A Couture Retrospective In Shenzhen

There will soon be a Viktor & Rolf exhibition in the “Silicon Valley of China”. Not in Shanghai. Not in Hong Kong. And not, unsurprisingly, in Singapore

That there should be a Viktor & Rolf exhibition is not astonishing. But that it will debut in Asia with a couture-only show is rather unexpected, and in Shenzhen (深圳)—that’s stunning. The southern city, the third most populous in China, is, of course, no longer where day-trippers from Hong Kong (as well as the tourists in the Fragrant Harbour) go for cheap knock-offs of their favourite designer labels or luxury watches. Shenzhen, many residents and folks from Hong Kong and Macau will tell you, is a far cry from those sleazy days. It is now a modern metropolis, as sleek and bustling as neighbouring Hong Kong. Still it isn’t immediate that anyone would associate the city, home to Huawei Technologies, Tencent, and even Hey Tea, with high fashion, yet haute couture would not be out of place there. It would seem our little island is not Shenzhen enough to lure a Viktor & Rolf exhibition to our shores.

Dutch design duo, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Schören, discontinued their ready-to-wear line in 2015, the second European label with an haute couture atelier to do so, after Jean Paul Gaultier about a year earlier. The couture collections of Viktor & Rolf—the label is now owned by Italy’s OTB group—have not diminished in their creative strength and social influence. Although not always practical (and we love them for that!), their pieces are steeped in ideas and themes, and humour not ardently appreciated by those who prefer the relatable output of Dior or Chanel. With design concepts gleaned from van Gogh’s paintings to royal regalia to Russian dolls, the creations do often border on the fantastical and sculptural, so much so that they’d lure the attention of those with a curatorial mission for museums.

Viktor & Rolf: Metafashion is organised by Shenzhen’s Design Society (设计互联), a “platform” and a promoter of design, focused on the Chinese public. The curator of the exhibition, Pookie Lee, told the media that “Victor & Rolf holds a unique place in the history of fashion. Their work has always been a way of making clever commentary on fashion through the creation of new fashions, a dominant visual arts style and identity. The form expands the public’s perception of fashion.” Metafashion, the title, is borrowed from a 1994 Artforum review of the duo’s work by Oliver Zahm, who wrote: “The fashion of Viktor & Rolf, or better metafashion, is the equivalent of a conceptual exercise in reconstruction.”

Reading the news of this approaching Viktor & Rolf 80-looks strong exhibition, we have to admit that we are envious of the people of Shenzhen. The last fashion exhibition here of the work of European masters that we can remember was 2010’s Valentino Retrospective: Past/Present/Future, at Resort World Sentosa. So rare are shows of such calibre organised here that we often wonder if we are indeed living up to the reputation that exists among the people of southern China, especially Hong Kong: “唔係好有趣 (not interesting)”. This island is, in other words, and as it’s often said, boring.

Victor & Rolf: Metafashion, from 29 April—8 October 2022, is held at the Sea World Culture and Arts Centre, Shenzhen. Photos: Shenzhen Design Society

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 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 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 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 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.

Clash and Crash

One of the most discordant collections of the couture season is also strangely cohesive and one of the most entrancing



For couture, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren are not exactly press darlings the way Karl Lagerfeld is at Chanel—always feted. The duo tends to march to their own off-beat hemiolas, creating clothes that sometimes go against the emancipation of women’s wear today, spurring a discourse on fashion and feminism. Yet, they have so much up their bespoke sleeves that, more often than not, their collections encourage hours of musing.

Good artists tend to similarly provoke. Viktor and Rolf do not just produce a couture collection that inspires admiration, but awe as well. They have a flair for compositional contrasts that get the mulling over into overdrive. What’s this? Where did it come from? Where does it take the wearer from here?


The spring collection showed the disparate approach seen in such a pronounced way that the duo took last fall. With found vintage cocktail wear, they’ve deconstructed the old to reconstruct anew—with a push-pull dynamic that recalls the original Maison Margiela Artisanal collection, but with all the irreverence so characteristic of Viktor and Rolf, and with more of their kooky romanticism. Scarlet O’Hara would have appreciated this.

One rarely gets to see tiered ruffles treated this way: so sweet, with ombré effect, and strangely alluring even when ruffles may border on the over-the-top. These ruffles are applied so that the standard silhouettes are broken, but only gently. The only other label that we can think of that dared to lop and slash and send layers of ruffles askew is Comme des Garçons. But Victor and Rolf’s treatment is not so dark, and is more in keeping with 19th-century prettiness than 21st-century obsession with shattering conventional attractiveness.


Dubbed Boulevard of Broken Dreams (which we took to mean fragmented rather than smashed), the collection came together with amazing unity. We like the unexpected placement of those repurposed pieces from found clothes. Since there probably isn’t more than one of those clothes, whoever orders a dress isn’t going to get one looking exactly like what was shown on the catwalk. In fact, we think customers are going to get quite a different garment, which would play up the uniqueness of the designs. This seems to be taking customisation to an uncommon level.

Viktor and Rolf’s couture collections are not always approachable. Neither are the gowns a red carpet habitué. But the partners have always maintained their atelier as “a laboratory of ideas”, the way a couture house was once touted to be. If high fashion needs to be propelled into the next century, it needs creativity and derring-do to keep the engines well oiled. Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren seem committed to see to that.

Photos: Alessandro Garofalo/Indigital.tv



Coke Creeps Into Couture

Viktor & Rolf Couture X CokeViktor and Rolf’s autumn/winter 2016 couture. Photo: Marcus Tondo/Indigital.tv

Just as you thought haute couture is where you might seek refuge from the street-style influence that now pervades the outside of this rarefied world of fashion, in slips a soda pop logo among the silk tulle. Viktor & Rolf’s autumn/winter 2016 couture show opened with a rather unexpected article of clothing: a sweat-top emblazoned with the logotype of Coke.

Shock perhaps wasn’t the immediate reaction as surprise did not even register. Nothing in fashion is shocking anymore just as no celebrity misbehaviour today is ever truly scandalous. But a sweatshirt with a recognisable font that you often see in a supermarket or the fridge in a mamak store does suggest that perhaps something was mis-sited—a collection maybe? Did Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren decide to show ready-to-wear instead of couture in a show season dedicated to the latter? It wouldn’t be at all surprising if it was the case. After all, these are confusing times. If the recent Couture Week’s opening act was a prêt-a-porter showing (Vetements!), why can’t there be another of the latter somewhere in the middle of the former?

It is, however, not likely that Viktor and Rolf will miss a couture showing even if their collections have not always been a hit with the press, the way Chanel’s always have. The duo’s shows are usually much anticipated as they are inclined to sending down the catwalk clothes that may be seen as subversive in view of the traditions that haute couture has always tried to protect. Still, the appearance across the chest of a four-letter word that could also mean an illicit drug is unanticipated, even when post-DHL T-shirt craze, commercial branding that has nothing to do with fashion should not raise eyebrows.

Coca Cola, of course, has a special place in fashion. Karl Lagerfeld’s near-obsessive consumption of Diet Coke (reportedly to lose weight) is now legendary. In 2010, he has even designed a limited-edition Diet Coke bottle featuring his full-body silhouette in black. Since then, Coke has collaborated with designers on their bottles up to last year, when J.W.Anderson too got into the act. It’s been 130 years since Coca Cola made its appearance as a flavoured sparkling drink. So, perhaps, Viktor and Rolf’s Coke sweat-top is a tribute of sorts rather than an outright endorsement.

Coca Cola itself is, interestingly, no stranger to clothing production. Back in the September of 1985, when John Parr’s St Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion) was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, the soft drink maker launched an apparel line Coca Cola Clothing together with Murijani Corporation, the producer of denim jeans named after Gloria Vanderbilt, Anderson Cooper’s mother. Ms Vanderbilt is part of a New York family that was once one of the wealthiest in the US. Although she is considered to be the first to create the category called designer jeans, she found success mainly in perfumes.

Coca Cola Clothing 80sCoca Cola Clothing of the ’80s featured in a magazine editorial

Murijani Corporation’s collaboration with Coca Cola did not make waves on the fashion front although for a while the rugby shirts with the soft drink’s logo were popular (especially among hip-hop artistes of the early ’90s). Fashion trivia buffs would, however, be interested to know that the early Coca Cola collections were designed by Tommy Hilfiger, who had just left the jeans label Jordache and was about to start his namesake brand, also backed by Murijani Corporation.

The launch of Coca Cola Clothing was a relatively modest affair. As it was the era of MTV, Murijani Corporation backed the production of a “rock/fashion” music video Creatures of Habit to market the line. It was performed by an unknown (even till today) singer called Barbara Hyde and directed by Jeff Abelson, who was behind some of the popular videos of that time, including Ray Parker Jr’s Ghostbusters. Despite the pop platform and a plan for 50 stores around the world called, unbelievably, Fizazz, (as it turned out, only one in Tokyo opened in 1987), Coca Cola Clothing did not take off.

In 2007, they tried again. Now, it’s under “Drink2Wear”, an initiative that attempted to, according to the company, “create value through sustainable fashions”. T-shirts made from a fabric that mixed recycled PET bottles and cotton and featured exhortative text such as “Rehash your Trash” were created. Sales were perhaps encouraging as the line was expanded a year later to include loungewear, caps, and totes. Then that fizzled out.

Millennials would not have heard of clothing by Coca Cola even if they have seen T-shirts ablazoned with the logo in the weekend markets of Bangkok. As if to correct that, Coca Cola made a come-back collection in 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, this time designed by a Brazilian called Thais Rossiter. It banked on the athleisure trend that was slowly but surely showing up in urban fashion. Sadly, it was, as one observer remarked, “a joke”. 

Coca Cola should have learnt from Apple’s needless error. In 1986, just as the company’s products were winning a sizeable fan base, it launched The Apple Collection—gaudy Apple-branded clothing, accessories and “lifestyle products” that were supposed to entice fans into buying into what may be considered an early form of the Apple ecosystem. It requires no guessing that no one took a bite of that offering.

Although Coca Cola-branded wear was never wiped out from retail, no one bursting with fashion credibility would touch it. Then the spring/summer season came and a few fashion posts appeared in social media showing women in vintage Coca Cola T-shirts. Was the fizz released because of the trio of Coca Cola dresses shown by Fyodor Golan during London Fashion Week early this year? Or did that yellow, uniform-as-cool-tee started it all? Or perhaps it happened earlier, in 2014, when Moschino’s Jeremy Scott showed that fashion can appropriate commercial symbols to imbue itself with cool when he mischievously riffed on McDonald’s double arches?

Whichever the case, even couture has now caught the bug. Who’d ever thought that Coca Cola would have its day in high fashion today? What will they think of next?