French Haute Couture goes to Singapore

French heavyweights at couture week in Singapore predict a dazzling future for Asia, writesJing Zhang

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 December, 2012, 11:33am

Backstage, after her first catwalk show in Asia, fashion designer Yin Yiqing is excited about the potential the region holds for haute couture.

"I look forward to meeting the women here and to understanding their habits, their way of life and their tastes," she says. "It's a learning experience for me."

Yin's sentiments echo those expressed by the eight French couturiers showing at the second Haute Couture Week Singapore, which concluded on December 2.

The event, organised by Frank Cintamani and his company, Fide Fashion Week, is recognised as the only official haute couture week in Asia. Didier Grumbach, president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, gave it his stamp of approval, turning up with a French contingent.

Members of the chamber showing in Singapore included Christophe Josse, Maurizio Galante, Alexis Mabille, Julien Fournie and couture's new East-West poster girl, Yin.

A mixture of Asian designers were in attendance too, including Hong Kong celebrity red carpet favourite Barney Cheng, Thailand's Asava and Torgo from Mongolia. The wide range of aesthetics and talents were at times jarringly disparate.

Mainland couture powerhouse, Guo Pei, opened the week with an array of Oriental showpieces of formidable workmanship. The slick and sensual feminine gowns of Cheng made for a sophisticated show. The night ended in a dramatic costumey turn from Torgo.

Japan, long-time leaders in Asian fashion, dedicated the night to a trio of couturiers, representing three generations of Japanese design.

Up-and-coming designer Tamae Hirokawa of Somarta got the ball rolling with an impressive collection featuring baroque patterned beading and wonderfully wild metallic embellishments.

Then there were the wearable, airy Indo-Arabian-inspired looks by Junko Shimada. The finale featured the grand dame of Japanese couture and wedding gowns, Yumi Katsura, with her theatrical, colourful kimonos.

Among the Europeans, the ornate femininity of Mabille was a great contrast to the structural work of Galante, and the wild creations of On Aura Tout Vu by Bulgarian design duo Livia Stoianova and Yassen Samouilov.

"It's not only about showing how wonderful the French haute couture designers are; we also encourage designers from places like Thailand to up their game," says Cintamani.

Cintamani says the next fashion week be stricter and more curatorial.

"I'm intentionally allowing more countries to come in. I am trying to be more inclusive so that more Asian designers and countries are aware that this is happening and inspire their own people.

"I was increasingly frustrated that Asia was fast becoming known as a manufacturer and consumer of luxury but never seen to create, innovate or lead. My impetus was to try to draw some fashion focus towards Asia," he says.

"And why not? We are, after all, benefiting from economic growth and I think we should lead in areas like fashion."

Cintamani insists that he's not interested in just presenting a good show. "When we bring French couturiers here we inspire and forge alliances between the Eastern and Western designers. And that is happening."

This year Fournie has already said that he has been inspired by Singapore for his next collection.

Italian designer Galante created 12 new pieces for the show. "The first time I came here I found a different way to dress and a different approach to the body," says Galante, whose clothes have an architectural, modernist feel.

"For me, it really doesn't make sense to come here and propose the same collection as in Paris because the woman here wears it in another way and the people live in another way. I wanted to address that.

"It's really interesting to see the Asian designers here. It's progress."

Galante has long had a love affair with the East, with Asian-inspired designs a regular feature in his collections. It's his second showing at Haute Couture Week Singapore.

Yin's work was a highpoint of the week. Beijing-born Yin emigrated to Paris with her parents at the age of four. Now, at only 27, her technique and identity have taken on an acute sophistication.

"I think that I can relate better to Asian women and what they see, for example, in a collection," she says.

"Being an Asian woman I understand the body's proportions, the features, what fits them and what suits them. And also the Asian ideal of beauty, which is sometimes quite different from the Western."

She's a breath of fresh air in the rarified world of French haute couture. As one of the few female haute couturiers in Paris, Yin projects herself into her designs, to better understand what a woman wants and what she feels good in.

"The techniques of pleating and draping are very dear to me because I view fashion design as a sculptural process," says Yin.

"And I've kept this instinctive way of working throughout my collections. Movement is very important and those techniques really allow me to express myself freely."

Developing her latest ready-to-wear line, which is sold in Hong Kong at Joyce, has been quite a challenge, she says. The fine technicality of Yin's work is difficult to industrialise.

Having visited Beijing and Hong Kong this year for the opening of her exhibition with Joyce, Yin was in Shanghai three weeks ago to receive the Elle Style Award China.

"My relationship with China is growing," she says.

Creative inspiration and access to a new potential client base is not the only incentive for Western designers to visit Asia. Cintamani says that four of the designers who have shown at his couture week have found Asian investors.

The central theme of the week was summed up by a star-studded symposium held in conjunction with the event, titled "The Globalisation of Haute Couture".

A panel that included the Western designers as well as Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune, Grumbach, luxury writer and critic Helene Le Blanc and president of the renowned Japanese Bunka Fashion College, Satoshi Onuma.

The consensus is that haute couture is evolving. Although the 144-year-old Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture remains at the epicentre of the industry, its members too must adapt with the shifting landscape. "There are not many true haute couture clients in this part of the world," says Cintamani.

However, that is also changing. High-profile Asian supporters of haute couture are stepping up. Emily Hwang's (Cintamani's business partner) company EFG Fide has already invested in several couture houses and sponsored the presentations of Guo and Yin this year.

"If you are trying to engage and capture people's imaginations you need to give them the best. A lot of people here, even some media, were unaware of what 'haute couture' meant before last year's shows," says Cintamani.

"This project is an eye-opener for the French and for the people of Asia."