The art of haute couture is one that is rooted in tradition and heritage - and, as such, only a handful of designers are privileged enough to work within its rarefied realm. For many years, the industry has been dominated by established maisons such as Chanel, Valentino and Christian Dior, but this is quickly changing as a new generation of couturiers has emerged.
Unlike their predecessors, this small group of designers is armed with a modern vision that is bringing the craft into the 21st century. With styles ranging from high fantasy to utilitarian minimalism, they are creating modern yet wearable silhouettes that appeal to new audiences in China, Russia and the Middle East.
One of the youngest and most talked-about talents to emerge in recent years is Paris-based Yiqing Yin. Born in Beijing and raised in Paris, she wanted to be a sculptor and studied at the Ecole Nationale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. She launched her first collection in 2010, and accolades quickly followed. By the time she hosted her first show at Couture Week in July 2011, she was flying high on the fashion radar, with celebrities such as Lady Gaga requesting her designs. Soon she was lauded by editors for her fresh approach to the craft, which brings emotion and poetry back to couture's somewhat stuffy image.
"My couture creations are based on an instinctive sculptural approach. Couture is an exclusive platform for experimentation and creative innovation and I try to transform exclusive traditional craftsmanship into a new vocabulary of volumes and textures to create a strong and unique visual identity," she says.
Yin's style is elaborate yet edgy, but also anarchic, raw and chaotic. Her three-dimensional designs combine loose, free-flowing forms with armour-like structures. Interestingly, her creations have become more wearable over time, as evidenced in her latest collection. Silk dresses appear subtle but are brought to life with intricate details such as feathers, complex construction and textures inspired by moth wings.
"It was all about finding balance and subtlety while at the same time telling a story," Yin says.
"In the end, it made for very signature pieces, with high creative value, that women wanted to wear because the garments were also comfortable, designed to live in and move with like a light second skin."
Alexandre Vauthier, who launched his label in 2009, embraces the extravagance that has long been associated with haute couture, but transforms it into desirable yet modern creations.
A favourite with glamazons such as Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Beyonce, he trained with modern couturiers such as Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier. As a result, his style is sexy yet elegant, with a focus on urban silhouettes and sportswear. "I think that couture evolves. Robes still exist, but I believe there is a new approach to couture through the clients, a search for wearability, exclusivity and uniqueness. People often mistake couture in the sense of technical know-how, and with an overload of embellishment and opulence. It doesn't have to be like that," he says.
His recent collection features cool silhouettes such as fitted neoprene jackets and hot pants, which are covered with elegant yet intricate embroideries or cut from futuristic fabrics. Cocktail dresses and evening gowns fall against the body in sculpted organza waves, while silk shirts resemble liquid satin. While Vauthier and Yin respect the traditions of Old World couture, designers such as Rad Hourani and Iris van Herpen are creating their own rules with collections rooted in futurism and experimentation.
Hourani debuted his first couture collection in July 2012 with a unique concept - genderless dressing. His silhouettes are sleek and sharp, with straight lines that create the illusion of a longer body. Using a predominantly all-black palette, the look is powerful and futuristic, and never dictated by trends. Instead, his designs are classic, often punctuated with refined details and luxe fabrics. For spring, his layered looks are made up of strips or geometric panels of fabric, many cinched at the waist with a 3D belt. Leather vests, unisex jackets and kimono-like leather skirts complete the androgynous look.
"My style is unisex, timeless, ageless - a style that can be adopted everywhere at anytime," he says. "My vision for couture is about creating something that looks simple but extremely complex to make. And above all, it has to be wearable."
Dutch designer van Herpen takes couture's concept of experimentation to another level. Her designs combine science fiction and fantasy to create a modern fashion vision that is out of this world.
A graduate of the ArtEZ Institute of Arts in Arnhem, Netherlands, she began her career as an intern with Alexander McQueen before launching her eponymous brand in 2007. In 2011, she became a member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture and started to develop a style that combines traditional and forgotten couture techniques with cutting-edge technologies that test fashion's limits.
"I create daringly detailed collections, which are the forefront of research, fearless innovation and multidisciplinary [skill]," she says. "It's an uncompromising, radical style that shares ideas with the arts and science. Haute couture is about combining new ways of working together with the traditional craft to show a vision of tomorrow."
Working like a scientist, van Herpen is known for experimenting with innovative materials like polyamide, metal gauze, motor chains, synthetic snakeskin, leathers, acrylic and synthetic boat yarns. For spring, she continues to experiment with 3D printing, proving that couture is a laboratory for stylish innovation and experimentation.
Also making waves on the couture scene are two storied houses that have been reinitiated into the world of haute couture. Maison Schiaparelli, which was founded by Coco Chanel’s greatest rival Elsa
Schiaparelli, lay dormant for years until the brand was bought by Tod’s owner Diego Della Valle. This spring, the house debuted its first official couture collection designed by Marco Zanini, which references Schiaparelli’s sense of colour, decoration and tongue-in-cheek humour. Vionnet, which is the legacy of couturier Madeleine Vionnet, found a modern audience when entrepreneur Goga Ashkenazi bought the label in 2012. After building a strong ready-to-wear collection, the brand debuts its first demi-couture collection this season designed by the respected Hussein Chalayan, who references the house’s
signatures, including the plisse (pleats) and bias in a new and exciting way.