PARIS — Walls, metaphorical and literal, may be the political buzzwords of the moment as a tide of xenophobia sweeps Europe and the United States, but in Paris, as the couture shows began, inclusion was the message.
It’s ironic, given that couture is a fashion subsector roped off in velvet. These are, after all, very expensive clothes for the very few, and for a brand to qualify for the haute couture appellation it must meet a series of stringent requirements established in the days of yore, presumably to maintain the purity of the line. It was never about populism; it was about exclusion. You would think the drawbridge would be going up.
Yet if this season is marked by anything it is an embrace of outsider names, some émigrés from the ready-to-wear world, some from even further afield, including the guerrilla clothing collective Vetements; the Roman jewelry brand Bulgari (granted, it now is owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, but still the first jewelers to ever officially infiltrate couture); the American label J. Mendel; the British designer Giles Deacon; and Guo Pei, the Chinese designer who vaulted to global renown via Rihanna’s omelet of a Met Gala gown, who was making her second appearance.
And then there are the separate-but-related happenings, such as Brioni’s men’s wear show, the first from its new creative director, Justin O’Shea (who also threw in some women’s wear: chinchilla capes, pearl button pantsuits and all). And Alberta Ferretti’s first catwalk presentation of her “limited” line, a not made to order, but pretty darn elaborate nonetheless, specialty offering that this season could be summed up as “crustacean couture:” sweeping silk-fringed dresses, seed pearl macramé, shades from aqua to navy, and Ariel-on-the-clamshell embroideries.
As a group, these additions form an acknowledgment that in order to maintain any relevance in a multicultural, multidimensional world, couture culture itself has to open up: to draw its inspiration, and energy, from elsewhere. Or, as Manolo Blahnik put it when explaining why he had decided to work with Vetements — which itself used multiplicity as a theme of sorts, putting men’s wear with women’s wear and collaborating with 16 different brands on everything from velvet evening catsuits (Juicy Couture) to Talking Heads-sized Brioni tailoring — “I think it is of the moment to mix different brands.”
As to why, well: “I like the freedom of that.”
Whether you like the resulting satin stiletto waders and such is up to you (they were clever, and ultimately less faux-rebellious than usual), but in many ways the sheer fact that they appeared was the point. Besides, they were just the beginning, because the mixing didn’t stop at the brands. It also encompassed references and ideas. Sometimes more successfully than others. But then, no one ever said integration was easy.
So at Guo Pei the over-the-top entrance gowns were a mash-up of Victorian grandes dames and dragon ladies, cellophane fringe and gold sequins, towering cantilevered stiletto platforms and Three Musketeer boots. No one can dispute the work involved (the slither of a finale gown had a train covered in hundreds of mother-of-pearl flowers), but the designer’s attempt to bridge east and west is still a work in progress, perhaps because the allusions themselves feel mired in stereotype.
Or costume, as was the ode to the Soviet 1960s at Ulyana Sergeenko, who has been casting (or flopping) about for a way to evolve the Ukrainian folk dressing that made her name. It’s a worthy goal, but garter belts, Lurex knits with a “Y” logo cut in, paillette-paved coats and motorcycle helmets, along with the occasional princess gown and intarsia fur covered in cute woodland creatures, are not the answer.
Couture neophytes have a tendency to equate elaborate with creative. Just because an atelier can do something does not mean it should.