The Art of Lasting

Seeing the couture shows in Paris is a privilege – wearing the clothes even more so: these are exclusive garments. The rules that govern haute couture are strict, and every year the Paris Chamber of Commerce determines which houses may carry the label. Behind each stitch, of course, is the atelier: haute couture is, for the most part, hand-made, and the skill that goes into creating each garment is exceptional. As Cathy Horyn writes in The Cut, “the real drama of couture is… inside the atelier, where nimble fingers try to conjure a field of flowers out of tiny feathers, among other acts of alchemy performed…” Alchemy is right – from feathers, sequins, fabric and thread something noble is made. It’s the art of lasting, and that’s something to behold.

Of course at the Autumn/Winter 2017 shows there was theatre on the catwalk too, and no more so than when all elements of a show aligned, which they did to spectacular effect at Julien Fournié’s presentation, Première Lumière. The fluid dresses with deep V-necks, tailcoat suiting with a rock ‘n’ roll edge, and opulent high-necked blouses looked magnificent and felt up-to-the-minute. The final four looks, in very pale peach, including the Fournié bride, were strictly red carpet, but had a lightness and effortlessness about them that was reflected in the entire collection. A burst of shadowy confetti that fell during the show’s closing minutes acted as a sort of ‘live’ filter: the models appeared to be exiting the catwalk in a rainstorm. And of course it made everyone look up, and if you hadn’t previously noticed the baroque majesty of the venue, l’Oratoire du Louvre (unlikely), that was the moment. Jean Paul Cauvin’s superb music mix tied it all together. Tony Ward’s show, Envol, drew inspiration from the majesty of grand flight. Naturally, delicate feathers adorned the gowns, presented in a vivid colour palette of emerald green, yellow, black and a strong royal blue. The feather motif was continued on slim belts and exquisite golden hair-accessories that, fit for a goddess, invoked the classics. Rita Ora has already snapped up a fabulous embroidered jumpsuit, straight off the catwalk, to wear to the Warner Music Group summer party. Ashi Studio presented Apollo Chasing Daphne at Yoyo, below the Palais de Tokyo, a subterranean location that captured the darkness of that story. The pieces were sculptural and heavily embellished, in a palette of black, cream and grey. A striking detail was the use of suede pailettes, which gave a lustrous, muted quality to embroidery, especially on a high-necked, full-skirted black dress with a dramatic T-shaped back.

The merging of the traditional with the modern was strongly in evidence at Rami Kadi’s presentation at the Plaza Athénée. Kadi employs the established techniques of couture, including embroidery and beading, using unexpected materials. For example, the floral motifs on a timeless black gown are curious, not quaint, and created with tiny brightly coloured beads rather than thread. Or, there’s the black leather weaving at the neckline, hem and sleeve of a short- sleeved, embroidered coat, a material and technique also used to construct the bodice of a gown with a fabulous multi- coloured sequined skirt. YANINA Couture presented at the Hôtel d’Estrées, the Residence of the Russian Ambassador to France. Designed by architect Robert de Cotte in the early 18th century, it was built for Madeleine-Diane de Bautru de Vaubrun, the duchess of Estrées, and is now a historic monument of France. The peacock was the signature motif, a bird evident in traditional Russian embroidery since the 11th century. All elements of that mystical creature were brought to life in the pieces, from the myriad colours of its feathers to the feathers themselves, created in finely wrought embroidery. The colour palette was balanced between bright primary reds, blues and greens and lustrous blacks. Sumptuous velvets in jewel tones added depth, while of course, the bride wore white – a shimmering gown featuring the iconic bird. At Ziad Nakad gowns appeared in rich colours: emerald green, ruby, sapphire, silver. Sheer and heavily embroidered was the order of the day, and whether created with panniers or pockets (every dress should have them), the shapes of the gowns were flawless and feminine. Nakad showed in the Salon Imperial at the Westin Hotel, and there could have been no backdrop more suited to the glamour of his ornate collection. Here it was all in the detail, the couture techniques that at the end of the day do something specific: make women look fantastic.

Some may see the rubrics of haute couture as limiting, not so Bowie Wong. Like verse forms, for the poet rules can be freeing. As he told Milly Stilinovic in Forbes, “Use them as a way to create an environment in which to play.” He did just that in Eclipse, his distinctive presentation at the Peninsula. A fine example of clothing as wearable art, each piece was intricately constructed using materials including Australian leather, lambswool and sheepskin, alongside printed fabrics, and the skill of the artisan was clear in the balanced mix of cosmic and fluid shapes. Black leather hats, and sandals adorned with ankle ties that wound up the leg gave a witchy-finish to each look, while the bride, caught in the moon’s shadow, carried darkened hydrangeas. The models’ spectacular tangled hair was created by Massimo Morello for Kevin Murphy, while the make-up by Fatima Thomas carried through the lunar theme. The music, by Matt Mullamphy, evoked a nighttime wood, and a wonderfully eerie feeling.

Designers like John Galliano at Maison Margiela, or Viktor&Rolf, present haute couture in an idiosyncratic way, while the ‘princess bride’ is still a strong presence at the shows – seen in the bridal gown and pieces suited to royalty, Hollywood or otherwise, and the events they attend. The great thing about haute couture is that paradoxically within the confines of its rules there appears to be space for all visions. Above all, with few exceptions, it’s nothing to do with the everyday; it’s a dream and a spectacle, from the avant-guard to the ultra-feminine. On the day of the Bowie Wong show, I was wearing a long, pale-pink skirt. Not my usual attire, but right for HC. As my friend and I left the Peninsula, a little girl we walked past put her hand up to touch the fabric. The look on her face: something from her dress-up box was walking down Avenue Kléber. That little girl totally got it.

Article originally published August 2016 in Steph Adams