Why should we still care about Haute Couture? Part 1 of this 2-parter addressed this question describing some of the wonderful Couture garments held in London’s Fashion and Textile Museum archive. During a recent workshop with Curator, Dennis Nothdruft, we were taken through the decades, starting with Dior’s New Look, then to 60s modernism. Few designers straddled both decades more comprehensively than Balenciaga and here I came face-to-face with a sarong gown that was simply stunning in its conception and execution.
From the outside, the dress appears to be a simple column of silk, as if tied in a sarong, draping gently over the body. There is no hint of the interior construction around an integral corset, built into the cross-over draping of the sarong and secured with hooks and press-studs, each covered in the same silk fabric. Every stitch made by hand, every corset seam reinforced, this is a garment that would hold the wearer like a suit of armour whilst appearing as light as a cloud. The matching stole was double-faced but left open at each end so that the seams would lie flat with no sagging. Of everything I saw, this was the garment that I was most sorely tempted to carry off with me – an astonishing feat of sculpture.
We also saw an example of Balenciaga’s fabric innovation with a green opera coat whose velvet had been manipulated to resemble astrakhan (a type of fur derived from lambs).
The modernists were represented by garments from Andre Courreges and Pierre Cardin. For the former, we saw a double-faced, bonded jersey shift dress with vinyl detail on collar, sleeves and pockets. It was a simple design, elevated by innovative use of fabrics that maintained the garment’s cone-shape but without restricting freedom of movement.
For Cardin, we saw a matching ivory dress and coat, lined in silk, patterned seams matched flawlessly, buttons finished to perfection.
Moving into the twenty-first century, we saw three iconic pieces by modern couturiers. Alber Ebaz’s couture techniques were recently celebrated at his Manifesto show at Paris’s Maison Européenne de la Photographie. We saw one of his earliest pieces for Lanvin from 2001-2: a ballet-inspired dress in charcoal jersey, overlaid with pleated and gathered layers of net and drawn together through the bodice with delicate ties. Here the emphasis is on comfort – clothing to envelope the wearer like a cloud but with a powerful statement of chic and glamour.
Glamour of an altogether different kind came from a Christian Lacroix evening column, a catwalk sample made for the model Alek Wek. Similar to the Dior and Balenciaga gowns, it was structured around a corset with draped sheaths of patterned and textured silks flowing down as the skirt, contrasted against an industrial-looking shoulder strap of wire and metal. Typically of a Lacroix piece, the colour, print and texture clash delivered unforgettable impact.
Finally we saw Elie Saab’s gown for Halle Berry, worn when she collected her 2002 Oscar for the film Monster’s Ball. The heavily and strategically embroidered bodice is in fact a body suit that delivered a perfect and comfortable fit and anchored a lavish burgundy taffeta skirt and train. Despite the amount of fabric involved, it was light as a feather.
So does Haute Couture continue to have a place today? If we stop for a moment to consider what drives the fashion industry forward, it is innovation, artistry and artisanship. Couture is the laboratory that allows experimentation, driving these essential elements into the future. Instead of asking whether Couture is part of fashion’s past, we should be asking whether there is any fashion future without it.