As I type this, it is simultaneously Couture Week in Paris and Independence Day in the United States. For the last few days, my Instagram feed has been an unharmonious mix-and-match of fundraising and horror stories from refugee detainment camps quilted in with the brilliance of Clare Waight Keller’s vision for Givenchy. When I dress in the morning these days, a ritual I have unerringly loved since I was a little girl, it has been difficult to indulge in the exercise without thinking of how free I am as compared to so many other people on my country’s soil right now. As I scroll through the couture shows on Vogue Runway, it is difficult to immerse myself fully in these designers expressing their peak brilliance without the shadow of the state of the world lurking over me. These are the times we live in.
It may be particularly difficult to indulge in couture right now because, in the wake of a world that seems to be collectively attempting to rear back against progress, it is hard to immerse myself in a part of fashion that has historically been geared toward rules and exclusion.
Armani Privé Haute Couture, image from Vogue Runway
Fifteen years ago, at the advent of a new phase that could be considered nouveau utilitarian sportswear created by a crop of fresh young designers across the world, at the beginning of the rise of so many young talents that we now rely on today for our day-to-day dressing needs, couture started to feel very tired. In a world that felt new and fresh and rethought and full of possibilities, there was something stuffy about the idea of couture presentations, harkening back to the beginning of the 20th century, a time when fashion was only accessible to the ultra wealthy. Couture in the early 2000’s left fashion feeling a little uptight, and, perhaps the worst jab of all: antiquated.
Dior Haute Couture, Image from Vogue Runway
And on that wave of emotion rode in a new kind of designer – no longer classically trained at Central Saint Martins with skills honed in apprenticeships in major design houses for years. In rode a swell of stylists, celebrities and editors, each with a unique point of view and a vision for the needs of today’s women, and a loyal following already amassed from the careers they had studiously honed within the industry. We take this for granted now that it is an established business model, but in the late 90s, a line developed by a celebrity stylist would be limited exclusively to late night QVC. Twenty years later, the vast majority of new brands we see emerging in the contemporary marketplace are launched by influencers and editors.
The other major disruption to the fashion model has been the arrival of luxury streetwear. After a strong two decades of streetwear occupying what most considered to be the bottom rung of the fashion food chain, serving only as an “influence” from which major design houses were to pull from season to season, the information exchange of streetwear’s involvement in fashion has been disrupted. Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, the purveyors of downtown cool kid style of the 2000s, were elected by LVMH to resurrect the brand Kenzo in 2011. Virgil Abloh, with no actual fashion design education, was able to parlay his own brand, Off-White, into his current position of Artistic Director to Louis Vuitton menswear, solidified by an emotional first presentation in Paris two weeks ago. James Jebbia, who has been quietly dominating the streetwear scene for the last 25 years, was last month recognized by the CFDA for the first time in his career as Menswear Designer of the Year. As the landscape shifts to more officially acknowledge streetwear’s existence in our industry, the rest of the ecosystem changes as well.
Givenchy Haute Couture, Image from Vogue Runway
And amongst all of this evolution, there is couture. A quick glance at this week’s presentations so far on Vogue Runway reveals a stalwart roster of the design houses that are mostly household names. Nestled, for the first time, next to Givenchy and Christian Dior is Sonia Rykiel, with Julie de Libran’s first interpretation of the brand’s storied identity into the more elevated, fantastical vision that is demanded by couture. We are only halfway through the week and there are still many more designers to present, but in scrolling through this very limited number of presentations there is a hint of freshness amongst this tight edit – change is afoot.
The couture shows have not been untouched by the global streetwear takeover – just this morning Maison Margiela sent utility-orange neoprene cutout jackets with black leather backpacks down the runway. But there is something fresh and new in the fantasy, and it is perhaps more accessible than it has been in the past. More models of color (albeit still not enough) dot the runway under the hand-beaded and appliquéd gowns. The remaining element, untouched by the rapid evolution of what is realistically still a very new industry, is the fantasy. Karl Lagerfeld’s extravagant sets and Elie Saab’s full-body organza flowers and Dior’s featherweight hand-painted tulle – I need now, more than ever before, to see these things, vestiges of what this industry was 100 years ago, reflected onto the forms that represent what we are now.
In short, I needed to see Adut Akech Bior closing the Chanel Haute Couture show, the second black woman in history to do so. I needed to see, in a highly edited week of just a few shows broadcast to our entire global network, that we are moving forward.