Change is a double-edged sword, sharp with new possibilities and biting due to our apprehension of the unknown. It is an uncomfortable word; over time it creates nostalgia. It is the driving force behind fashion. In fact, it is the speed of change that created fashion, for before it, we had costume—geographically and culturally pertinent clothing demarcating class—evolving glacially over centuries. What caused the fast-tracking was the need of the hour: relevance.
Couture, for more than 70 years, was in a bubble—a sweet escape from reality. Practicality was for fashion; an atelier was a decadent time capsule with limited seating, a place where embargos were celebrated with excess. It did not start that way, but over time haute couture became a wonderland with multiple portals. Everyone wanted to dream. But then a splash of cold water called the recession woke us up. And things were never the same.
Imagine that you are a trust-fund baby growing up to find the means to your cushy living suddenly cut off, because your devious relations have taken what you think is rightfully yours. Couture is that baby: nurtured in gilded ateliers, protected by opulence, convinced that it will forever be society’s beautiful darling, resistant to adulthood. It is couture’s own self-indulgent persona that held on to the rose-tinted glasses called the ‘golden era’ for as long as it could. But what was once the holy grail of textile and dress design is now a number crunchers’ scheme. What began in intimate artistic spaces have become global conglomerates manufacturing the next It bag that will drive the sales. It is no longer the creator, but the investor that weaves the dream.
The seismic ripple that was caused by the closing of Christian Lacroix, the struggles of Yves Saint Laurent, the rebranding of Schiaparelli and the buyouts of several hallowed houses in the past decade were indicators of a greater tectonic shift. Seasoned players like Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, Elie Saab and Donatella Versace realised early that figures could no longer mean svelte EU 34/36 frames and started to focus on ‘reinvention’ as a creative business strategy. The unfortunate demise of Alexander McQueen, the retirement of Valentino Garavani, the controversial exit of John Galliano from Dior and the curtain call of Jean Paul Gaultier at Hermes made us uncomfortable. Acknowledging the need for a modern makeover, Ricardo Tisci at Givenchy, Pier Paulo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri at Valentino, and Raf Simons at Dior created ‘updated’ collections that would resonate with the current times. The rise of demi-couture, high pret and non-traditional bridal-wear blurred lines. Handcraft, which was previously couture’s point of pride, was no longer exclusive to the ateliers. As the markets expanded, so did the requirements of the new demographics: collections now had to be more layered, more complex. Each season, the targets got almost impossibly higher.
The drama still exists, but more so in the details. The impeccable embellishments, novel fabrics, and meticulous construct methods. Couture this day is to be scrutinised with an eye closer and is more relevant than ever before.
Nupur Mehta Puri, Editor at Harper’s Bazaar Bride, India.
More tremors were felt recently: Raf Simons took a bow at Dior, Nicholas Ghesquiere moved on from Balenciaga, Frida Giannini stepped down at Gucci, Marc Jacobs left the Louis Vuitton stage and Alber Elbaz concluded his 14-year tenure at Lanvin. The quick entry-exit routines of creative directors at the big houses have almost formed a pattern. Tricky markets, post-recession wariness and creative diktats from the boardroom have made the studio environment a difficult one to work in. “The most marked change in global couture is that with passing years, silhouettes are evolving to a modern context,” says Nupur Mehta Puri, Editor, Harper’s Bazaar Bride India, “More wearable than ever before, and touching base with a chic, clean design philosophy.” The design gods are no longer the stars; they have been replaced by celebrities of every kind who are now ‘creative collaborators’ and designers in their own right. The marketing teams are the new couturiers. Unfair? Let us leave sentiment aside for a moment and take a break from lamenting for lost glory. It is the sad truth that we have been in denial of. Couture, as we have known it, is dead. Without a heart, but still existing. Like the undead.
But does death mean the end? In tarot, the Death card indicates a metamorphosis of sorts: in other words, change. In Karma, only the soul is the true living being, it continues its course as another reincarnated form. Couture is the soul; it is pure. What is redundant is its ego. The concept of a singular certifying body in the longstanding fashion capital of the world is like a stiff upper-lipped gentlemen’s club with a black tie dress code for heritage’s sake. It cannot go on as a relic.
Luxury today, from couture’s perspective, is a detailed understanding of the nature of customers with an enriching experience,
Gaurav Gupta, Designer and Couturier
Couture needs to revisit its original definition and apply it to 2016. It needs the heart of its creators and the pride of its crafting hands. “Luxury today, from couture’s perspective, is a detailed understanding of the nature of customers with an enriching experience,” says Couturier and Designer Gaurav Gupta. It needs the openness of young blood and the resilience of old wisdom. Casting the fancy frills aside (not literally), it needs to ask the simplest question: what is luxury today? The answer is not cashmere.