Male Box: Fall 2013 Haute Couture – Now And Then

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[NOTE: This Haute Couture season, I found it impossible to limit myself to my usual word count. My review will be presented in two parts, Now And Then and Daytime Dressing. Part I will focus on the New Guard of haute couture designers, new designers at old fashion houses and relatively new members of the Chambre Syndicale, and evening wear. Part II will feature the Old Guard and the mark of the true haute couture customer, daytime clothes.]
Money may make the world go round, but “Haute Couture” is the benchmark currency of the fashion world. Twice a year, the very select group of designers who are “officially recognized” by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture are “invited” to present a collection as part of Haute Couture Week in Paris. Only these designers are allowed to use the designation “Haute Couture”. We look to Paris each January and July for the artistic fashions that will set the tone for the collections that will be presented in the world’s fashion capitals during the following “Ready-to-Wear” Fashion Weeks.
Each season, legitimate fashion journalists and snarky bloggers (you know who you are) question the relevance of haute couture in today’s world. Cynical business types relegate haute couture to “loss leader” status or, perhaps, “generously” acknowledge the important role of the couture in marketing “cash cows” like accessories and fragrance. How does haute couture stay relevant year after year? By bringing new blood to storied fashion houses and creating collections that employ time honored techniques but still relate to modern lifestyles.
Alexandre Vauthier is arguably the most “relevant” of the designers who have been invited to show in recent years. His jackets are already de rigeur for high fashion rocker chicks like Rihanna. One ice blue satin and black leather cocktail dress is the perfect example of how this brilliant designer employs all the technical expertise of haute couture in a thoroughly modern way. Perhaps longstanding ties between embroidery houses like Lesage and the Old Guard of couture keep them both firmly mired in fashion’s past, but younger designers like Vauthier, who trained at Thierry Mugler and led the couture design team for Jean Paul Gaultier, ensure that haute couture has a future.
Alexis Mabille is another recent member of the Chambre Syndicale. This season, he drew inspiration from Gionvanni Boldini’s portraits of the fashionable women of his day to create a collection for modern life. Whereas yesteryear’s haute couture designer understood that his clients dressed “around” jewels, whether family heirlooms, borrowed or hired for the night, Mabille understands that today’s modern woman can appreciate understatement and allow a beautifully crafted gown to be her crown jewel for the evening.
Raf Simons has really hit his stride as the creative director for Christian Dior. In his first anniversary collection for the venerable house, he solidly introduced his own already well-established aesthetic – with a just a few winking nods to the past. Modern silhouettes and graphic prints melded into the sort of artistic creations we would expect from a charter member of the Belgian avant garde who has been given access to the techniques and workmanship that embody the Paris haute couture. Call me old fashioned, but my favorite was perhaps the most Dior of his designs, a deceptively simple ivory evening gown that employs all the technical mastery of a Frank Gehry-designed building.
Ever since last year’s Costume Institute exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum proposing a hypothetical conversation between Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada, fashion types have been boning up on their fashion history. I myself have a dog-eared copy of Shocking Life on my nightstand at this very moment. Fashion legend Christian Lacroix took a break from designing for the theater (or did he?) to design a capsule collection as a tribute to the woman who inspired his own love of fashion. Only time will tell how many young designers this inspires. One dress neatly summarizes Schiap’s love of the surreal, the circus and the “shocking pink” color after which she named her perfume.
No discussion of the future of haute couture would be complete without mentioning this season’s Vionnet collection, which Goga Ashkenazi, the creative director calls a “demi-couture” collection. In order to earn the designation “Haute Couture” from the Chambre Syndicale, a designer or fashion house must offer custom made designs that require of its private customers one or more fittings. Ashkenazi pares this down to the bare minimum in her collection, including only one fitting with each purchase. Eliminating extra fittings and staying true to Madame Vionnet’s original unembellished aesthetic of bias-cut draping allows Vionnet to undercut the haute couture competition by a factor of 10. These designs are priced in the tens rather than the hundreds of thousands that haute couture creations traditionally cost. Could this be the future? Or does it strike at the very heart of what it means to be “Haute Couture”? We’ll see…
This season marks the first anniversary of a new designer at Christian Dior, Versace returning to the haute couture after an eight-year break, and the last haute couture collection presented by the house of Givenchy. No one knows if Ricardo Tischi – or his eventual successor at Givenchy – will ever again design an haute couture collection. Every day, new fashion houses are founded, old fashion houses hire new creative directors, and fashion houses, new and old, stop offering haute couture. But time marches on and haute couture survives. Vive La Haute Couture!
– Joseph Ungoco
Image Layout: Second City Style

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