The reason why haute couture, and its staggering price tags, exists at all is constantly called into question by many, especially during fraught political and financial times.
True creativity pushes accepted boundaries, questions what we think now and explores possibilities.
Granted we’ve heard those words said at every TED talk and Apple conference, but this week one couture show proved that high fashion really can evolve, meaningfully.
Designer Demna Gvasalia presented his first Fall 2021 couture collection for Balenciaga, 53 years after the legendary Cristóbal Balenciaga closed the doors of his atelier.
Gvasalia previous body of work, at his own label Vetements mostly championed streetwear, hoodies and T-shirts cleverly infused with a big dose of irony, such as DHL logos.
Haute couture is by pure definition, much more rarefied.
To claim to be a couture house, a designer must have a workshop in Paris, with a specified minimum number of full-time employees, and design made-to-order for private clients, showing day and evening looks twice a year.
Covering the couture shows over the years as a rookie fashion journalist was a privilege, and it was there I learned to appreciate the true mastery of the petite mains in the atelier, whilst I also studied the seriously moneyed clientele in the front row who could afford these exquisite pieces.
But while the superior workmanship and sheer beauty of couture shows has always been evident, they can seem extraneous to real life, simply a parade of fantastical creations designed for imaginary costume balls.
This is where Gvasalia has moved the needle. His collection focused on items, both men’s and women’s, that we actually wear – blazers, jeans, sweatshirts, parkas and sweaters to which he applied the elegant and exaggerated lines of pure couture.
A khaki trench coat was reinvented as a precise, fitted evening dress, a simple black sweater and leather croc print skirt was breathtaking in its simplicity, the addition of a sweeping wrap adding grandeur to a button-through shirt.
The traditional, old school touches of elbow length gloves, stockings and wide disc hats added a retro Audrey Hepburn style glamour, but the real cleverness was that these pieces were designed to go anywhere, not just to a black-tie extravaganza.
Skilful couture is like an illustration or sketch come to life, deft strokes, dramatic lines, a play on volume and silhouette.
Gsvalia translated the drama of couture to a denim jacket, a hoodie, a puffer, or a tailored blazer by playing with proportion, gender specification and why we even classify clothes as ‘streetwear’ or ‘formalwear’.
Male and female models both wore the same wide legged black tuxedo suit, or were swathed in the same black stole, (sometimes over blue jeans); there was a slim black leather coat, wide sleeved T-shirt and glittery cable sweater, oversized and non-gendered.
It was a clever show, and optimistic in its prowess. Even in the crowded world of fashion, some things do improve.