Through the preservation of ancient savoir-faire and the empowerment of local artisans, haute couture offers social and cultural value, writes ruby veridiano
Stewards of Culture
HAUTE COUTURE’S REPUTATION is one of decadent beauty and otherworldly glamour, representing the highest echelon of fashion luxury. It’s characterised by the use of elaborate embellishments such as embroidery, feathers, pleating and special accessories, meticulously sewn by hand on the finest materials. Always made-toorder, each dress takes a minimum of 1,000 hours to complete, with some taking three years or more.
But beyond the surface ability to produce awe-inspiring dresses of topmost workmanship, couturiers also play a deeper, more meaningful role: by preserving time-honoured savoir-faire and traditional craftsmanship, haute couture can breathe new life into dying art forms and cultural relics. In this way, couturiers not only represent the vanguard of elegance, but they can also be stewards of culture.
When couturiers create from this intention, one can feel the soul of a dress.
At Yumi Katsura’s presentation during Paris Haute Couture
Week, the emotion in the room was palpable. Katsura, a veteran Japanese couturier who was trained in France, merges Japanese techniques with the “French touch” to reinvent tradition, resulting in exquisitely printed gowns and modern kimonos.
Sadly, the kimono, despite being one of the most emblematic symbols of Japan, is in danger of extinction in just a single generation. Its slow and elaborate creation process (comprised of 30 separate steps) is becoming increasingly difficult to pass on to a new generation accustomed to speed, and the ageing of artisans means that it is susceptible to fading away. The demand for Western fashion, combined with Japan’s economic downturn, has contributed to a plummeting demand for kimonos, increasing the urgency to innovate the art form to achieve modern relevance.
Owing to designers such as Madame Katsura, however, the kimono finds a new home on haute couture runways, where it can be shared with an international audience. The kimono is reintroduced in a simplified version to serve as evening and bridal wear for cosmopolitan women, giving it a more accessible, highfashion format.
Moreover, Katsura implements intricate, centuries-old techniques such as yuzen dyeing (an elaborate process using rice paste mixture), shibori dyeing (indigo dye), Nishijin weaving and Japanese embroidery in her creations, resulting in the most prestigious quality of Japanese textile craftsmanship. Today, Katsura works with local artisans who specialise in these techniques, which historically were reserved for royal and aristocratic families, with each dress taking up to six months to complete.
Although the process is long and ornate, the designer doesn’t mind. “I have been designing for 53 years,” Katsura says. “I have studied traditional techniques from all over the world. However, I think that the traditional Japanese technique has the most artistic value among all of them. So I continue in this way.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a Lebanese-American couturier has dedicated his life’s work to making couture creations with respect for ancient embroidery traditions of his homeland. Rami Kadi fuses his dual cultural heritage together to create dresses that bridge East and West.
“I feel it’s important to pay tribute to the savoir-faire that’s been used across history in many countries,” Kadi says. “These techniques are part of fashion history. I’ve always been fascinated by the art of embroidery, and its infinite possibilities to embellish a dress. To embroider a dress is like painting it with subtle delicateness.”
Embroidery in Lebanon is practised among all families, regardless of class or geography, and has been a part of the region’s culture since the Ottoman Empire. It’s used to make common items such as veils and undergarments, as well as household items like curtains and bed covers.
Today, Kadi employs cross stitch, knotted stitch and chain stitch embroidery to make his
impeccably detailed dresses, but he adds a modern twist by using unexpected materials – flourescent threads, foiled sequins and baked sequins. Moreover, he repurposes methods: for example, he uses a technique traditionally used to weave a chair and applies it to make a dress.
The artisans he works with are often surprised by his futuristic take on tradition, but soon learn to mix old and new. According to Kadi, many of his new artisans come from Syria, fleeing the war to resettle in Lebanon. Through his atelier, he’s able to offer them a valuable job as they transition into a new life.
“We’re training young and old artisans in ancient crafts,” says Kadi. “In my opinion, the best way to involve the new generation is to show them that we designers are using these techniques in our everyday work, and that they’re essential in understanding the basics of design. It’s very important to transmit this savoir-faire.”
Looking further eastward, a designer is redefining and reviving the wardrobe of an empire. Guo
Pei is considered China’s first homegrown couturier, with an aesthetic and ethos that’s rooted in her culture. Her loyalty to her country is evident in her designs, manifesting itself in traditional talismans such as dragons and phoenixes, as well as creations that include a dress inspired by blueand-white Chinese ceramics.
Guo was born during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong purged the country of finery, individuality, ideas and culture. For years, Chinese dress was drab and colourless – Pei herself grew up with monochromatic, homemade clothes, only being introduced to the fantasy of silk and the idea of beautiful dresses through her grandmother’s stories about life before the revolution.
Chiu-Ti Jansen, founder of the media company China Happenings, said it best when she told The New Yorker magazine that Pei’s creations represent “a visually deprived nation’s pent-up longing for imperial grandeur”.
Mao’s purge included much of China’s traditional arts and crafts, including embroidery, of which China is home to at least five different styles, much of which was erased during the Cultural Revolution. Guo has had to learn traditional embroidery techniques despite the century-wide gap in the craft’s history.
“Embroidery gradually became my most expressive way of design since I find it so exquisite and beautiful,” Guo says. “This became a suitable way for me to express my signature style. When I travelled to find inspiration, I found that there are embroidery contexts everywhere in the world. Of course, as a Chinese designer, it’s my responsibility to bring Chinese culture to the world stage.”
Today, her use of ornate embroidery and quintessentially Chinese aesthetics have established her as a master couturier and teacher, with a desire to pass on her craft. In 2012, she established a bridal-gown project that teaches traditional embroidery techniques so that younger designers can learn the craft once again, enabling it to have a lasting impact.
“When you engage more in design, you’ll find that
craftsmanship is a crystallisation of human wisdom instead of merely belonging to one nation,” she says. “Craftsmanship should be better preserved, continued and inherited. It’s a sustainable goal to find a space and way for this traditional craftsmanship to be passed on.”
It’s refreshing to see that younger, ready-to-wear designers, such as Kate Han and George Feng of the Mukzin brand, also embrace a passion for tradition. The designers connected over their shared experience of studying abroad, and returned to China disappointed by the overall lack of appreciation for Chinese cultural traditions.
“Most of the clothes we wear day to day are commodities,” Han says, “and they probably don’t have a chance to be exhibited in a museum one day. They’re more like one-time products, lacking both durability and a sense of beauty. The more fast-moving information we are bombarded with, the less attention we pay to the traditional cultures and handicrafts that have long supported our progress.”
Established in 2014, the young brand also demonstrates a mission to revitalise Chinese craftsmanship in a modern context, focusing on Xinjiang embroidery as its core technique. The Mukzin team went to Hami in the heartland of Xinjiang Province, and established the craftsman workshop for the Qianhuixiuniangtuan (Chinese embroidery artisans), to help bring this obscure craft to light. The artisans are all over 50 years old, and now earn 20 times more than they did before. As a result, parents see the value of the craft, and are now more open to allowing their children to study and inherit it.
“I admire the culture and history of China. I don’t want to see a future in which all of these valuable treasures are neglected,” Han says.
In a world that thrives on instant gratification and fast fashion, we risk diminishing not only quality, but also the ability to uplift, advance, and pass on culture. As Han points out, without an appreciation for slow fashion, this generation may not have anything worth exhibiting in the museums of the future.
Despite the temptation to succumb to speed, it’s imperative to honour the time it takes to make something lasting and profound. It ensures not only the preservation of beauty, but also the enrichment of a civilisation. In their roles as guardians of culture, couturiers are the protectors of tradition and savoir-faire, outfitting us with a rich culture that pays tribute to where it came from.
This kind of design philosophy is unmistakably palpable: it is, without doubt, the soul of a dress.
“I DON’T WANT TO SEE A FUTURE IN WHICH ALL OF THESE VALUABLE TREASURES ARE NEGLECTED” Mukzin co-founder, Kate Han
CLOCWISE FROM ABOVE: AT WORK IN THE RAMI KADI ATELIERS; YUMI KATSURA BREATHES NEW LIFE INTO THE KIMONO DURING PARIS HAUTE COUTURE WEEK; AN INTRICATELY EMBROIDERED PIECE FROM MUKZIN’S AUTUMN/WINTER 2018 JADE IN THE SHADOW COLLECTION