At the Paris haute couture shows for autumn-winter 2016-17, revolution is in the air

Even in Paris, even with couture, many designers were breaking the barriers separating low and high fashion, adding a certain, dare we say, street cred to their collections

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 July, 2016, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 July, 2016, 5:51pm

During this latest season of Paris haute couture autumn/winter 2016-17, we look at what the art of bespoke dressmaking means today and whether the recent disruptions in the ready-to-wear segment have had an impact on the bespoke and couture world.

Haute couture has traditionally been highly reclusive and exclusive designation, and only granted to a very select number of designers who meet strict standards of excellence and craftsmanship. Only designers who follow the strict rules of the art of bespoke, artisanal dressmaking set out by the French authority appear in Paris haute couture week.

Paris spring-summer 2017 menswear highlights

In the past few months, however, there has been an undeniable feeling of revolution in the air, with designers wanting to work at their own pace, outside of the demands of a frantic calendar, and to make their collections available immediately after they hit the catwalk.

While Burberry and Tom Ford were among the first brands to announce they would break with the status quo and switch to the so-called “see now, buy now” phenomenon, more brands followed in their footsteps, such as Vetements.

In a rather radical move, the designer du jour, Georgian-born Demna Gvasalia, founder of the much acclaimed ready-to-wear brand Vetements and new creative head at Balenciaga, opened the latest autumn/winter 2016-17 haute couture week in Paris by showcasing his Spring/Summer 2017 men’s and women’s wear as an invited guest member of the official haute couture calendar. The brand’s arrival on the calendar caused quiet a stir. Why would the very selective committee of the Federation Francaise de la Couture welcome a ready-to-wear brand to its haute couture calendar – a first in the history of French fashion – and how does this bold move affect the segment in itself?

The Vetements show raised eyebrows as a tongue-in-cheek comment on branding and fashion. But other designers approached the own haute couture collections by either simplifying and adding a certain casualness to their silhouettes – less is apparently more now, even in the most hallowed realms of high fashion. Even in Paris, even with couture, the designers seem to be breaking the low/high fashion dichotomy and adding a certain wearability, and dare we say, streetwear credibility to their collections.

Some designers went even further and desacralised haute couture by clashing its grandiosity with pop and underground culture-infused artistry. This was epitomised by John Galliano’s latest “Artisanal” offering for Maison Margiela, which was a mix-and-match of the designer’s own signature style references – opulence and eclecticism – and Martin Margielas’ heritage – deconstructionism and subversion. For instance, an upside down caban in orange mackintosh fabric worn over a navy waxed cotton shift dress with a pair of black thigh-high boots was a style hybrid that was as Galliano as can be and yet the silhouette’s deconstructed flair reminded us of master Margiela.

Versace and Armani for their part, stuck to the Italian glamour that defines them, and yet they added some never-seen-before day-to-day wearability to their couture garments. Giorgio Armani was as usual fond of exquisite and opulent embroidery and surface work, but this time his silhouettes – mostly sophisticated women’s costumes – came with an unexpected nonchalance. In fact, a silhouette consisting of a pair of velvet harem pants worn with a pastel hued tuxedo and diamond encrusted hoop earrings had an unexpected urban charm to it. Donatella Versace opted for a range of evening numbers that were casually sported by the models on the catwalk and that came with a subtle trompe-l’oeil effect – and a certain street-cred – as the drapings around the waist of Versace’s silky gowns would look similar to a sweater tied around the hips.

Ever the rule breakers, Viktor & Rolf experimented with the art of recycling for their autumn/winter 2016-17 collection. In fact, the designer duo Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren made their new haute couture entirely from bits and pieces from their archive. Vintage silhouettes and materials were torn and mixed up to create new volumes and textures that had a certain gypsy appeal to them, while the collection’s embroideries were made out of repurposed buttons, beads and crystals – a conceptual approach that gently mocks the unique artistry of haute couture by throwing in recycled parts.

Conceptual was also a big word at Francesco Scognamiglio, who showcased his haute couture in Paris for the first time, as well as at Jean Paul Gaultier. The former celebrated the clash of outlandishness and artistry, moving away from what a couture clientele would expect from Italian glamour with a range of ethereal, alien-looking Swarovski crystal studded outfits.The latter showcased a haute couture collection that felt like an escapade in the Russian tundra, celebrating the rawness of nature rather than the sumptuosity of high Parisian lifestyle.

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Finally, Karl Lagerfeld “revolutionised” haute couture his very own way: instead of opting for the flamboyance of his usually mesmerising catwalk show set designs, Chanel’s creative mastermind went back to the roots, back to the very core elements that made Chanel’s success what it is today: the artisans (“les petite mains”), the craftspeople who translate designs into palpable statement pieces. In this sense, one could admire the seamstresses at work during the show at Paris’ Grand Palais – they were actually sewing, embroidering, measuring, and fitting – in a staged atelier set alongside the catwalk during the show.

Highlights included ’60s-inspired outfits with a clean line and strong shoulders that had an empowering effect on the silhouettes, as well as contemporary A-line shaped jumpsuits worn under long jackets, and a beautiful take on surface design which featured embroidery with crystal and feather adorned creations. It was a tribute to haute couture that for once didn’t only take into consideration the clientele’s eccentric tastes, but paid homage to the humility of the people who actualise these clothes.

And with an exciting new fashion season ahead – one that will also see Maria Grazia Chiuri’s first steps as a new creative director of Christian Dior for both haute couture and ready-to-wear – we can rest assured that more revolutionary statements are yet to come.