What is luxury?

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Paris Couture Week is almost upon us again and it seemed a good time to visit an exhibition posing the question “What is Luxury?” at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Despite perennial articles about whether Haute Couture is dead/almost dead/thriving (delete as applicable) it offers a small cadre of elite designers the opportunity to elevate fashion design to art form, free of the commercial constraints that apply to ready-to-wear.

So 20150624_173153what does luxury mean today? According to the V&A’s exhibition we experience luxury in many ways. It could be expressed through an object: in the precision of a watch mechanism; the extraordinary nature of a chandelier lit with dandelion heads (yes, really); the opulence of a commissioned object; the exclusivity of rank displayed through military dress; or the preciousness of a jewelled ornament.

Or it could be the implied care and workmanship that has produced something: the expertise glistening in the light-reflecting weave of a suit; the innovation that takes a functional object to new levels of performance; the passion expressed through loving craftsmanship; the pleasure of creation, acquisition and use of a beautiful item; or the transformation of the ordinary or flawed into the exceptional.

In a world in which extreme wealth has lost its power to shock, we prize the investment of time equally with that of money. That could mean the years the artisan spent acquiring skills and experience; the time spent crafting the product; and often the lifecycle of the product itself and the way it develops and changes with use. It suggests a journey of discovery and transformation over time, with stories accumulated around the object and successive owners that enhance it, almost giving it an independent life of its own.

So whether we are marvelling at the skill of Dior’s petit mains, admiring an Hermes Kelly bag from afar, or reading about another tour de force from Chanel’s stable of artisan embroiderers, lace makers and others, we are seeing an extraordinary convergence of talent and expertise. Each item represents an investment of hours of effort and passion on the part of the artisan that lives on in the object itself. So that’s why I’ll be riveted by the Haute Couture shows and why I hope Couture never dies.

Advanced hat-wearing

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Some clothing can be worn passively. You put it on, stop thinking about what you are wearing and get on with other things. Other items of clothing demand a bit more though.

R20150614_155604ecently I’ve had something of a hat obsession and I put this down to time spent poring over Ariel de Ravenel and Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni’s wonderful book, Lou Lou de la Falaise. Lou Lou really wore hats – she didn’t just put them on her head, she actively wore them and my favourite images from the book are of her doing this.

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Whether it is delivering the full-beam attitude that befits a magnificent flamenco hat, a gesture to draw attention to a perky boater, or careful angling of a felt brim, in every case she breathes life into the hat, embodying it with her force of personality.

Lou Lou was a style virtuoso, perfectly combining all kinds of accessories to original and always beautifully-judged effect. I am determined to learn the skill of active hat-wearing and as a first step, I’ll be returning to CA4LA, but this time with feeling.

Hats

20150605_125838Recently I decided I needed a new hat.  I wear beanies through the winter, baseball caps, a panama and a floppy-brimmed beach hat regularly. They are easy hats to wear: they are practical, everyday hats.  Now I wanted something that made a bit more of a style statement.

I looked for advice from Dior himself. In Dior and I, he writes:

‘The particular shape and size [of hat] to balance the “line” of the dress has to be decided…It would be out of the question to show a collection without hats. However ravishing the dresses, the mannequins would still have a naked air. This is not an exaggeration; there are circumstances when one may overlook the feeling given a face by a hat, but never in presenting a new line where a hat is essential in achieving its proportions.’

I went hat-hunting and discovered a marvellously inspiring boutique. In an unpromising location, steps from East London’s concrete-clad Old Street roundabout, CA4LA is a treasure trove for a hat-wearer. The brand is well-known at home in Japan but not so well-known elsewhere. I was surprised by the range of their stock. I’d been expecting to see hats with a Japanese style aesthetic – floppy straw hats, bows, bucket hats, visors. What I had not expected was their extensive range of more traditional styles in a wide choice of colours – fedoras, bowlers, flat caps, trilbys – and the kinds of show-hats you could wear for a day at Royal Ascot.  They work with a range of designers and suppliers and seem to hold an impressive inventory of stock.

As I tried the hats on, I tried to analyse what worked or didn’t and why. This is not something you can rush and it was also clear that my chinos and casual jacket were not helping matters. I knew what I liked but frustratingly what looked great on a wooden stand did not look so great on my head, no matter how I angled it.

I left, loving some of the hats I’d seen but frustrated that I could not make them ‘suit’ me. It took me another week or so to work out what was going wrong.

To be continued.

Shoe love (again)

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There is something about an eye-catching shoe – glitter, metallic, print – whatever draws the eye to the end of your leg and livens up a basic pair of jeans or trousers.  My problem is always that, just like my 5 year-old self, once they are on my feet I just can’t stop looking at them.  Some things never change, eh?

Rayne – a quiet kind of flamboyance

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 Alongside its main Riviera Style exhibition, London’s Fashion and Textile Museum is also showing a one-room display of shoes made by Rayne. The company may not have the fame of Manolo Blahnik but it has held a Royal Warrant since 1935, supplying shoes to Queen Mary, the Queen Mother and the present Queen.

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Looking at the shoes on display, the older models range from the classic – brown crocodile or black kitten heels – to statement-making harlequin-style stilettos.

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Today, Rayne shoes are designed by Laurence Dacade, a Paris designer who has worked with Chanel as well as designing for her own label. She is doing fabulous things there – I could happily have taken these gorgeous pairs home with me. When shoes are this fabulous, they don’t just lift the rest of your outfit, they lift your mood, your day and quite possibly that of others around you too.

See it before 30th August to bring a little shoe-delight into your life.

Riviera style in London’s Docklands

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The Fashion and Textile Museum has brought a much-needed splash of Riviera style to London’s Docklands with its latest exhibition. It traces the history of beachwear from the late 19th century to the present day, from the slightly horrifying, knitted swim suits of the 1920s and 30s right up to Speedo’s Fastskin suits.

What really struck me about this exhibition was the way that each decade seemed to be definable by a certain style influence. The 1920s costumes seemed to bring to mind the closing scene of Tender is the Night, the emotion and alcohol-ravaged Dick Diver administering his benediction to the bathers on the beach below him.

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The 1930s belonged to Chanel, recalling the iconic picture of her, dressed in white beach pyjama trousers and dripping pearls, sitting on the shoulders of the dancer Serge Lifar.

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The 1960s brought Pucci and the glamour of the jet-set life-style lived by Europe and America’s elite style troops. I could happily have taken this beautiful Pucci dress home with me – a Pucci print just defines summer.

20150604_184527Alongside this show there is a small gallery showcasing Nautical Chic, as depicted in a new book of the same name by Amber Jane Butchart. I found this part of the display fascinating. It takes five themes of nautical style and shows how the original article went on to inspire fashion. So we see the officer’s jacket used by Alexander McQueen; the fisherman’s striped jersey adopted by Jean-Paul Gaultier; sailor’s trousers with their rows of buttons used on 70s flares; the East-Coast elitist’s preppy blazer drawn into fashion mainstream; and the pirate’s skull and cross bones appropriated by Vivien Westwood. If you ever wanted to know where and how these pillars of modern dress became so embedded in our popular culture, then do try to see this great exhibition or get the book.

Both exhibitions are at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum until 30th August.

Viola Boutique

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It is always a pleasure to discover a new independent boutique, even more so to discover one that stocks smaller and harder-to-find labels. I found Viola because it was the only London stockist of the eco-chic LA label St Roche, recently featured in a post by US-based stylist, Natalie Decleve. Then I went there and was immediately charmed by it.

It is a tiny shop in a backstreet near Hyde Park, nestled alongside equally pretty neighbours – a gorgeous hat shop, a florist, pavement cafes. I got a friendly welcome, including an invitation to check out the mid-season sale in the cosy back room. The labels include Rachel Comey, David Szeto, L’Agence and Tsumori Chisato and would please a range of tastes, from minimalist to preppy to 70s disco queen (see the shop’s blog for the ultimate disco moodboard). There are accessories by Pedro Garcia, Philippe Model and Eddie Borgo as well as posters, arts, toys and vintage books. It’s a great combination that, together with the whole atmosphere of the street and neighbouring shops, makes for an eclectic and fascinating browse.

What really cinched it for me though was seeing the range they stocked from another LA designer, Raquel Allegra – t-shirts, jumpers, dresses that I haven’t seen elsewhere. I will definitely be going back on a regular basis.

As I was leaving (with my Raquel Allegra purchase) I noticed piles of Rupert Sanderson boxes sitting tantalisingly, in the course of being unpacked. I restrained myself – just. But I can’t guarantee such restraint on my next visit.

Viola, 25 Connaught Street, London W2 2AY

Ines resurgent!

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This Thursday, Paris sees the opening of Ines de la Fressange’s boutique at 24 rue de Grenelle. I’m already wondering how soon I can plan a visit. In an interview for the French edition of Elle she describes the store as an amalgamation of the things she loves including homewares, beauty, stationary. What intrigues me, though are the clothes. They will be made locally in very limited editions, some using vintage fabrics. They will be classic items, more rarefied than her Uniqlo line but not Haute Couture. An offering like this seems perfectly attuned to a consumer jaded by marketing of mass produced clothes and concerned about the ethical integrity of those manufacturers.

A couple of summers ago in a tiny Provence vintage shop, I managed to acquire a pair of trousers made under her previous label. They remain one of my summer staples – the perfect pair of black broderie anglais trousers, flatteringly high-waisted and ankle-skimming to show off a sandal. Welcome back, Ines, its been far too long.