaginatively calls “lavish clothes”. Is there anything in their editorial that isn’t a pallid reminder of what haute couture is not?

We feel bad for Chanel. By their “invitation” (which could mean this was a junket), CNA Luxury was in Paris to show readers “inside Chanel’s world of haute couture”, perhaps with the noble aim of demystifying it. The 1,290-word editorial, in fact, accompanies the 2.44-minute documentary, ‘Inside Chanel’s Haute Couture Universe in Paris’, for the CNA Lifestyle 2022 series. From the first paragraph, it was a journey of textual cringe. To set the scene, they told readers that the Chanel epicentre at Rue Cambon—a narrow, one-way, 449-metre long street in the heart of the French capital—“is chockful of French dreams” and, later, that it is “one of the most well-stocked flagship boutiques… in the world”. We are not sure, but were they describing a 杂货店, provision store? Or, recalling the set for the RTW autumn/winter 2014 show, a supermarket?

And who was Chanel before she became a “full-fledged fashion designer dreaming (again?!) up sartorial hits(!)”? Wherever she is now, we doubt Chanel would be amused to be called, at the start of her career, a “mere milliner”. Chanel did begin as a hat maker and, by most accounts, a rather successful one. Biographer Edmond Charles-Roux wrote in Chanel, “The truth was she had a really impressive talent” (so much so that one of her boyfriends at the time eagerly financed her venture). This was the early 1900s, a time when, as Mr Charles-Roux noted, “family, children, love, jewels—none of these aroused as much concern as the question of hats”. Her headwear, in particular a boater, “was absurdly simple, and it was curious to see how some of her friends reacted to this sparseness as a new form of eccentricity”. Her clientele expanded and they included “customers of Worth, Redfern and Doucet”. Chanel’s first proper shop (before that, she operated out of another boyfriend’s “bachelor flat”), Chanel Modes, that opened in 1910 was in Rue Cambon, at number 21. The number 31 address—where, according to CNA, ”is chockful of French dreams”—did not materialise until 1918 when Chanel, the “mere milliner”, purchased the building.

Wherever she is now, we doubt Chanel would be amused to be called, at the start of her career, a “mere milliner”

Above the store, we were told, “Chanel had an apartment where she used to work, daydream and entertain a small circle of friends. Curiously, the couturier (sic) never actually lived there, preferring to call one of the suites at the Ritz Hotel… home”. Yet, the apartment is an “abode” and, to be certain, a “historical” one. Then we were introduced to the ateliers above. “Everything is made-to-measure and made entirely by hand,” one of the premieres was quoted saying. “Haute couture is really about excellence. It is all about handwork and craftsmanship,” she expanded helpfully. Enlightening. And to add to your growing knowledge, “each haute couture garment begins from a sketch.” For the complicated nature of the work they do, we were offered a glimpse: “See-through (!) Guipure lace layered with gossamer lace; coloured lace inlaid onto Guipure lace; lace patterns reworked entirely by hand with sequins; lace hand-painted in resin; and cashmere wool woven into lace-like patterns.” Following?

Whether anyone at CNA knows what Guipure lace is, we can’t say (if you ask, it is openwork, therefore, nearly always “see-through”, with motifs, such as flowers, joined by fine bars or plaits instead of webs of nets or mesh, as in other laces). But they seem to be educated on the fineness of couture finishing, explaining away that “not only are the seams on the outside hidden from view, even those on the inside of the garment are ingeniously tucked away”. The ingenuity is in how, in this, we can’t discern the making of “really expensive clothes”. To banish all doubts that Chanel could be capable of even a whisper shred of shoddiness, we were informed that “nothing is left unfinished, everything is finished to perfection”. A friend from Kuala Lumpur, who had read the article too, said to us, “I’m surprised there isn’t ‘laboratory of ideas’. Maybe they are not informed enough to use that!”

A report startlingly littered with clichés wasn’t enough, it had to include the “icons” that “continue to thrive” and bear listing: “the tweed jacket, the ‘little black dress’, two-tone slingbacks and, of course, the inimitable Chanel 2.55 purse”, much, we suspect, to the delight of the brand (one media professional said to us, “Chanel will love it, lah. They obviously paid for the trip and they expect the media to fawn over them”). The article is probably targeted at those who are not acquainted with the creative and practical business of “custom-made artisanal garments fashioned entirely by hand by dressmakers skilled in creating one-of-a-kind garb that are more than worthy of their price tags”. But could they not have toned down the trite and the banal? “Every single detail matters,” they concluded, ”After all, this is haute couture, where precision is the name of the game.” Take note, you “stylish set”!

Illustration: Just So

On The Spanish Steps

…was a show Dior didn’t like: It was one of Valentino’s most exuberant presentations

This month, seven years ago, Fendi staged its autumn/winter 2016 couture show at Rome’s Trevi Fountain. It was the Italian brand’s 90th anniversary. The show, featuring 46 looks of then designer Karl Lagerfeld, was staged on a see-through plexiglass runway that was stretched across Rome’s most famous fountain. The models sashaying down the stage looked like they were walking on water. The semi-circular area in front of the Trevi Fountain is not a wide expanse, so on this occasion, it was unsurprisingly packed with show-goers. Up in the terrace, there were almost no noticeable retail store that overlooked the fountain except one familiar name: United Colours of Benetton. The brand made no mention of the operating conditions that day. It is possible that the area was cordoned off, and shoppers had no or limited access to the store. Did Benetton demand payment from Fendi for loss of sales as the access to the former’s shop was “hampered”? Did they even dare consider it?

About 1.8 kilometres away from the Trevi Fountain (or roughly eight minutes by foot) is the Spanish Steps, another famous site of this ancient city. On the 135-step, 29-metre high, 297-year-old stairway that was last refurbished in 2015/16, Valentino unveiled their autumn/winter 2022 couture collection. While many watching the spectacular show, whether at the venue or online, was nervous that the models might fall (some tripped), having to descend from the very top in rather windy conditions, elsewhere, managers of competitor brand Dior were taking note of the disruption to the business of their store right across from the Spanish Steps, and a drop in footfall. On the very night of the show, the retail manager of Christian Dior Italia reportedly sent Valentino a letter—seen by the trade paper WWD—to demand €100,000 as compensation that was to be paid in 15 days. This move surprised many. When the news broke, many attendees were asked on social media if they thought the show did indeed hamper Dior’s retail business. No one could say for sure it was, or willing to. Dior’s reaction affirm, again, the rivalrous nature of the business of fashion.

The Valentino show went on without a hitch. The clothes, more wearable than usual, bore no aesthetical semblance to what was worn by the two people most associated with the stairway: Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in the ice cream scene of Roman Holiday (1953). On those Steps, a reported 102 models descended to the live music of the British singer Labrinth (aka Timothy Lee McKenzie), wearing colours that Pierpaolo Piccioli is partial to from the time he took over the sole creative reign of the house in 2016: Bright. With the church of the Santissima Trinità dei Monti in the background catching the recessing evening glow, the models looked like they have skipped mass to gingerly go down the steps for a party somewhere in the Piazza di Spagna. In fact, the runway did not end at the base of the stairway. It continued to the left, past the house where the English poet John Keats lived in the 19th century and, opposite, Dior stores (men’s and women’s), and the Valentino store in the corner of the block, and onto the label’s headquarters in the Palazzo Gabrielli Mignanelli, before turning left again to some holding area. A group of the models, in fact, went back up to the top of the hill to emerge again down the Stairs for the finale.

Gently fluttering in the wind, the clothes had almost none of the ‘structure’ or stilted formality often associated with couture. That couture could be infused with so much ease is a necessary nod to the modern. Many of the outers were so light and not structured that they seemed like throws. Even a garment as casual as a singlet for men was given the couture treatment. Mr Piccioli dubbed the collection The Beginning, where, according to the Valentino show notes, “everything starts anew where everything invariably begins: in Rome, in the Atelier, the place where creations and inventions come to life through the hands and stories of those who actually make the clothes, of those who imprint their character on cloth through manual work. The manner hasn’t changed. Not even the address has changed. And yet everything has changed.” Regrettably, petty rivalry has not.

Update (12 July 2022, 11pm), according to a follow-up WWD editorial, Dior withdrew their ultimatum. “Dior is asking Valentino to disregard a previous letter demanding financial compensation of 100,000 euros, citing “cordial relations” between the two luxury houses and “mutual respect”, as reported.

Screen shots (top): Valentino/YouTube. Photos: Valentino

Do They Go Anywhere?

Chanel continues to churn out “iconic” jackets that are “beautiful”. It that really this much Virginie Viard can produce?

She said it at last, although it did take a while. Suzy Menkes posted on Instagram after the Chanel autumn/winter 2022 couture show: “the word I felt while watching models lined-up on an upper gallery seemed just plain ‘dull’.” So useful and apt that word was that Ms Menkes applied it twice, both in a single post, in one paragraph. That was double the dullness. For a near-octogenarian to suggest that a constantly-lauded brand produced a collection that caused boredom was quite something (eye-opening?) when she had previously quite adored the label, even after Karl Lagerfeld was no more. But Ms Menkes is not saying something new. For many seasons now, Chanel has not reversed the feelings of those still unimpressed. Reacting to Ms Menkes’s comments, which included noting the “smell of horses” of the venue (equestrian school Étrier de Paris), one commentator wrote, “No magic spark, nothing to ignite the imagination. Expertly crafted, dull indeed.”

Virginie Viard, as we have observed, has taken the path well trodden, even trotted, since the demise of Mr Lagerfeld. Why trek new trail when the old and familiar is more level for walks, and hence safer? As with any way beaten by heavy foot traffic, the course is smooth and will not impede the continuing of an outing that was never creatively fraught to begin with. It is possible Ms Viard never sought excitement. She is not a risk taker. She is comfortable with merely continuing. Or, as we like to say, coasting. She has acquired her momentum. There is no need to change the gait. Why gallop when you can trot? She is happy with her rhythm, staying on the first level of the training scale. Or, from the horse’s mouth: “My approach to work has always been rather simple and pragmatic, but more than ever, I feel truthfulness and a realness will be leading me going forward (Vogue, April 2020)”. She is okay with dull. So are many Chanel customers.

But dull, as with ugly, is not necessarily a bad thing. There are—more and more, and more—no negatives in fashion. They are just clothes, to be worn, not hung on the wall to be admired. As long as it fits, it is good to go. Dull is immensely wearable. In all likelihood, Ms Viard is guided by the economics of fashion, to keep Chanel ahead of the quickly-catching-up Dior in the sales stake. For as long as they appeal to women with no fashion aspiration but wealth, or taste-weak and stylist-dependent actresses, auntie-becoming influencers, and editors who just swoon at the sight of tweed, they are on a safe path, and Ms Viard can continue to amble along, happily and unprovocatively. So she’ll continue with her modest styles of straight-shouldered jackets, frumpy blouses, mid-calf skirts, and the occasional va-va-voom gown (this season, in puke-green). At the show, you won’t be jolted out of your placid enjoyment if you are not going to be shocked.

But Ms Viard tries to astonish and her idea of surprise—in pairings, for example—is bringing together “tweed and flou with a boyish allure”, as Chanel later described on their Facebook page, possibly alluding to the moderately masculine style Coco Chanel herself adopted in the 1920s. Femininity is, however, the core of Chanel, and now under Ms Viard, extreme femininity: “Swathes of floating white tulle”, went the proud announcement. One dress, perhaps, sums up this couture season for them—the last outfit, a white (or off-white), ankle-gracing dress described by many on social media as a “wedding gown”. Chanel touts it as “embodying the intricate lightness” of their couture. The bustier number is in chiffon with a bodice of criss-crossed, pleated panels, left to hang over the skirt that was gathered at the waist. The dress is completed with a crepe shawl— embroidered (of course) with flowers and on its end trimmed with fringing. It is possibly “intricate”, but is the sum effect special? Does the bow atop the model’s head make it more so? There are those who insist that haute couture is “never how it looks; it’s about how it’s made”. The sad thing is, in some cases, despite the work—all done by hand and consisting of many, many hours, we are constantly reminded—the end result is just nothing—nothing to look at, nothing to shout about, and nothing to remember them by.

Screen shot (top) : Chanel/Facebook. Photos: Chanel

The Only One

Is Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia the sole modernist in the still-rarified world of haute couture?

Shortly after the Balenciaga couture presentation ended, the Twittersphere was abuzz with delight that walking the runway were Nicole Kidman, Dua Lipa, and, not admirably, Kim Kardashian and, even less so, Naomi Campbell. Like many watching the sole show of the season that was worth waiting for, we took it in in front of our PC monitor (smartphone screens are too small for couture!). We were enraptured up to the segment where full face-visors (the show opened with them) were not used, and models bared their foreheads to chins. Even that was fine, until Ms Lipa appeared, followed by Ms Kardashian, and Ms Kidman, and, almost towards the end, Ms Campbell. Before these women sauntered in, we were able to concentrate on the clothes and to marvel at the rigours of Mr Gvasalia’s sharp lines and silhouettes. Then the celebrity appearances interrupted our concentration. We were not expecting to see them and, as we wondered what they were doing on the show floor, we were distracted, in particular by the half-smiling but blank-faced Kim Kardashian, who looked like she should be seated viewing than ill at ease (cat)walking.

Dubbed the 51st, but only Demna Gvasalia’s second, Balenciaga’s single-season couture collection roused the imagination made torpid by other shows of the week that were contented with the tiresome duo of fantasy and romance. Mr Gvasalia returned couture to its place on the pedestal (and why should it not be there?), on which his stark artistry was augmented with cuts (precise and, sometimes, brutal), the outré (but, by now, not quite), and the drama (missing in couture, and much welcome). His is work so exact and exceptional that it is anomalous in the present desire among those who design with “practical considerations” for the “pragmatic needs” of their clients. In couture, you don’t know what you truly require until you see them. You don’t know the desirability of a sumptuous carapace-like cape until you witness it, in sensational form on the runway. Or the want of a T-shirt, crushed and with the hem rough-hewed upwards, even to wear to go buy milk, until you look at it in its typhoon-swept suspension. When the imagination is fed, the need is found.

The show started with some very stark looks—eight of them, all black—that second-skinned the body. The sculpted tailoring was almost extreme, made possible by a new form of neoprene (itself a very mouldable fabric), very smooth, based on limestone and created by the Japanese to be Mr Gvasalia’s own Gazar, the silk once exclusively made for Balenciaga in 1958. The shoulders of the pieces were beautifully rounded and the waist just nipped-in—effecting a silhouette that was almost traditional, but looked futuristic in its imperturbable sleekness, and especially when worn with those face-visors, developed with engineers of the Mercedes-Benz racing team that would not be out of place in the game Cyberpunk 2077. A suitable oddity (that, too, has been missing in couture) to pair with those face wear were the Bang & Olufsen X Balenciaga Couture “speaker bag”, petite boom box that plays music, we suspect, wirelessly from your smartphone, stashed away on the opposite side of the speaker that opened like a conventional handbag!

With Mr Gvasalia, couture was not just about techniques, embellishment, or man hours, it was about precision too. The exactness of form is compelling. One red dress, with a T-shaped dart in the centre to yield a beautifully fitted bodice (it was repeated for a few of the dresses), flared in the rear with cuneate extensions, like wings, but they barely budged, which made them appear more like vertical airplane flaps. Elsewhere, a hot pink gown, with a striking symmetry in the front, was fashioned with a top of the back that opened like a half-cone, but looked like a hoodie—the slanting dorsal line ending just above the hollow behind the knee. It was triangular-angular of immense mathematical flair. Even the outerwear were not the obligatory trench coats: mackintosh-looking with spread collars turned-up to frame the cyborg face. To align with the existent call for environmental-friendly dressmaking practices, upcycled denim were used to express Mr Gvasalia’s on-going preoccupation with the upsized silhouette, but within which, all the painful couture handwork could be circumscribed. And in case you were too delighted by the street leaning, he pulled you back with massive crinoline skirts, so huge that even one model nearly tripped navigating the by-then treacherous runway. Perhaps the beauty of Balenciaga couture is that you teeter in the clothes. And when you do need them, you, too, require a certain posture, a certain élégance, a way with carrying the veritable sculptures. Such is the joy, even from mere watching.

Screen shot (top): balenciagacouture.com. Photos: Balenciaga Couture

Two Of A Kind: Bouquet Dresses

How many women love to be arranged in a bunch of flowers? Enough, probably, to prompt designers to turn dresses into vases

Nosegay or bouquet? (Left) Schiaparelli couture autumn/winter 2022 by Daniel Roseberry. Photo: Schiaparelli. And (right) Moschino prêt-à–porter spring/summer 2018 by Jeremy Scott. Photo: Indigital.tv

We know which among the above two came first, but perhaps that does not matter. Flowers have always bloomed in the creations of fashion designers at both the haute couture and prêt-à–porter. They go back even before the first couturier. And this attests to their versatility, even if their use risks being hackneyed, even tawdry. But fashion and flowers are soul mates; both are seasonal and both are about appearances—outwardly too. At the recent Schiaparelli couture presentation, the flowers with their stalks that worked their way from the velvet bust upwards, into an asymmetric spray that partly flanked the face (among other floristic pieces) was also more surface than substance. Daniel Roseberry was inspired by the images from Carolyne Roehm’ book A Passion for Flowers. He told WWD that he hope’d to evoke “creative innocence” with the floral arrangement. It is not immediately discernible.

Some four years ago, Jeremy Scott put together a bouquet of a dress for Moschino. Gigi Hadid wore the beribboned, wrapped-up stalks on the runway, with her head placed among colourful mixed blooms as if it flowered among the bunch. In sum, she looked very much like the tall, dramatic bouquets beauty entrepreneur Kim Lim would like to receive—any day. There is a sense of humour in Ms Hadid attired as a giant hand-held arrangement, even if it was the incongruity that arouse the amusement. And therein, we sense, lies the creative point: irreverence. Mr Roseberry had hoped to effect “innocence”, but his floral formation was not quite absent of guile; it was rather studied. The wholesome side of high fashion to counter the exposed breasts he showed earlier? Sure, his flowers were all coutured-up: hand-painted, 3-D tulips, made brilliant with rhinestone, but were they sumptuous, let alone Shocking!—the name of the new Schiaparelli exhibition to open in Paris?

It is interesting that the two men who have worked floral arrangement into their designs hail from America. It seems that this could be American designers-in-Europe’s belated expression of floristic exuberance. But blooms for the body is not terribly new. There was the Yves Saint Laurent’s couture flowered bikini-as-bridal-wear from 1999 or Alexander McQueen’s gown from 2007, festooned with real fleurs. Even the guys could not escape being adorned, or garlanded. In the spring 2020 season, Virgil Abloh placed one wreath as sort of abbreviated vest atop a T-shirt for one of his last showings for Louis Vuitton, clearly an ornamental touch, as much as one to soften the masculine nothingness of the look. But these were not quite enough, and some designers are now allowing the dress to be a receptacle in which flowers can sprout forth. The Chinese have a saying: 花无百日红 or no flower blooms for a hundred days—good times, as well as the florid, do not last long. Pessimistic? Ask some flowers.

“A Better Tomorrow”. Or, Duller?

Dior’s couture this season hopes for an improved future. For the house or the world, it is not quite clear

Despite collections after collections for both the prêt-àporter and haute couture that resist ‘spectacular’ and ‘groundbreaking’—forget ‘radical’—as descriptors, Maria Grazia Chiuri has been able to drive Dior to €18bn-revenue territory for the first quarter of this year, according to media reports, a not unimpressive 29% increase, compared to the same period last year. Do they need “to reimagined a better tomorrow”, the aim of the autumn/winter 2022 couture collection, according to Ms Chiuri to The Guardian? Dior sales across categories apparently have defied any (premature?) suspicion that the unceasing pandemic and the ongoing war in North-East Europe will dampen the brand’s outlook. This is in large part due to Ms Chiuri’s persistent push for the pragmatic, pleasantly prettified. She does not go where she fears to tread. Her clothes are well-loved because they are relatable. Women do not take to Dior with trepidation. So Ms Chiuri continually churns with confidence and delight the same delicate dresses, tempered with slogan tees and anoraks, and steadied with sensible hats and shoes.

The couture collections, too, are treated with similar aesthetical approachability, to the point that you cannot easily tell them apart from those of the pret. As we have noted before, Dior is increasingly moving away from the specialness that can inspire, among a range of emotions, awe. This isn’t naysaying. No extreme reactions are necessary to Ms Chiuri for as long as she is able to achieve the pleasantly humdrum with the obligatory see-through to mimic sexiness. Her couture presentations may have been walking theses of feminism and its attendant pride, as well as support for artists and artisans that can be aligned with Dior, but they are not designs that could provide look-back that would remind us, in the future, of revolutionary times or zeal, as The New Look still evokes. After the first prairie dress of this autumn/winter season appeared, we were ready to turn off the livestream when we received a WhatsApp message from a friend of SOTD. It said, “I don’t think Christian Dior himself had ever been to a prairie or even know what it is. Extremely sickening.”

Ms Chiuri may not have entirely abandoned the Dior house codes (she has pivoted the waist to its natural position, for example), but there has been no indication that she has forged new ones either. Or, perhaps she has: Dior is not associated with the alpine fave, dirndl skirts, or anything Cottagecore, but it now it is. She is happy to sashay in her own plodding rhythm, comforted by what we see as ennui that won’t change. Her designs are circumscribed by silhouettes that amount to five, or thereabouts, fashioned in fabrics that inevitably include the sheer. You know what will be shown; you can guess it. Predictability has never been capped. Yes, you can argue that there are those many, many stitches by the petite-mains and the details the eyes cannot see (especially not on a livestream). You can say there are those wonderful surface treatments—embroidery (on tartan: Charmed!) and floral motifs with an intricacy that screech couture or the folksy smocking on the bodice with the decorative stitches, or the frog fastening on vaguely Mao jackets. But take away all that? Are we going to be reminded of the hundreds of hours needed to make those clothes, again?

This season, Maria Grazia Chiuri pays tribute to another female creative, the Ukrainian artist Olesia Trofymenko, who is tasked to design the set. At Ms Trofymenko’s suggestion, the tree of life is used as a motif. Clichéd as the image might be, Ms Chiuri admitted to liking the symbolism a lot, with the house saying that “these traditional symmetrical structures symbolise femininity, the idea of continuity and a bright future”. The use of Ms Trofymenko’s work could appear to be a token gesture to support the war and resistance in Ukraine, but whether nominal visual value is applied or a true symbol of womanhood not expressed clearly enough already, we cannot really tell. Obvious is the return to looks that are more than retro, to a time of the pioneer women of the mid-19th century. Some of the frocks recall those of Valentino, where Ms Chiuri was a co-designer (alongside Pierpaolo Piccioli) and had loved rather medieval styles, such as the kirtle. Others, including a kirtle-looking spaghetti-strapped dress over a chemise, might look very much in place in the wardrobe of Maria Rainer of The Sound of Music. “I go to the hills when my heart is lonely,” Julie Andrews as Maria sang in the 1965 film, “I know I will hear what I’ve heard before. My heart will be blessed with the sound of music. And I’ll sing once more.” Dior’s Maria does, too.

Screen shot (top): Dior/YouTube. Photos: Dior

The Most Arresting Of The Season

During a blah couture week, Glenn Martens truly gave Jean Paul Gaultier the welcome haute so lacking elsewhere. From complex knits to swirling gowns, they’re heart-racingly rad

With couture (mostly) designed to look no different from prêt à porter these days, Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture by Glenn Martens is a master stroke of the extremes couture could afford. We’ve see the routine crowd-pleasers at Dior and Chanel (Vanessa Friedman’s shocking Tweet: “It was a very good Chanel #couture”!), and, disappointingly, even at Valentino, so Mr Martens’s high fashion debut is the proverbial breath of fresh air a sadly stodgy season needs. These are clothes that are born of an imagination in pumped-up mode. Mr Martens has a flair for the dramatic—a quality missing in couture for a while now (except, perhaps, at Viktor and Rolf)—and he expresses it in ways rather similar to Mr Gaultier. We always believe that couture should make us dream and Mr Martens has given us the tonic REM to go deep into that state.

To be sure, Mr Martens is not trying to be the enfant terrible who guided the conical-bra years of JPG in the ’80s. This isn’t “ready-to-wear on steroid”, one designer remarked to us, referring to Chitose Abe’s debut for the brand. JPG’s follow-up guest designer is more couture in his thinking, and creates shapes, other than details, that do not commensurate with the prêt. As he told the media during a preview of the show, “There’s only one time in my life when I can do a gown with a 15-meter train.” Mr Martens is clearly on a high, creating those expressive pieces in his first couture outing (although he has worked with Mr Gaultier previously and had referenced the former for his recent Y-Project collection), taking the tropes of the house and bending them to his will. Sure, there is Y-Project pinned to the pieces, but, unlike Chitose Ave, he does not let his deconstructing get too much in the way.

The Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts alum, in fact, approaches his task with a welcome classicism. Yes, there are the trains, but they are not trains that are synonymous with wedding dresses. They have more in common with court trains of the 19th century than anything you’d find in Tanjong Pagar bridal shops. Many of the costume components of French fashion that Mr Gaultier cheekily employed in the past—but sans the bra (let some other couturier pick that up!!!)—are there: corsets and stomachers, too! Sure, some of the designs border on the theatrical, but couture can afford that, and many of us, wearied by couture looking anything but, welcome the controlled exaggeration, the fantastic shapes, and sensations only couture could promise (and few houses deliver)—Mr Martens offered them, with emotional pull.

We like that he did not impose his own vision to totally obscure the JPG tropes (“Gaultierism”, some call it) we know so well. There are the ‘tattoo’ prints, now layered (but still body-hugging) to look indistinct, almost NFT-ed; 3-D metallic flowers that float over the body (metal is ethereal!); the suit with cut-outs, but not quite cold-anything; the tattered surface treatment of the more glamourous Gaultier textures (mummy strips!), and the lacing taken out of corsets to crisscross hips and trains. But the collection also targeted Gaultier diehards for whom the marinière (long-sleeved tee with horizontal blue and white stripes, typically worn by seamen or personnel of the French Navy) is emblematic of the house. But a T-shirt in a couture collection won’t hold up to scrutiny, so Glenn Martens made it into a suit-dress and embellished it with bits of cords that look like frayed raffia. Subversive may not quite be on his mind, and subversive is hardly an attention-grabber these days. But sensational, that modern rarity, is surely—and firmly—there.

Screen grab and photos: Jean Paul Gaultier

Tokyo Olympics: That Gown

There was only one couture moment at the Olympics Opening Ceremony. And it belonged to Tomo Koizumi

This was not the Superbowl half-time show. In fact, the Olympics opening ceremony has never had the equivalent of Madonna performing, at the 2012 Superbowl, on a Roman Empire-themed stage in custom Givenchy. But it came close. When singer/songwriter/producer Misia appeared on the bare stage to sing the Japanese national anthem kimigayo (君が代) during a predictably low-key opening ceremony, fashion folks all around the world could see the fashion moment—specifically couture moment. Ms Misia was not outfitted by a French house, but by compatriot designer and relative newcomer Tomo Koizumi. Even without sets or other dramatically-dressed guest stars, the sombre performance had the visual aplomb of what performers wear on Japan’s annual NHK kohaku uta gassen (紅白歌合戦 or the Red and White Song Battle) in which the costume is as crucial as the singing when deciding which team (red or white) wins.

Mr Koizumi is known for his dexterity with organza and the resultant fluffy effects when assembled. This time he created a white gown for Misia, who does not shy away from more advanced aesthetics, with recycled organza that was then spray-painted with different candy colours to yield a striking ombré effect. The silhouette is, conversely, rather conservative, possibly to better suit a different, less-celebratory Olympiad. It was not clear how the singer got onto the stage with that massive bottom half, but the skirt truly stood out—for some of us, with the same allure as a carefully syrup-drenched ice kacang! Although Misia’s performance was respectfully reposed, the visual sum was beautiful counterpoint to the almost jokey costumes that the other performers wore, including the greeters and placard-carrying crew in anime-inspired clothes that could have come from a draft storyboard of the opening ceremony. Mr Koizumi, fresh from the well-received collaboration with Sacai, has put Japanese fashion in good stead before a pandemic-weary world.

Screen grab: Mediacorp/YouTube

Two Of A Kind: Clean Up Time

Dress versus emoji. One needs mopping up!

So this is couture now? Of course, like everything else in fashion, including elegance and refinement, couture needs to be redefined. A clump of anything, too, can be clothes. To be sure, Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss did say to Vogue, “I wanted to do this like Sesame Street and Pixar.” Still, the collection, despite their serious themes, really appeared like a big joke to mock Parisian couture. Do the French even know that they need a peanut butter jar as a dress? Or, a bottle cap as skirt? Is there ever a reason to dress like a supermarket mascot if you are not working for one? That it is custom-made with the best fabrics, is not going to make a difference if, despite the efforts, you look ridiculous or, worse, mad. But these are confusing times: Ugly is not, vanilla is. So it is possible that, for Mr Jean-Raymond, mad is rad.

Until this: a grab of an outfit that looks like something expelled from the body, emerging in the shape of a fo shou gua (佛手瓜 or Buddha’s hand gourd)! And for some reason, a mop is a good accessory. When we look closer, we realise that the garment is actually a padded coat of sort, worn over identically coloured pants. The similarity to the emoji is, to us, uncanny. It could be because we have been reading in the American media last week of the CDC’s amazing warning: “not to swim with diarrhea”, including a message on Twitter, “Don’t leave your mark at the pool this summer!” Even CNN ran a piece on it, with Jeanne Moos talking about “code brown on a slide”. We are not going to identify the colour of the outfit to stay on the side of the polite, and woke.

As the collection, called Wat U Iz by Pyer Moss and “imaginative” by the press, is supposedly a visual thesis on Black erasure and Black inventions, our comparison would be seen as inappropriate. Take it seriously, we hear people say. Mr Jean-Raymond used household objects and shaped them into supple couture, which seemed rather similar to the soft sculptures of everyday objects by the American artist Claes Oldenburg. The mop refers to inventor Thomas W. Stewart, who patented one with a clamp. In this composition could also refer to the domestic lives of black women throughout their history in the US, and the domestic work they do. And the arm grabbing the entire body, domestic violence they experienced? Or unwanted sexual advances? We are, of course, guessing. The Pyer Moss collection was reportedly assembled with the help of Hollywood fabricators and costume staff. Could this be to amp up the theatricality of the clothes and their kitsch-ness, just as the very show itself is to grandly celebrate the first Black designer to show on the official couture calendar in the Chambre Syndicale’s 150-plus-year history? Couture week may be less than a week in duration, but some of us are really pooped.

Photos: (left) Pyer Moss and (right) source

’Ow Do You Hybridise That?

Chitose Abe’s take on Jean Paul Gaultier couture for autumn/winter 2021 is all singing and dancing Sacai

It’s certainly a masterclass on “’ow to do dat in a new way”, as Jean Paul Gaultier rapped in the soundtrack of his Michel Gaubert-remixed 1989 “house couture” single, How to do That. In the original track, Mr Gaultier spoke-sang through the song and answered his own question: “Bring some technic… idea…” (which spun into another song Technic Idea, with the catchy refrain “How to do that”!). And techniques and ideas were certainly what Sacai’s Chisato Abe brought to JPG in her debut collection for the French house—indeed, her first attempt at haute couture. Fans of JPG were thrilled that the brand could be fashioned in such and haute and outre manner. All JPG’s favorite visual themes (or ‘codes’) were there, but turned upside down, inside out. This is the Frankenstein love child of Sacai and Jean Paul Gaultier that you could adore—born immaculately— since this is not Sacai X JPG (or vice versa). This is JPG by Sacai. And what jumped out at us are Sacai hacking JPG; this is less homage than let’s put Sacai on the JPG stage.

To be sure, it is a momentous take on JPG by Chisato Abe, and a testament to her astounding technical ability to bring together different parts, indeed different garments, together by stitching that could possibly be beyond even JPG’s most advanced metier (how do you join so many shoulders-looking parts to a waist to form a skirt?). But Ms Abe cannot divorce herself from her RTW roots. While Sacai seems to be paring down the splicing and the conjoining (as seen in the spring/summer 2021 and the recent autumn/winter collections), she is amping up the melding (not necessarily unifying) at JPG, as if to show off what she can do. Must every look be an obvious draughting challenge or a technical marvel? It was also sometimes difficult to see the difference between this couture and her own pret-a-porter. Or, whether the clothes were assembled in Paris or Tokyo (for it to qualify as haute couture, they have to be made in Paris, although “guests designers” can work outside the city. But you get our point). The beauty of having carte blanche to do as one pleases!

Chisato Abe told WWD Japan: “I loved his collections since I was in my twenties, and what I was conscious of was the feeling of happiness and the freedom of breaking preconceived ideas. However, it is not the same as the old Gaultier. I wanted to make clothes that are just like Sacai.” And that she did. Ms Abe is a maximalist designer, but not in the Dolce & Gabbana school, or, closer home, Guo Pei. Encrusting and bejeweling is not her vernacular—not in a major way (when she did decorate—metallic embroidery, no less, she obscured them with profusion of tulle!), yet she could astonishingly create a sum so much more than its unlikely parts or extrusions. We think even Mr Gaultier himself has never assembled this many components in a single garment (excluding embellishments).

She interlaced and intertwined, wed and weaved recognisable JPG codes until they were not quite. An outfit might look like an identifiable bustier corset (less pointy than those Madonna wore, more Cardin than Gaultier) on the top, but if you allowed your eyes to marvel further down, it looked like a trench coat mis-worn. What you see in front is not what you’Il get in the back: a denim trucker-and-skirt-onesie is, in the rear, a jacket and bustle-skirt. No part of a garment cannot be undone and decamped for somewhere else. The shoulder of a military jacket can be repositioned so that there would be a one-sided pannier to the right hip. She used denim jeans (Levi’s upcycled, unlike Balenciaga’s custom-woven in Japan using vintage American looms, more like Maison Margiela’s “found pieces”? Or Junya Watanabe?) not as pants; she joined multiple pairs at the waist so they formed cartridge-pleated skirts. Nothing was what they seemed, even the prosaic could have the guise of historical homage.

She didn’t only pick the JPG pieces Madonna wore to reimagine, but also what Bjork modelled, in particular the jerkin coat with the massive JPG logo for the autumn/winter 1994 Le Grand Voyage collection, one inspired by Tibetan sherpa’s garb that surprisingly has not been tagged cultural appropriation (not in 1994, but presently?). Mr Gaultier famously put men in skirts. Ms Abe put them in dresses. Wasn’t this a first, too, for her? By now, of course, there is nothing subversive about men in non-bifurcated garb, as it was in the mid-’80s. Nor, respectable Breton stripes made of layered, ripped fabric strips, nor sneakers (extending Sacai’s collaboration with Nike) in couture. While there was indeed a lot to take in, we really wanted something more agitational, something that would blow us away. That truly didn’t appear.

Screen grab (top): Jean Paul Gaultier by Sacai. Photos: Gorunway

Two Of A Kind: The Floor-Length Padded Coat

Who wore it better?

Balenciaga isn’t quite the first to design it. But perhaps that does not matter as much as who wore it first. Andre Leon Talley, the connoisseur of the caftan, loves a large, floor-length coat too. Back in 2015, Mr Talley posted on Instagram a selfie and an OOTD that featured a long, ripe-red Norma Kamali puffer that is popularly known as the “sleeping bag coat” (Ms Kamali reportedly conceived it in the mid-’70s). He added the puffery “Luxe! Total Luxe” to the comments too. Apart from that, he would post photos of the coat another six more times—on IG alone. The tubular covering seemed to be his go-to outerwear for that season. He was photographed in front of his White Plains house wearing the said coat and, urghs, UGGs as the face of the American-own, born-in-Australia footwear brand. That photo was used countless times, other than for marketing communication purposes, even as illustration to articles that reported on his real-estate woes of early this year. And he appeared in the same glorious redness in the 2017 biographical movie, The Gospel According to Andre. The colour of chilli seems to be his favourite for outers in recent years: preceding the Kamali coat was an equally scarlet, just as omnipresent Tom Ford “kimono”.

Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia, of course, loves to base his designs on what certain characters might wear, oftentimes also the supposed underbelly of society, as well as the regular blokes—accountants and athletes, even galactic folks. His red padded coat for the debut couture collection could very likely be for statuesque rappers to wear on stage (Jay-Z?) or whoever might appreciate the extra volume that such a well-girthed coat affords. It is not likely Mr Gvasalia had ALT in mind when the coat was on the drafting table, but surely he wasn’t only looking at the archive? Was it a coincidence that they picked a Black model to wear it? Truth be told, when it appeared silently during the livestream earlier, we did think of the unforgettable Vogue ex-staffer. Surely, the portable-bedding-as-outerwear he adores needs replacing by now, or next fall? Could Balenciaga then be his new Norma Kamali or Tom Ford? That’d be tres luxe, no?

Photos: (left) Balenciaga and (right) andreltalley/Instagram

Balenciaga Couture For The Young

…and hip-hop stars. Is this the collection to change haute couture’s trajectory?

It’s at least two years in the making. This is Demna Gvasalia’s first couture collection ever and Balenciaga’s first after 53 years. And the first featuring menswear. The house closed its doors in 1968, and slammed the door shut on its haute couture division for more than half a decade. Now it’s back with a bang, but hushed by the cream carpeted floors and matching drapery of its restored salon in their haute couture quarters on 10 Avenue Georges V, Paris. Half way across the globe, we were paying close attention to our PC monitor screen for the presentation to start (it was late, and kicked off after the arrival of Bella Hadid!). The opening screen at first showed what appeared to be a label, set (not stitched) against a beige background. Below, it said, “Welcome to the Salon”, not show. When the livestream began, we saw a room (and later a corridor) and people were mingling, waiting for the show to start. For most of the day earlier, social media was heavy with expectation. Balenciaga’s ready to wear is enough to get people talking. This was predicted to break the Internet.

But it didn’t. Balenciaga’s social media pages were restored around the time of the live-streaming of the couture show, or at least Instagram and Twitter were. But was it all the rave it was expected to be? Sure, there would be those for whom Balenciaga couture can do no wrong. But, unlike in the past, there would not be the likes of Mona von Bismarck—who, according to Diana Vreeland, did not leave her room in her villa in Carpri for three days when Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his atelier in 1968—to buy and wear his clothes and visually rave about them. How many influencers can afford couture? Now, it is quite a different clientele, or audience. Men were many—James Harden, Lil Baby, Kanye West (face mysteriously concealed, but everyone knew it was him!), and others. The presence of these men, predominantly hip-hop stars, strengthen the believe that streetwear has arrived at couture houses. Once it was the aesthetics of the couture that trickled down to the pret-a-porter. Now the reverse is true. Haute couture can’t be that high up anymore.

It isn’t quite clear yet if streetwear needs further elevating or if couture needs to be less rarified. Or if streetwear, like Black designers, still needs validation. Should we call it streetwear now that even the T-shirt has a place in Balenciaga couture, although not the least a simple one? But Demna Gvasalia has not entirely distance himself from the DNA of the house known for not creating clothes that follow the lines and shapes of women’s bodies. Mr Gvasalia, adept at using negative spaces in clothes to striking effect, continues Balenciaga’s manipulation and exaggeration of shape. Continuing is key here. He called the show the “50th”. He is reopening the doors that stayed shut, and within the hallowed and hush grounds (the show was sans soundtrack, like in the old days—you could hear the rustling/swishing of the clothes. Silk taffeta!), continued showing where the last great collection was presented. And Mr’s referential and confident nod to the man whose name he now leads is exciting the wealthy young who are unable to yoke themselves to the stubbornly old-school houses such as Chanel.

But is it the great collection we have been waiting for? Or, a refresher course? We have mixed feelings. This does not have the WTF-are-those punch in the gut of Mr Gvasalia’s first outing with the house after Alexander Wang’s totally unsurprising departure in 2015. It certainly has the spirit; it has the shapes, it has the proportions; it has the textures, but does it sing—or rap? We thought we heard a hum, but only what Mr Gvasalia could intone. Is the anorak, with a back of Watteau pleats, the new opera coat? Is the cable sweater, woven with chaîne gourmette by the textile design atelier of Jean Pierre Ollier, the new hoodie? Is the bathrobe, in super-fine micro-knifed leather (actually, ciseaux-ed. Is it heavy?), the new trench? Is the floor-length padded coat, oversized and tented, the new Andre Leon Talley’s beloved “sleeping bag coat”? Is the pieced-together-by-hand leather, made into a flounced skirt, the new embossed leather? Is Demna Gvasalia, hidden away in the atelier while the guests applauded, the new “master” of them all?

Screen grab (top) and photos: Balenciaga