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

Underwhelming

Perhaps, for once, Kim Jones does not live up to the pre-show hype?

Did we really think Kim Jones was going to astonish us with his debut couture collection for Fendi? Frankly, no. But we were hopeful. People can surprise. Mr Jones, for sure. He is known as a man of immense talent, a voracious reader, with a curious mind, and a deep knowledge of fashion—the craft and the history. It is with this erudition, know-how, and awareness that, we suspect, scored him the enviable position at Fendi. He doesn’t need the job, we feel, but it allowed him one key thing in his career that he never was able to proof: a flair for designing womenswear. Would this be second nature as it has been for him incorporating the sportif at both Louis Vuitton and Dior? No one would have guessed the truth to that when the news broke that he’d be joining Fendi; nor confirm it now. Despite an increasingly large menswear market, it is in the women’s lines that the glamour is found and absorbed, and from which a designer would win acclaim and, in many cases, be remembered. Mr Jones, it appears, need this. As Vanessa Friedman from The New York Times astutely noted, just days before the Fendi couture show, “Kim Jones Wants to Rule the Fashion World.”

Staged in what looks like a co-working-space-turn-fashion-showroom, which also looks like a glass menagerie (actually showcases that, when you look from the top down, are in the shape of Fendi’s interlocking F logo, designed by Mr Jones’s predecessor Karl Lagerfeld), the show featured models unanimously described as “A-listers”. These include (an unrecognisable) Demi Moore, who opens the show, and (an also unrecognisable) Kate Moss and her daughter, as well as Bella Hadid, Cara Delevingne, Adwoa Aboah, Christy Turlington, and, unsurprisingly, Naomi Campbell, who closes the presentation (surprisingly, no Victoria Beckham!). As both Ms Moss and Ms Campbell had walked Mr Jones’s final Louis Vuitton show in 2017, it seems apt that both models would do the same for his first with Fendi. If nothing else, to root for him. It is so thick with congenial friends-for-friends vibe that the media reports that emerge very quickly after the presentation in Paris are headlined with who appeared on the runway, not what.

The what, in fact, is the real point of interest for many who watched the live stream, rather than, say, the strangely unfamiliar eyes of post-Topshop Kate Moss. But Mr Jones’s friends may be the reasons why his debut couture collection looks the way it does: it is conceived for women who lead very specific lives. It almost seems like the clothes are made just for them. All the talk about referencing Virginia Woolf’s Orlando—and the kindred Bloomsbury set, a collective of intellectuals in the early 1900s that included Ms Woolf, and their lives and creative works (that had earlier influenced other designers such as Christopher Bailey and John Galliano)—is just talk to lend cultural heft to the clothes. As the show goes on, it is not certain Mr Jones has an immediately clear aesthetical direction for Fendi couture. Despite the feminine flourishes, sometimes just half of the outfits, it is hard not to say the collection isn’t at least in part informed by his long experience in menswear, and in the last three years, introducing couture elements to Dior for men. The addition of a trio of guys do not convincingly share the thinking of Pierpaolo Piccioli, who also showed men’s recently for Valentino, “couture is for people. I don’t care about gender.”

So what do Mr Jones’s friends need or wish to wear, whether in lockdown or not (many of them are obviously still able to travel)? A sheer cape to blur the lines of a halter-neck gown? A bosom-defining dress with a rosette to punctuate the cleavage? A half-suit-half-dress, with half a fichu? Shoulder-augmenting capes that are more royal than superhero? And, if you’re young enough, panty revealing skirts? In all the polished feminine allure, conscious good taste do not block out boring. Or, have we been let down by expectations not met? Are we simply perceiving Kim Jones’s couture incorrectly? Oh, would we also be wrong if we see, especially in one white gown with encrusted neckline and long fluted sleeves and those bosom-dusting earrings, Andrew Gn?

Screen grab (top) and photos: Fendi

Casual Is The New Couture Black

At Valentino, Pierpaolo Piccioli stepped away from red carpet, state dinner, or charity gala dressing. And it still dazzles

There are those who can accept the winds of change. They stand in the flutter—or blast—and enjoy the caresses of shifts and reversals (of time) around their bodies. Pierpaolo Piccioli is one of them. Not only does he embrace the currents flowing his way, he rides on them and soar. His latest couture for Valentino takes a break from the stupendous special occasion dressing that makes even grown men cry. They take into consideration, serenely, the unsettling time that is today. Called Code Temporal, the collection seems to address the question of what having the means to dress up really means at the present. And he does not need to suggest that it takes a village. Or a village wedding to give couture the reason to exist, to extol its time-honoured traditions. Just a stately home—the Palazzo Colonna in Rome, exemplar of the Roman Baroque, where an actual family, the Colonnas, still live (although part of the home is also a museum open to the public). It is in the ancient Great Hall of the Colonna Gallery, inaugurated in 1700, where Mr Piccioli sets the contrasting to his couture that, in comparison with his past output, is minimalist, the descriptor loathed by couture purists.

Haute couture has been in a state of protracted crossroads for as long as we can remember, and here we are again, considering not its survival or relevance, but how excessive or not it should be. There are couturiers who only want to whisk up volumes and those who can only design if they are in knee-deep vats of sequins and beads, even those based all the way in Beijing. The couture atelier was once known as a “laboratory” of ideas. Increasingly, they are more workshops of excess. With facilities that can output anything to indulge the couturier’s wildest fantasies, the clothes have been largely the basis for entertainment than the expression of a singular vision. Pierpaolo Piccioli shows that he is able to straddle both poles. And when the frippery of a former normal is shed, he shows himself to be a virtuoso of garments of technical finesse and beautiful proportions, of the tailleur and the flou, all the while not diminishing the specialness that is couture.

As if designed for (working from?) home that equals a chateau and the like, the clothes are pared down to respond to the needs of women in a domestic setting that might turn into a social gathering for a small intimate group, with not even a moment’s notice. Or for visiting the neighbour in the next palazzo down the road. Sure, the sensuous knit dresses can be worn to supervise the readying of the spring garden, but for most of the pieces, they require wanting to look this good when there is possibly no immediate audience. Dresses are sleek and not constricted; skirts—a couple with a train—swish or, with the slimmer pieces, lightly flap; cotton poplin shirts have the crispness of the ones you’re already used to, but look far dressier; supple coats, with their comfortable looseness, sheath like petals, while shorter, wrap-like tops swaddle like blankets. There is a noticeable lack of surface embellishment (save some embroideries and sequins), until the appearance of a pink open-work “bijoux” top (worn with bermuda shorts!), and you hope nightclubs will be back in business soon. Simplicity is no indication of lack of surprise: one sleeveless belted dress has a rear that looks like an unfastened gilet. Many outers are slipped off the shoulders at the end of the runway to reveal either simple separates inside or, in the case of one, a jaw-dropping top-and-pants-combination with ruffles and full sequins. Even a slip dress can have a double-boiler effect: the inner contained within an outer—one that threatens to slip completely off.

Valentino, to some, might not be Valentino if not for the ultra-feminine and, for a lack of a better word, the frothy. But there’s something to be said of designs so controlled in their execution, and colours and pairings so spirit-lifting: they convey real and rare artistry. Clothes of the highest calibre, conceived and made in rarified spaces that few find fathomable, can be this imaginable in a wardrobe, and can afford this palpability of elegance, deserve their place on actual bodies, not a collector’s store room or a museum’s archival facility. Valentino and Pierpaolo Piccioli should be accorded the honour.

Photos: Valentino

Dior’s Tale Of Lesbian Awakening

Another side of Dior, even if only in a tarot-based fantasy?

Are we taking everything too literally when we say that this is a tale of same-sex discovery? Or are we narrowing our thinking, the result of staying too much at home? There is the bath scene. What was that all about? What is it doing in a fashion film? Or, perhaps some might say, why shouldn’t it appear in a fashion film? But isn’t fashion about putting on clothes, rather than taking them off? And what fashion can be discerned when making out in a bath tub? Where the two characters, male (er, masculine should be the better word) and female, played by the same actress, the Italian-French Agnes Claisse (most recently 2017’s Blue Kids) really, in the end, just a union of the ying and the yang, the opposites that exist in us all? Is it possible that loving both our masculine or feminine side is, in fact, just the narcissism we have always denied? Or, is this the love that dares not speak its name—forbidden colours, to quote Yukio Mishima? If the non-utterance and forbiddance is so not now, isn’t it because the film seems to depict medieval times? Don’t you hate it when films, long or short, leave you with more questions than answers?

Fashion is, of course, about fantasy, the faraway, the stuff that exist in dreams until some designer takes it out of there. In hard times, fantasy and dreams are good, some seem to think. While many designers have reacted to the current still-pandemic-stricken situation by reflecting what the mood among fashion adopters is, Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri prefers to take the contrary position. Her latest outing takes us to an imaginary Le Château du Tarot (actually a Tuscan residence) in a time that is believed to be when the tarot cards were invented and used the way we know them now. Divination is not alien in the history of the house, as, reportedly, Monsieur Dior himself had often resorted to the reading of tarot cards to help him move forward in hard times. This superstition and the illustrations found on those cards, in particular, the ancient ones, are the basis of the visual positioning of Dior’s spring/summer 2021 haute couture collection.

For now, Ms Chiuri has retired her political/social/feminist statements. The replacement is a moody dreamscape/fantasia that is alive with assorted characters found on tarot cards: the women and feminine representations, such as the High Priestess, Temperance, Justice, and, inevitably(?), Death, appearing in the film by Italian director Matteo Garrone, who had also directed last season’s Dior couture presentation, set among nymphs and fairies in the woods. The dreaminess and soft focus are, therefore, visually recurrent to better recreate a magical realm and, as Dior states, “tarot cards are among the keys to accessing” it. The storyline, as you watch the film, is not immediately clear. It takes place among the many rooms of the said château. The protagonist arrives, she goes in, and is led through multiple rooms by different inhabitants (or are they, like her, visitors too?), one of them laughing dementedly (or eerily?). She sees a masculine character and is lured into seeking him-her. She is given directions by the splendidly-attired that she meets. A few have head-dresses to equal Maleficent’s. Apart from playing ushers, what were they really doing? The climax is the bath, where she who seeks finds he-she who lures. There was the disrobing and then the inevitable kiss. Two become one, to paraphrase The Spice Girls. The masculine absorbs the feminine, and the change of hair colour confirms the union.

The clothes—it’s always about the clothes—hint at her years with her former employer, Valentino, where she co-designed the collections with Pierpaolo Piccioli, whose “reign in the House of Valentino,” Frances McDormand wrote in Time, “has been a lesson in grace.” Ms Chiuri has brought a vestige of that grace to Dior couture, specifically the decorum linked to medieval times, which both designers explored when there were colleagues. There is a palpable modesty to it all, as if to negate the skin bearing or hinting that she has introduced to the RTW. Or are all that fabrics necessary to show off the skills of the atelier? The luscious gowns, without doubt, represent the epitome of dressmaking done mostly by hand. The recherché classicality deliberately illustrates the exquisiteness of couture, in case you didn’t know. It is difficult to position custom-made collections these days. Does a house celebrate craft or design? Can both coexist? Despite the dreamy and fanciful filmic musing, Dior has not really answered the question.

Screen grab (top) and photos: Dior

Just Spellbinding

Valentino’s latest haute couture shows why Pierpaolo Piccioli is the undisputed master

 

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Valentino himself once said, “I love beauty. It’s not my fault.” His successor Pierpaolo Piccioli loves the drama of beauty, and it’s really not his fault either. For the Valentino autumn winter haute couture collection, shown weeks away from the Paris calendar, Mr Piccioli engaged the British photographer Nick Knight as film-maker and the result is otherworldly and quite simply stunning. It’s the only label of the season to show that haute couture indeed deserves to be this exalted. This was the front-row seat we were promised but not delivered, till now.

Film in a darkened movie studio in Rome, with only the white (or off-white?) gowns illuminated, the video, Of Grace and Light, would elicit responses that result from the sheer marveling at its content. Mr Piccioli designs with authority and scale, and Mr Knight took them to greater heights—quite literally. For the models, this could have been an American Next Top Model “challenge”, only less death-defying! Whether swinging on a hoop or a fly bar, or standing aloft on (presumably) a ladder, the towering models were way above the usual landed requirement of duty.

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The literalists would take the clothes to be designed for stilt walkers. Yet, the cirque reference is not so far-fetched since there were some sort of flying trapeze acts, which were more magical than perilous. In the first (of the two-part) video, glitches were deliberately created or left unedited, as if the transmission was bad, as if the digital work was jinxed, as if to puncture the perfection that haute couture has come to stand for. And yet, models flew in the air to enhance the ephemeral, almost angel-like quality of the dresses. A few of the gowns were canvases on which visuals of oversized blooms were protected onto, adding to the romanticism that Mr Piccioli’s couture tends to project, and, at the same time, transmit the techie bits that a digital show is expected to have.

Then, after a unnecessarily long intermission, the camera pulled back to show the dresses in their full-length glory. Mr Piccioli not only create those exaggerated shapes he is known for, but also illustrated that sumptuous elegance need not only be achieved with a surfeit of decoration. During the lockdown of previous months, many couture beaders and embroiders were in home quarantine (perhaps not the Valentino plummasiers). Limited by the availability of his petite mains (little hands), Mr Piccioli did not scale down the perception that such clothes are only possible with human touch, still a bane in the mitigation of the spread of COVID-19. Instead, he scaled up vertically, proving that haute couture, even during a pandemic, can ascribe to loftier ideals.

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To be sure, this video subscribed to the belief—and tradition—that couture has a fantasy element about it, and panders to women who feed on such a fantasy. Yet, this wasn’t about even the most special occasion there could be to wear such gowns, but the artistry that could seriously fade to extinction if not encouraged and celebrated. Mr Piccioli did not just make more pretty dress; he made them monumental, as if they were pliable sculptures that paid homage to the limitless possibilities of the art of dressmaking. This was standing tall for haute couture.

It goes without saying that the gowns would eventually be scaled down (or shortened) for the Valentino customer. It is interesting to note that two former colleagues have presented couture dresses on the opposite end of the scale. Dior’s Maria Grazai Chiuri presented doll-sized gowns, while Mr Piccioli counterpointed with lengths that could be too long for even Amazons. And both dabbled with notions of what are deemed romantic, yet the presentations were equally on opposite ends, one fairytale-like, the other stark, black and white modernity. Haute couture presentations this season have been ephemera of a transitional time, but Valentino proposes that perhaps beauty can indeed last. And, thus, loved.

Screen grabs: Valentino/YouTube

Is Digital Better?

Although concerted, it is hard to say that Haute Couture Fashion Week is a compelling online event

 

HCFW Jul 2020From top left: Alexis Mabille, Naomi Campbell, Azzaro, Guo Pei, Julien Fornié, Iris van Herpen, Margiela (centre)

Naomi Campbell opened Haute Couture Fashion Week (HCFW) from her home, somewhere. Wearing an un-couture black T-shirt with a message “Phenomenally Black”, she showed a political side not many have seen. She urged for change in the fashion business and to draw attention to the lack of representation in fashion. As she said, “the time has come to collectively call the fashion world to task regarding inequality in our work spaces and in our industry.” We did not expect a fashion week to open on such a sombre note, but these are, for many, gloomy days.

Yet, the just-concluded autumn/winter haute couture season chose not to reflect the gloom. Fantasy is still at the crux of couture, the style and attitude of indie pop stars too. Chanel’s Virginie Viard had her mind on the halcyon days of disco, saying in the video-show notes that she was inspired by those times when she went with predecessor Karl Lagerfeld to Les Bains Douches and Le Palace in Paris, both popular discotheques of the ’80s. Was she saying that she was missing the sybaritic night life now that nightclubs are not (yet) opened?

Of the 34 designers listed in the official calendar (strangely, Balmain is not named), none presented an entire collection, although some showed enough to provide an idea of what the season’s looks might be about. Guo Pei, in a video shot in Beijing, provided eleven from a collection called Savannah. Unsurprisingly, images of animals appeared as realistically as possible. The “sustainable couture” brand Aelis showed 15 looks in a weird and wonderful video that featured extraordinary dresses, some modelled by men.

For some brands, it was an opportunity for image building or enhancing. Iris Van Herpen, in a beautiful short film titled Transmotion, showed only one white dress. A single piece too was offered by the Lebanese designer Rabih Kayrouz who made a dress entirely with grosgrain ribbons. Margiela, too, showed one outfit, but you could not make out what it was in the barely-anything-to-discern colour-negative video posted, which could have been shot via a temperature scanner.

The Hedi Slimane domain of alt-music seems to be preferred by couturiers… unconventional vocals and strange beats, not necessarily the design seemed to drive the message of modernity

 

If one was not few enough, Valentino’s presentation takes the cake: The house showed none! Unless a fabric floating can be considered a dress. In fact, it was less a presentation than an invitation—soundtracked by FKA Twigs—to a later event in Rome involving the photographer Knick Night. It was the same with Elie Saab—the house showed their bejewelling and embroidery processes, spliced with scenes of nature that probably inspired the work, but there was no dress.

Songstresses shared the limelight with some of the dresses. There was the French singer Yseult, singing on a floating catwalk at Balmain. At Azzaro, Olivier Theysken’s first couture collection for the house was revealed in what could be a music video, featuring the Belgian musician Sylvie Kreusch. From the five outfits, it is hard to say if this could be the big comeback that has so far alluded him. The Hedi Slimane domain of alt-music seems to be preferred by couturiers. From Mandy Takes a Gun at Christophe Josse to Acid at Chanel, unconventional vocals and strange beats seemed to drive the message of modernity. There was, however, one without music: Adeline André’s soundless slideshow.

Humour and wit are almost entirely missing, except at Viktor & Rolf. Shot against a doorway of an empty room, the video was voiced by the musician Mika, who described the nine-piece capsule as “three wardrobes for three mindsets in these extraordinary times of change.” Of one sweeping, full-length coat, he said, “social-distancing never felt so sweet in this white faux-leather manteau.” The first and only video to bring on a smile.

Given that masks are accessories du jour and many, many more jours to come, only two designers showed them: Rahul Mishra—festooned with butterflies— and Viktor & Rolf, noting that the face mask has “won global acclaim as the smartest new accessory of the season”. There were face shields too. At Xuan, Vietnamese designer Thu Nguyen made them out of flowers; they totally obscured the face, while at Aganovich, entire heads were more completely covered than they would be with a balaclava!

Many couture houses claim they have ways to connect with their clients directly, to inform them of their latest collections. This digital HCFW, therefore, isn’t necessarily for those who have this special relationship. Touted as an event that gives everyone a front row view, it tallies with the notion that fashion is entertainment. But the video presentations are uneven, with some lost in their own artsiness. Sure, couture has always had its share of affected creativity, but how this can lift spirits and convince viewers that couture is good and necessary and to be supported, even if only voyeuristically, we really don’t know.

Screen grabs: respective brands/Youtube

Balmain: Be Buoyant

Olivier Rousteing takes a short cruise down the Seine

 

Balmain haute couture Jul 2020 P1

Typical of Olivier Rousteing, Balmain’s haute couture presentation was a rousing affair. His love of models is well known, so no sketches or tailor dummies for him. Rather, real, in-the-flesh boys and girls, and good-looking dancers, prancing on a barge that cruises down the Seine, passing some of the 4th arrondissement’s famous landmarks. The models walk the length of the barge, with Mr Rousteing among them, adjusting the gowns to flow nicely, all the better for the photographers to capture the couture above the currents. French high fashion has probably never seen such lively riparian entertainment.

While many designers, this season, have resigned to the fact that a fashion show as we know it is not, for now, possible (Alexis Mabille created a boxed-up runway, as if hoarding off potential spectators), Mr Rousteing took to the heart of Paris and set up, in the open, an eye-catching floating runway (the action spilled onto the riverbank too, with dancers stirring up a carnival mood). Relevance in check, he had the whole presentation streamed on TikTok, which unfortunately did not fare too well, as the broadcast was choppy and stopped abruptly. It isn’t clear why a Balmain fashion show should sit alongside the typical content of the video equivalent of Instagram—jokey, unscripted, and rather mindless.

Balmain haute couture Jul 2020 P2

Dancers, dressed like the designer, first appear on the barge, doing some vigorous moves. There is also the French pop singer Yseult imperturbably augmenting the soundtrack that suffers from poor acoustics. The models emerge onto a mirrored runway that reflects the blue, blue sky, and stand on their respective platforms. Then, they are immobile. Although, as a tableau, this would be the closest to a traditional catwalk, there is a sense that it is unnatural for the models. They seem bothered by the wind in their hair. Are they afraid, too, that they might fall into the Seine, even if this isn’t an America’s Next Top Model ‘challenge’? They look like fish out of the river.

As for the clothes, it is the Balmain that Mr Rousteing has created for the house since 2011. Some of the more colourful gowns hint at the good years he spent at Roberto Cavalli. There is one ruffled number that would be perfect for singing alone at the Grand Palais, sans audience! Others, such as those familiar, overwrought, body-con mini-dresses, reflect the vision of a club kid bringing his sense of glamour to couture, now embraced by reality TV stars and wealthy socialites alike. Mr Rousteing has found a formula, and, given the restrictive situation before the show, it is probably best to stick to what he knows best. And have fun at the same time—he certainly looks like he has.

Screen grabs: (top) Balmain/TikTok, (bottom) Paris Videostars/Youtube

Chanel Chooses Canny

The house of the interlocking Cs shared a video of the latest haute couture collection on its website. Need Chanel be this frugal? 

 

Chanel HC July 2020

Put the models in front of a camera and let her do her own thing. And the rest, post-production will take care of it. For all the money Chanel had spent in the past, creating those amazing sets in the Grand Palais, it is rather shocking that, for its haute couture presentation, the brand has decided to do it easy—really easy… and plain. At one time, Chanel could afford to hire the best set builders and decorators, but now they can’t even engage a scene painter or a CGI designer. Before we’re reminded, they did raise the prices of their handbags.

We understand that times have unimaginably changed and that in the lead up to this season, it was not easy to put together an haute couture collection that would culminate in a show. But if there is “creativity in a time of crisis”, as Vogue said encouragingly on its June/July cover, Chanel is not expressing it, although on its website it declares “limitless creativity and sophistication”. It is regrettable that Chanel has to resort to such puffery.

Unexpectedly, they chose the simplest way, and played it straight, creating a one-and-half-minute video for its haute couture collection that is worse than the cruise. A stretched-out roll of white paper as backdrop (footprints in one frame was included) for models that are no Pat Cleveland (or, to be more Chanel and a tad more current, Cara Delevingne) to execute what might be considered a dance. If this was a Hollywood casting call, not one would get a job.

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It can be assumed that the video is conceived to just show the clothes. What is shown? Nothing much. It’s hard to see when the editing is frenetic and lighting capricious. Astonishing it would be if anyone thought Virginie Viard would surprise. We know the designs would be as expected, so we don’t pitch our hopes high. She’ll likely add more sequins, and she does, she will play with tweeds, and she does, and and she’ll work with ruffles and gathers, and she does—this time in a light-grey, two-piece that could be homage to Princess Diana’s wedding dress.

The thirty-look collection (not all were shown in the video) of nothingness is apparently “marked by a desire for shimmering opulence and sophistication (that word again!)”, according to their self-sell. The culture of couture is, if we understand it correctly, consistent from the first sketch to the last image, everything by default had to be haute. It requires quite a stretch of imagination to place an unimaginative video within the realm of the sophisticated.

Screen grabs: Chanel