Paris Couture Week: Why fashion's most exclusive event is opening up
Couture is perhaps best described as ready-to-wear fashion's glamorous, wealthy and slightly difficult aunt -- the one who only ever travels in cabs, eats out six nights a week and doesn't do stairs. It's clothing for people who look at luxury department stores the way most of us look at upmarket supermarkets.
The industry's most important dates are the biannual couture weeks in Paris. Taking place over five days (compared to Paris Fashion Week's eight), they occupy a very different space from the cut and thrust world of ready-to-wear. It is slower, more considered, and quite often more expensive.
It's well known that the landscape of fashion is rapidly being reconstructed by social media, growing calls for inclusivity, high-profile changes at influential magazines and iconoclastic brands like Vetements opting to show outside of the traditional fashion week structure.
Few assumed this wind of change would hit the puritanical world of couture any time soon, but look at the goings on at this week's Autumn-Winter 2017 edition and it's clear to see that there is a gradual shift in motion.
Outsiders on the inside
This season couture week has seen a surprising number of youthful ready-to-wear labels included in the line-up as guest members. Among them are the Belgian label A.F. Vandevorst, the Dutch designer Ronald van der Kemp, New York duo Proenza Schouler and the Los Angeles-based sisters behind Rodarte. That these labels are showing alongside mainstays like Chanel and Dior is nothing short of revolutionary.
"The week has differed in the sense that you're confused as to what's actually haute couture and what's ready-to-wear or demi-couture or whatever label designers stick on things," said Anders Christian Madsen, fashion features editor at i-D magazine. "There's no real difference to the naked eye, although I'm sure looking at the garments up close, you'll be able to see the difference between the craftsmanship."
To understand the significance of these changes, you first have to understand the fundamentals of haute couture. It is not just a colloquial term for specially made, elaborate clothes. It's an official designation with a strict set of parameters defined by the Paris Chamber Of Commerce.
To be recognized as haute couture, a label must not only produce made-to-order garments for private clients, but also run a fully functional atelier with at least 15 staff members and show at least 50 original designs in Paris each couture week, among other requirements.
For Philip Treacy, the London milliner who has designed hats for the likes of Givenchy and Chanel, bending the rules is not only fine, but also necessary for this festival of fashion to continue in good health.
"I think it brings attention to the couture week, which for a few years has been shrinking," he said. "Some of it is not couture, but so what? If everybody stuck to the strict parameters, it would be lesser."
Selling the dream
Indeed, this past week these guest labels have brought bold, controversial ideas and materials with them, taking couture right to the cutting edge of fashion. A.F. Vandevorst, for example, went full punk rock, repurposing black plastic garbage bags in their gowns, jackets and skirt. Rodarte, on the other hand, were more traditional, offering up a flowery, frilly collection in the Cloître Port Royal gardens.
Outside of the new additions, the old guard (and the very old guard) were also looking to show off the possibilities of couture, with the constantly innovating Iris van Herpen using metal and 3D-printed materials to create a collection that was part fashion, part optical illusion. Over at the Grand Palais, Chanel decided to once more look back into their heritage, bringing an enormous replica Eiffel Tower and an array of boxy, classic suits and hats in their iconic tweed.
There is undoubtedly great beauty on display across the collections, from both the old masters and young guns. But where does couture stand on the spectrum of fashion in 2017? Even with the inclusion of these new designers, is it really anything more than extravagant clothes for extravagant people?
"Some couturiers still work the old-school way, where your haute couture collection informs the ready-to-wear collection that follows. But more than that, haute couture is pure creation," Madsen said. "It doesn't have to live up to retail results, it only has to represent the house in whose name it's made. And that is pure creation, something fashion always needs more than anything."
Treacy agreed that couture's less tangible couldn't be ignored.
"(Couture) sells economically, but it also sells a dream," he said. "What are we supposed to do, walk around in shell suits?"
This might be a joke, but give it a few years (or even a few seasons) and we might well be seeing shell suits at couture week.