Haute Couture in 2018
I am frequently asked if couture still matters, why I’m going and what is it for?
The response is simple: yes, it still matters. In the end, of course, it’s not the couture of the past, since its role as ‘the first’, the trend setter and the only place to buy clothes no longer exists. When Cristobal Balenciaga and Christian Dior created collections in the 1940’s and 50’s there was still little high street or ready to wear fashion around. Ideas started at the top with names like these, and gradually filtered down to ready to wear and shops for the ordinary customer. As ready to wear became stronger and stronger so the power of couture to lead diminished and today even Chanel and Dior are as much focused on the clients as on leading the way.
To survive a couture name must have enough people buying the clothes to justify the workrooms and the expenses. Today many small names and labels make to order or make in tiny quantities, exclusivity of pieces, it may not be couture but it’s important. Even some of the hottest names don’t flood the market, hence Vetements making only 500 of a sweatshirt to sell across the world. Limited edition and couture move closer together each season. True couture is made for the client, it is longer, shorter, in another colour, with sleeves, the embroidery starting lower or higher; technically it’s a prototype and the client modifies to suit their figure, life style and possibly the specific event it’s for. As I say, ready to wear names often make to order anyway, which is how Armani Prive came about, since all their special dresses were made to order, and the same with Atelier Versace.
So, what does make couture interesting in 2018, or is it simply a bit of fashion fluff?
Chanel and Dior still put huge effort into couture, as does Valentino. Yves Saint Laurent keep saying they’re reviving couture and now Céline announce Hedi Slimane will introduce couture. Givenchy and Claire Waight Keller relaunched couture this season, and so it goes on. There are new names with great experience and many of the new names come from diverse cultural backgrounds. It’s far from dead, obsolete or a vanity project.
Paris has strengthened its place in world fashion by inclusivity from across the globe, from Yohji Yamamoto to Dries Van Noten in prêt-à-porter, and from Proenza Schouler to Ellery at couture. This is clearly reflected this season.
Valentino, the Italian couturier who came to Paris many seasons ago, was for many the show of the summer 2018 season. Mr Valentino stood to applaud the designer now at the helm, Pier Paolo Piccioli, as he took his bows in the gilded salons. The bouquet of colours, the splendour of the ball gowns, the nonchalance of many of the pieces all combined in perfect harmony, from a floor length feathered coat to a Valentino red off the shoulder ball gown, and from the high-waisted palazzo pants to the draped satin blouse. The spell was completed with the Philip Treacy feathered hats and the sound of Puccini’s Tosca echoing the art of couture to the art of opera.
Couture across the globe
However, there were many, many collections to see by designers from seemingly every corner of the world, each with a distinct creative view of couture.
This season Frenchman Christophe Josse returned to present a beautiful quiet collection in soft neutrals, from ivory to pale café au lait. Delicate details and exquisite craftsmanship whispered rather than shouted. Another Frenchman, Alexis Mabille, shows the key couture elements as essential to his work; tailoring and flou. The flou, or soft sewing, is seen in fragile lace dresses and blouses, in slithers of silk transformed into dresses, in the tailoring for a floor length crêpe trench or in a chic, sharp jacket. Mabille also flings colour around with a sure and confident hand, from lipstick scarlet to deep jade green.
Jean-Paul Gaultier always perfectly balances his shows from the strict tailoring and Parisienne trench details he has embedded in his creative pulse, through to witty and wild boîte de nuit inventions for divas and drag queens. Gaultier remains a unique talent with a totally French signature and a totally Gaultier handwriting. Franck Sorbier is little known outside his native France yet every season he produces a personal, often quirky collection which has a style and wit all his own.
This season, Art Deco Paris, Cole Porter and the madcap world of jazz and the Charleston was on view. Flapper dresses, ostrich feather fans and turbans, all added up to an attractive and flattering collection of dresses and some cover ups.
Alexandre Vauthier completes the French group of names. His mad mix of The Hunger, Grace Jones, New Romantics, 90s Tom Ford Gucci and Haute Couture was whisked into a slick, polished and glamorous collection; here every piece will stand the test away from the catwalk. Great jackets and cover ups, stunning blouses, a draped dress or two and a colour palette from deep berry red and Prince purple to Dynasty gold and optic white, with black as a balance. Applause all round.
Hyen Mi Nielsen born in Korea and raised in Denmark, now based in Paris, showed her third couture collection with extraordinary fabric layering, fluttering silks, lacquered patent leather and sepia tinted florals. The clothes had a tribal and almost voodoo excitement to them. This is a special talent.
Dutch designer Iris van Herpen, famous for her technological inventions in fabric and three-dimensional decoration, continued her classic drifting, long robe silhouettes, but also featured slender figure-hugging dresses where the embellishments curved around the body as though growing and enhancing the wearers curves.
Yuima Nakazato born in Tokyo and educated in Antwerp looked to moon landings, and life on mars. Each piece exquisitely riveted together, each piece an item from the future, and each item truly special in its creative vision.
Giambattista Valli from Rome brings Alta Moda to Paris couture with his huge ballgowns and palazzo pyjamas; he could not be anything but Italian in his aesthetic. The shadows of Capucci and Irene Galatzine can be viewed in his brilliant pieces whose colour flare and strong silhouettes would dress any diva or Cinecittà leading Lady with style and presence. Born in Vicenza, Giovanni Bedin showed his debut solo collection of twelve truly divine monochrome dresses with intricate workmanship teamed with flirty skirts. In true classic couture style, the dresses are also available in long lengths as well, demonstrating that the rules still apply and work.
Antonio Grimaldi is from Salerno and his Italian roots again mark out his couture aesthetic. There is a sweep and a boldness to his silhouettes and his colour sense this season was almost orchid-like in its depth and luxury. There is to my eye a Verona Montagues-and-Capulets drama to the line as the models trains trail behind them, and the fabrics fold like the petals and curves of exotic blooms.
Australian Ellery showed some superb trailing looks too – the exit dress or the train in all lengths, plus bustle and back-view attention was a key theme for the season. Ellery showed both this volume and statement silhouette, once in an intense royal blue, as well as a beautiful draped slender look. In a pale lilac, the flared sleeves and sensuous curve of the fabric around the body were striking. Russian Ulyanov Sergeenko sources much of her lace and craftsmanship back in her homeland, keeping skills alive or even reviving them. This season she elected for an installation, which made it much easier to view the details and painstaking working on the pieces. Tiny edge details and finest surface decoration could be viewed in closeup and truly appreciated. Galia Lahav is from Israel and her slashed sexy looks strutted through the Beaux Arts space at a fair pace, providing classic red-carpet glamour.
Ronald van der Kemp’s experiments are firmly rooted in his incredible couture skills, knowledge and understanding. From the neatest of trousers to folkloric dance dresses, this collection offers a range of ideas which encompass Kelly green crêpe de Chine panels, electric blue tailoring, and orange mousseline. Fun, a lightness of touch, glamour and excitement all feature at a RVDK show, where a silver rocket dress and a column of narcissus-coloured ruffles are all part of the season’s story.
Also from Holland, the legendary Viktor and Rolf, whose masked and flowered collection was entirely made in duchess satin. The flower colours, appliqué flowers and flowered masks echoed the love of nature seen in their couture collections. There was certainly a light-hearted and surrealist wit to this collection of pieces from tiny micro slip dress to full on floor length ball gowns.
Maison Rabih Kayrouz knows his clients so well, and clearly as so many arrive wearing his clothes, the understanding is mutual. His great pieces are designed to be worn from morning to night, in combinations and layers that simply say, here is someone making others look their brilliant, intelligent and sophisticated best. Great colours, understated construction, beautiful quality fabrics and creative embellishments are sparingly used.
Zuhair Murad from Beirut uses glitter, shimmer, shine and decoration in a light and fragile manner – however much is placed on a piece. The clothes rustle and twirl, sparkle and move in time to a rhythm. Ruffles and fringes, sweeping bustle effects and petal-like panels convey a liveliness and a sexiness that brings a smile.
Finally, Schiaparelli and Bertrand Guyon: magical when seen in the Schiaparelli salons overlooking Place Vendôme, and even more extraordinary when viewed the following day in the rooms arranged for the clients. Techniques and secrets of the decoration are revealed. It all combines to make this a truly couture experience, and as the increasing numbers of dresses seen at high-profile events shows, clients are responding to Guyon’s wonderful colour sense, and couture expertise, be it a tiny surrealist jacket or a tulle dress hovering around the wearer like a mist.
So, I’d say Paris Haute Couture still matters – and a lot!
- Tony Glenville
Tony Glenville shares his thoughts on fashion and trends in regular articles for our website. Tony is Consultant Creative Director to London College of Fashion (LCF), University of the Arts London. He is Couture Editor for Luxure magazine, and his prolific career in fashion journalism has seen him covering the major fashion scene, haute couture, and London and Paris Fashion Weeks, as well as working with NOWFASHION, Schön!, Antidote, Lash, Narcisse and Renaissance magazines. He is author of the books Top to Toe, a guide to men's grooming and New Icons of Fashion Illustration. He also works closely with Fashion Scout and is a judge at Graduate Fashion Week.
Main image: Giambattista Valli. All images Tony Glenville