Cou­ture is not just clothes, but what we per­ceive

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - HIGH PROFILE - VANESSA FRIED­MAN

PARIS — In 1996 An­dre Leon Tal­ley, then a con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor at Van­ity Fair and fa­mously of­ten the only black man in the front row of fash­ion shows, or­ga­nized a shoot for the mag­a­zine ti­tled Scar­lett ’n the Hood that reimag­ined Gone With the Wind with the races re­versed. Naomi Camp­bell, then one of the few black su­per­mod­els, played Scar­lett; John Gal­liano, then at Givenchy, played a maid.

“We wanted to tem­po­rar­ily turn the pages of his­tory around,” Tal­ley told The New York Times af­ter­ward. On Jan. 23 in Paris, not quite 23 years later, Pier­paolo Pic­ci­oli, the cre­ative di­rec­tor of Valentino, echoed his words.

“When it started, cou­ture was made for white women,” Pic­ci­oli said, stand­ing be­fore a mood board pinned with pho­to­graphs of ver­sions of the black Madonna, works by artist Kerry James Mar­shall and the fa­mous 1948 Ce­cil Beaton shoot for Vogue with nine white mod­els in Charles James cou­ture gowns, sur­rounded by pho­tos from Ebony and Franca Soz­zani’s 2008 Black Is­sue of Ital­ian Vogue.

“What if they had been in there?” he went on, ges­tur­ing to the Ebony women and Beaton. “To me cou­ture is about dream and fan­tasy and the ex­pres­sion of in­di­vid­u­al­ity, and that means di­ver­sity. It’s not about a po­lit­i­cal mes­sage you put on a T-shirt, and it’s not about street wear or sports­wear. It’s about how you look at the world.”

Then Pic­ci­oli showed ev­ery­one how to look. He did it with his now-sig­na­ture com­bi­na­tion of lav­ish ease and a gar­den of painterly shades; his abil­ity to toss a cropped neon yel­low cash­mere cape atop a blush vest and nude trousers so its train trailed on the floor just so. He did it with elab­o­rate em­broi­deries in lace and se­quins worn with the in­sou­ciance of a T-shirt, and filmy flo­ral or­gan­zas sliced up the sides to re­veal lace body­suits and pants un­der­neath (com­plete with pock­ets).


And he did it with 65 mod­els, 45 of whom were black, all in out­fits chris­tened by the women who worked on them. In an in­dus­try that has lately made real strides to­ward ac­knowl­edg­ing and re­think­ing its own past fail­ings in re­gards to the def­i­ni­tion of beauty, it made a state­ment that was im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore.

“As a de­signer, I have a voice,” Pic­ci­oli said. “Hope­fully a loud one. I want to use it.”

He wasn’t the only one. Cou­ture may be an elite sec­tor of ex­pen­sive clothes for the very few, but its reach goes far be­yond its cus­tomer base, and three weeks ago de­sign­ers were us­ing it to get a va­ri­ety of mes­sages out.

This is a time when peo­ple are speak­ing up all over. To think that fash­ion, de­signed to re­flect the mo­ment, should sit it out is de­luded. But it is not al­ways an easy fit.

Vik­tor Horsting and Rolf Sno­eren of Vik­tor & Rolf, for ex­am­ple, de­cided to make a dou­ble en­ten­dre of the whole idea (wink-wink, nud­genudge). They ap­pliqued cof­fee-cup one-lin­ers onto candy-col­ored ruf­fled mille­feuilles made from a to­tal of 8 kilo­me­ters of tulle to sug­gest that no mat­ter how sweet a woman looked, it was time to wake up to her re­al­ity.

“I’m not shy — I just don’t like you,” read the big block let­ters on one enor­mous white baby-doll gown. “Sorry I’m late — I didn’t want to come,” went the words on an­other. “Get Mean” ap­peared on a pink heart amid valen­tine red; and “Give a Damn” ap­peared on an an­gelic nightie.

It was catchy, as their fash­ion jokes usu­ally are, if not par­tic­u­larly sub­tle, un­like Maria Grazia Chi­uri’s fem­i­nist the­mat­ics at Dior, ex­pressed in the all-fe­male ac­ro­batic troupe Mim­bre.


The per­form­ers stacked them­selves into var­i­ous new­fan­gled kinds of hu­man pyra­mids un­der the big top built in the gar­dens of the Rodin Mu­seum, bal­anced on each other’s shoul­ders, reach­ing ever higher. Be­neath them came mod­els in cir­cus-in­spired crys­tal-span­gled bloomers and red and black polka-dot corset play­suits; har­lequin ruffs and beaded bare­back rider dresses.

If the clothes ul­ti­mately didn’t seem to have much to do with the show of fe­male power, ex­cept maybe for a troika of pleated Jean Har­low lame gowns — the sort that used to make view­ers go weak at the knees — the fact that this time around her fem­i­nism was im­plied rather than ad­ver­tised on T-shirts and posters was a step for­ward. Be­sides, the ring­mas­ter was a woman: in slick cut tails and a ruf­fled sheer white blouse. So was the lion tamer. Chi­uri made her point.

As did John Gal­liano at Mai­son Margiela Ar­ti­sanal, with his chaotic melange of graf­fiti and jacquard and com­puter-gen­er­ated prints and metal­lic threads and feath­ers and tweed and satin and leather and felted flow­ers and faux fur, all of it chopped and changed and mor­phed to­gether into not en­tirely iden­ti­fi­able gar­ments and shown on an in­ter­change­able ar­ray of male and fe­male mod­els.

We are in a sit­u­a­tion, he said in a pod­cast, of “over­con­sump­tion, over­sat­u­ra­tion, over­stim­u­la­tion, overindul­gence.” You know: the so­cial me­dia sick­ness — so he em­braced it. Then he pared it all down.


It’s one way to pro­pose a treatise on tech­nol­ogy. Iris van Her­pen, in her lovely mul­ti­lay­ered or­ganza ex­am­i­na­tion of man and ma­chine and the com­ing Sin­gu­lar­ity, of­fered an­other. They were look­ing for­ward, any­way, as was Clare Waight Keller at Givenchy, who is prov­ing adept at tak­ing the clas­sic tropes of cou­ture — this time the whole idea of black tie — and sub­vert­ing them.

So black la­tex leg­gings were worn in­stead of pants un­der ex­act­ingly cut jack­ets with a sin­gle knife-sharp white lapel and blood-red sec­ond-skin la­tex un­der­shirts below black lace hal­ter-neck ball­gown.

There were black guipure body­suits peek­ing through white guipure baby-doll dresses; steroid-fu­eled bows sprout­ing back­packs at the core; and egg-yolk-yel­low leg­gings ooz­ing out be­neath del­i­cate white flow­ered evening skirts.

They dared you to re-ex­am­ine old value sys­tems, and in do­ing so had an air of cur­rency ab­sent from the high-low taffeta and tulle con­fec­tions at Gi­ambat­tista Valli, the cos­mic flo­ral fan­tasies at Schi­a­par­elli and the 86 med­i­ta­tions on red and blue at Ar­mani Prive(OK, plus a lit­tle sil­ver and black), where wait­ing for an­other color was like wait­ing for Godot.

They doth protest not at all. Nor did the Chanel gar­den con­structed in the Grand Palais with ex­pan­sive grass, palm and or­ange trees, rose bushes (and a swim­ming pool), a de­light­ful frame for the long, lean sil­hou­ettes in spring­time pas­tels; gar­den party frocks in or­ganza with feath­ered blooms; and satin pouf skirts and boucle bolero tops folded and flipped in­side out. But such es­capism is not re­ally enough any­more. It’s an old story.


Still, none of them had the last word. That be­longed to Olivier Rouste­ing at Bal­main, whose de­but cou­ture was the last ma­jor show of the sea­son. Once upon a time Bal­main was a stal­wart name on the sched­ule, but it closed its ate­lier in 2002 when Os­car de la Renta left. This year Rouste­ing de­cided it was time to bring cou­ture back, and there was some an­tic­i­pa­tion about what that could mean.

An­swer: bul­bous leather “pearls” that en­cir­cled a model’s thighs and shoul­ders. Jut­ting hip but­tresses that stuck out from the side un­der enor­mous pink bows. Shred­ded “denim” dan­gling sil­ver fringe and em­broi­dered with crys­tals and pearls (there were more than 1 mil­lion pieces of Swarovski dec­o­ra­tion used in all). Pas­tel prints in faded graf­fiti swirls pleated into face-ob­scur­ing fans.

A sim­ple long white coat. Two top­less mod­els, one in a frilled ball skirt, one in white sweats, with a gi­ant sil­ver belt. An ef­fort to, seem­ingly, go through the mo­tions of the old cou­ture — in a writ­ten note, Rouste­ing said he had “pored through the house’s ar­chives” — with­out try­ing to syn­the­size the point of the new.

He said in his note that do­ing the col­lec­tion had al­lowed him “the im­mense lux­ury of step­ping back” from the pres­sures of the reg­u­lar grind; that he and his team learned new tech­niques and in­no­va­tions they can ap­ply in the rest of their year. Fair enough. But what he didn’t say — and this is the prob­lem — was what it was sup­posed to mean for the women who would buy it, or even look at it.

As a re­sult, in­stead of a soap­box, it felt like an echo cham­ber.

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