Haute couture just can’t get through the day without having its existence called into question.
Set against a landscape of affordable fast fashion and designers who churn out ready-to-wear collections almost as quickly, garments requiring hundreds of hours of hand sewing and in-person fittings are at once wildly unattainable and ridiculously slow to deliver. Though critics ultimately tend to believe in the magic of haute couture, their reviews of those shows are often filled with doubt.
If ready-to-wear is moving upmarket, Business of Fashion wondered in January, is the ultra high-end redundant? If couture is to remain, Sarah Mower wrote for Vogue that same month, “should it create dreams or register reality?”
As though to toss gasoline on the flame, Couture Week kicked off in Paris on Sunday with a show by Vetements, the design collective selling $800 hoodies, boots with cigarette lighter heels, and fake DHL T-shirts that became an object of industry fascination, derision, and thirst when it launched in 2014.
Technically speaking, Vetements presented its spring 2017 ready-to-wear collection — not haute couture, a designation awarded each year to a select group of brands by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, one wing of France’s governing body for the fashion industry. (To make the cut, those houses must create custom clothing for private clients and run an atelier in Paris staffed with full-time craftspeople.) In May, the Chambre Syndicale invited Vetements and a handful of other designers, like Iris van Herpen and Guo Pei, to show as guests of the couture calendar.
Unsurprisingly, the Vetements take on couture was a far cry from the flowering, gossamer gowns we’ll undoubtedly see later this week. (Though given lead designer Demna Gvasalia’s position as the creative director of Balenciaga and past gigs at Louis Vuitton and Margiela, he could certainly do that if he wanted.) Instead, Vetements amplified its twisted riffs on everyday apparel by collaborating directly with 18 well-known brands.
There were Carhartt work aprons cut as oversized jumpsuits, metallic Manolo Blahnik boots that shot all the way up to the hip bone, and windbreakers with a Reebok insignia on the breast and a Vetements logo on the hood.
There was a cherry red velour catsuit with the name of its collaborator spelled out in rhinestones: Juicy.
There may be nothing less couture than Juicy Couture, but in some ways, Vetements’s collection did speak to certain tenets of high-end design.
Just as workers in a haute couture atelier direct their energies based on individual talents for manipulating chiffon, velvet, or tweed, Vetements CEO Guram Gvasalia (Demna’s brother) told Cathy Horyn that his team wanted to collaborate with the most iconic, expert brand in each garment category. That meant Carhartt for workwear pants, Canada Goose for sculptural parkas.
While many of those brands are attainable for everyday shoppers, you can bet the price point on this collection won’t be. As with haute couture, populism is not really a concern of Vetements.
And then there’s the matter of thinking hard about whether a piece of clothing needs to get made. Demna Gvasalia recently told 032c that Vetements aims to question the retail model adopted by many luxury brands. “You need the mental space to assess if someone out there actually needs the Nth dress you’re making, or if it’s being produced just because some brand manager thinks it needs to be in stores, when in fact it will end up on the sales rack, or burned,” he said.
With its private client sales model and painstaking production process, haute couture epitomizes the philosophy that clothing should only get made if someone really wants it to exist.
Vetements isn’t haute couture. Hell, its inclusion on the calendar may have just been a play by the Chambre Syndicale to bring more press and relevancy to Couture Week. But it does offer some ideas as to how couture might move into the future. Or, perhaps, how ready-to-wear might learn to be a little more like couture.