’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

A Lull There Was

Positively a lull. Has ready-to-wear taken the excitement and excess away from haute couture?

 

Chanel couture AW 2018 pic 1Screen grab of Chanel haute couture autumn/winter 2018

All the talk (bluster?) about streetwear pervading ready-to-wear and impinging on popular imagination seems to be taking its toll on high fashion. The recent couture season that ended a few days ago was perhaps one of the dullest in recent memory, as if designers were taking a defeatist stand against what are unavoidable aesthetical changes sweeping through luxury brands. The usually rousing presentations of Chanel, for example, gave way to an uninspiring, drab-as-pavement-stone show, set on a recreated promenade with the bustle of a cemetery.

For most part of fashion today, marketing and the resultant hype have taken over design. Haute couture, once distant from the brouhaha that characterises ready-to-wear, is now 4G, but on which frequency does it connect, it isn’t clear. Nor is it evident that it’s as connected as other product categories brands are now expected to percolate. It appears to be in re-evaluation mode, with designers going back to what their respective houses are known for, not trying to narrow down to what is modern. It is in the past, when it was an exquisite time for couture, that createurs of the present can find something glorious to bring back or to reminisce or to parody.

Despite Valentino Garavani’s tearful reaction to Pierpaolo Piccioli’s superb collection for the house that the former founded, this couture season had not been one that was particularly moving. Presentation-wise, pret-a-porter has already stolen the show for years; it has taken the leadership role (does haute couture still sell perfume?), with cruise as its commercial director. In terms of design, commercial consideration is a prime concern, so is millennial appeal. Even the young not financially endowed enough to buy need to be adequately thrilled so that their wealthy contemporaries would bite.

Yet, haute couture has lost its ability to stir us deeply, a kindling not palpable since the heydays of the art in the ’40s and ’50s, and, maybe, Yves Saint Laurent—a collection or two—in the ’70s or Christian Lacroix in the ’80s or John Galliano’s Dior in the ’90s. In fact, not until Raf Simons’s debut at Dior in the fall of 2012 did we hold our breath when the clothes came out, model by model, look by look, airy sumptuousness by airy sumptuousness. And we have not since. Gone are the times when “clothes were devastating. One fainted. One simply blew up and died,” as Diana Vreeland said of Balenciaga.

Don’t get us wrong. Haute couture isn’t down-graded in any way, craft-wise. The clothes are still the epitome of the best in handwork and hand-guided dressmaking. But is it in high fashion’s favour that only upon close examination do we get to see its magic? Has it become a mere crucible in which the metiers can be put on their mettle? Or has designers become tired (or old) battling the reality of casual dress everywhere in the world to want couture to be more about dreams? Unremarkable—no matter the fabric, the beading, the embroidery—will just be conspicuously ordinary.

Chanel

Chanel couture AW 2018Photos: Chanel

The house decided to set the show on one of the most recognisable boulevards in Paris, not as a nod to streetwear, but as proscenium to a collection that would otherwise lack both context and vitality. Karl Lagerfeld has so successfully lend commercial clout to Chanel couture that it is increasingly harder to tell it apart from the ready-to-wear or even the cruise if you don’t, for instance, unzip the slit on the sleeve—a recurrent idea this season—up to the elbow to see how exquisite the inside is.

While Mr Largerfeld is wont to repeat an idea that he likes, the zipped sleeves appeared so frequently that what was unexpected quickly became tedious. Perhaps such a detail is necessary for otherwise quite a few outfits would be rather standard Chanel skirt suits of characteristic tweed. And there were so many of them suits, in the not-so-arresting colour of concrete. When dresses did appear, they looked like they belonged to a doll’s wardrobe, until Ant Man came along with his blue Pym Discs.

Dior

Dior couture AW 2018Photos: Dior

Dior’s pale hues and kindred nudes have been said to give the collection a “sombre vibe”. It’s surprising no one said that the colours threaded on the edge of dull. Or, on the conventional silhouettes that Maria Grazia Chiuri had preferred, as cheerful as sampling room toile. These colours may have been alright if the designs on which they were tethered to weren’t so impassive, so unimaginative, so ordinary. The nearly one-silhouette collection is generous to the many customers for whom embroidered silk tulle nipped-in at the natural waist is the epitome of moneyed femininity.

As with Chanel, the visual divide between Dior couture and its pret-a-porter is seam-narrow. Ms Chiuri has steered Dior in the direction of consumption and political reality, and what she, as a woman, thinks the majority of womankind wants to wear. Hence, there won’t be the second coming of the New Look. The selling point would be its familiarity, not only of the Dior of yore, but also of the present. Vive le classique?

Dolce & Gabbana

Dolce & Gabbana alta moda AW 2018Photos: indigital.tv

Although not on the Paris calendar, Dolce & Gabbana’s flashy Lake Como presentation—part of the Italian couture offering, Alta Moda—was very much tribute to the haute of dressmaking. Or, was it to show that they could surpass Gucci? If not in goofiness, at least in over-the-top camp? In case we do not already know that Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana could out-shine, out-bead, out-glitter, out-embroider, out-lace, out-appliqué everyone, the duo piled everything into their couture, minus the kitchen sink.

To some (or many, considering there are loads of their supporters), only such visually thrusting fashion is fashion. If fashion is of the moment, these clothes are the now that seizes you. Who needs mileage? Not today’s see-now-buy-now customers. Seeing now and buying now could also mean forgetting by tomorrow. Which, perhaps, explains why Dolce & Gabbana’s clothes don’t differ that much between collections, couture or not. More is more. No one needs to remember the seasons past when there will always be more more. Rather, it’s about the ostentation that can delight at that very moment. For that you don’t really need a description.

Givenchy

Givenchy couture AW 2018Photos: Givenchy

Claire Waight-Keller is on a high as people have not forgotten her design for the Duchess of Sussex’s wedding. She has not only done English monarchy proud, she has done all of England proud, and, in doing so, shone the light on the couture might of a house once associated with royalty, both of the ones based on thrones and those based in Hollywood.

These are clothes, one assumes, that duchesses and their ilk would wear. And between them some gowns actresses, inspired by duchesses, would pick for a red-carpet night. On that note, Ms Waight-Keller knows who she’s targeting. She has looked hard at the Givenchy archives, just as Maria Grazia Chiuri had at Dior, and hoped that among her audience and customers there may be an IG-gen Audrey Hepburn, never mind the latter’s kind of elegance on a inimitable gamine frame does not exist anymore. These were precisely-cut, moderate clothes for an imprecise and immoderate world.

Guo Pei

Guo Pei couture AW 2018Photos: indigital.tv

Even after setting up an atelier in Paris, Guo Pei has always seen fashion through her own Chinese, post-Mao, pre-market economy lens, offering couture that has, up till now, been a Beijing fantasist’s idea of what Western dress is about. Surprisingly, her latest collection was less fairy tale than usual, and, in fact, showed a maturity and—dare we say—sophistication that we never thought possible from her studio, named Rose.

This time, Ms Guo’s collection projected the “beauty of strength” of architecture by way of Gothic churches. It appeared, perhaps, a month and a half too late for the Med Gala. Still, the working of architectural forms and details into her designs was far more controlled than anything she had done before. If the reading was too literal—cupola equaled skirt, for example, this is because she has yet aligned herself with the difficult art of subtlety. The clothes, although still stiff and probably not too comfortable to wear, were at least not inverted hulls of ships.

Jean Paul Gaultier

JPG Couture AW 2018Photos: Jean Paul Gaultier

Freed from the need to do two pret-a-porter collections a year, Jean Paul Gaultier would, one might guess, have quite a lot of time in his hands to dream up a stupendous couture collection. He did not. Some said this was classic Gaultier: reworking traditional tallieur—this time, the le smoking—and not, as usual, discounting the camp. The thing is, 28 years after the advent of the conical bra that Madonna adopted faster than she did the children of Melawi, is Jean Paul Gaultier still the enfant terrible of French fashion?

To be sure, Mr Gaultier appeared to be still having fun. These clothes would probably appeal to those nostalgic for the days when he was not following the beat of other houses, when he wanted to “modernise” haute couture, when his clothes cheekily challenged gender conventions. However, are there still any rules in the book to break? Now, when nothing in fashion shocks anymore and there are those such as Nicki Minaj who dispenses with the brassiere altogether, Jean Paul Gaultier’s glammed-up camp looked somewhat unrelated to the present. In fact, Mr Gaultier no longer needs to show us his jabbing at conventional tack and taste, or How to do That, to steal the title of the dance single (“house couture”, featuring a young Naomi Campbell and a pair of pirouetting scissors!) that he released in 1988. We’re not suggesting he pares down, but he could do with some reining in. The time is right.

Maison Margiela

Maison Margiela Artisanal AW 2018Photos: Maison Margiela

John Galliano’s Artisanal collection for Maison Margiela forced the eyes to look—front and back, top and bottom. The eyes has to travel! From Martin Margiela to Mr Galliano now, Artisanal—launched in 2006 and blessed by the Chambre Syndicale de la haute Couture—has remained a challenge to the visual understanding of what is wearable on a body, or attachable (iPhones clamped to wrists and ankles?). And that makes it compelling. Mr Galliano’s vision this season perhaps owed more to Comme des Garçons—the bonding, the missing/hidden armholes, the body-misshaping wraps—than the maison’s predecessor/founder, but it continued to test perceptions in haute couture of what can be constructed, by hand no less.

“At least there was effort,” said a follower of SOTD in response to a “quiet” couture season. That is without doubt. Yet, sometimes one wonders if there was too much effort, to the point that this collection was almost a parody of Mr Galliano’s uncommon creativity, bordering on the absurd or the alien (Na’vi people, perhaps?). These were complex creations and there was much to unpack. No vanilla shifts for Mr Galliano, nothing so undeviating. While other designers sought to project outward from the body, he opted for ligature: he Christo-ed the body. The tulle binding was, in fact, previewed at Mr Galliano’s first men’s Artisanal collection a month earlier, but it was more constricted in the women’s version, as if restriction is a new covetable aesthetic, the way the wasp waist—shown in the men’s Artisanal—once was. Trust John Galliano.

Valentino

Valentino Couture AW 2018Photos: Valentino

Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Valentino couture begged to be seen again. And you did because, frankly, it was too sumptuous to take it all in in one WiFi-dependent viewing. Mr Piccioli explored the myriad possibilities couture offers as if he had stumbled into an atelier for the first time. He is, of course, not new to the support of the skilled hands and he has charmed before, but the exuberance of the collection felt like this was a maiden effort, a prodigious showing, a tour de force. For a moment, you thought haute couture has always been this wonderful.

This was affirmation of the mysterious enchantment a designer is able to offer when he stokes his imagination with the skills available to him, and magnify the sum of the parts. And such high degree of pleasure: Those ruffles! Those flounces! Those bows! Those tiers! Those shapes! Those poufs! Those prints! Those patterns! Those colours! Those embroideries! Those feathers! How they held you spellbound! In a reality/data-driven world, it was nice to see dreams come vividly alive.

Viktor & Rolf

Viktor & Rolf Couture AW 2018Photos: Viktor & Rolf

Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren celebrated their 25th year with a collection that revisited what they have done before—the complex, the astounding, and the beautiful. This time, they seemed to say that they can do them even more complex, more astounding, and more beautiful. White was the predominant colour, a clean palette with which to better imprint their boundless imagination and make a pitch for couture’s special place in the fashion universe. And Mr Horsting and Mr Snoeren did not hold back. By this, we do not mean an injudicious use of the crafting arsenal available to them. Rather, both brought to the fore a very persuasive, not manic, display of wearable art—a theme that they explored in the autumn/winter 2015 season, tempered by a unique, high-brow, alluring elegance.

In that year, Viktor and Rolf, like Jean Paul Gaultier ten months earlier, ceased the operation of their pret-a-porter. Their dedication to haute couture is clear to see in the collections they produce: always above the ordinary, with ornamentation that reflect deft hands and keen eyes. Both Mr Horsting and Snoeren are not shy, for example, of ruffles and bows: they applied them with a fervour not even Marie Antoinette’s dressmakers can match. Few designers of today handle these flourishes as nimbly and imaginatively as these two. With them, the craft of couture is celebrated. No applause would be too loud.

Denim Shirts: All Over Again

Rihana in denim shirtScreen grab of Rihanna in the video FourFiveSeconds

We’ve been noticing, especially these past two years, a resurgence of oversized denim shirts—including their chambray cousins—worn as if they’re the newest things in chemise design. The trend has been enthusiastically adopted by Rihanna, who paired hers with denim jeans and skirts. It’s now even more pronounced, with Riri wearing a belted oversized denim shirt in her latest music video, FourFiveSeconds, in which she shares screen space with Paul McCartney and Kanye West. Directed by fashion photography darlings, the Dutch duo Inez and Vinoodh, the video brings to our mind Janet Jackson’s 1990 single, Love Will Never Do (Without You), directed by Herb Ritts.

(Mr Ritts seriously got into directing music videos because of Madonna. He had shot the cover of her True Blue album in 1986, and was later asked to direct the video for Cherish. Mr Ritts apparently said to the Queen of Pop, “But I’m a still photographer”, to which she replied, “Well, you have a few weeks to learn”.)

Since we’re in recall mode, let’s stay for awhile. Rihanna apparently wore an old Sean Jean (picked from Mr West’s wardrobe) in FourFiveSeconds. She may have made the denim shirt—vintage too—a part of her mostly trashy style, but back in the early 80s, it was Sade who wore denim shirts without looking like she was trying too hard to impress (or, in current parlance, score likes). Sade had something that was innate: she wore body-con dresses without a self-conscious need to seduce; she mostly wore one accessory—hoop earrings—to forge a signature look, and she wore bolero tops even before Madonna’s current obsession with them. The Nigerian-British singer truly had that elusive ease of style, one that played well to her laid-back sensuality.

Sade in denim shirtSade doing denim on denim back in 1980. Photo: David Montgomery/Getty Images

Sade, who turned 56 last month, was no stranger to fashion, being an alumnus of London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design. Before embarking on her singing career, she was trying to be a menswear designer, which, perhaps, explains her sometimes androgynous getup. Fashion, always looking back, hasn’t forgotten her. In Jean Paul Gaultier’s spring/summer 2013 homage to 1980s pop stars, Sade was not absent (Joan Smalls, in a fitted black lace dress, played her). In the same season, Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing declared that Sade and her penchant for men’s blazer were clear influences. Similarly, our admiration is No Ordinary Love.

To Rihanna, we say, good try.