How Feminist Is Couture?

Could the world of haute couture respond to the zeitgeist and make itself relevant? Grazia’s Rebecca Lowthorpe travelled to Paris to find out...


by Rebecca Lowthorpe |
Published on

Last week in Paris, in the microcosmic bubble of the couture world, the most expensive made-to-order clothes, unattainable to all but the privileged few, were paraded on models (at their thinnest, as is the couture tradition) in front of a private audience of press and clients. And the designers – the best of them – grappled to make it relevant to the real world, a world in the thick of the #MeToo movement, following the red carpet blackout of the Golden Globes, the all-female presenters at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the second of the annual Women’s Marches.

So what does female empowerment look like in 2018? The results were starkly divided: those who chose to idolise femininity – in the form of a gilded princess in, say, a crystal-encrusted fishnet body-con gown, exploding with bows and plumage, set on teetering heels – looked as deeply out of touch with women’s lib as Donald Trump, versus those who chose to break the stereotype of a woman as a precious object. In other words, the more stripped back, the more empowering and relevant the look.

The first design house to take the stand was Dior. ‘We have to decide how we want to show ourselves,’ said Maria Grazia Chiuri, she of the ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ T-shirt, backstage before her show that centred on female surrealist Leonor Fini, an artist Christian Dior showed in his gallery before he became a couturier. ‘She [Fini] used her out fits to be regal and powerful. And couture is powerful. It speaks about the body and how we want to express ourselves through incredible craftsmanship,’ said Maria Grazia, whose collection was powerful. Mostly cut from black and white, it featured surrealist tropes, like optical illusion chequerboards, domino dots, gloves as shoulder straps and eye masks created by Stephen Jones. And alongside stark, simple androgynous trouser suits – which will no doubt be a hit with the #MeToo movement – she played with corsetry, of the hyper- lightweight kind, the better to suspend those magnificent full-skirted gowns. Asked if she could ever envisage a day when Dior couture – bespoke by its very nature – could be modelled by different body types, other than the bone-thin frame that is customary in the couture world, she said, ‘I don’t think so because of the production and time. Like architecture or furniture, you have to start with the prototype. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to immediately make all the sizes in such a short time, it’s unrealistic. I have just one month from now to make the next prêt-à-porter show.’

True. Time is not on anyone’s side in fashion, but where there’s a will, there’s a way, Maria Grazia! That said, it was easy to imagine anyone from Nicole Kidman to Oprah wearing Dior on the red carpet, such were the form-flattering options.

The same could be said of Clare Waight Keller’s first couture show for Givenchy – her first ever couture show and, like Maria Grazia at Dior, the first woman at the helm of the house – which became the surprise slam-dunk of the week. ‘It was amazing to have that laboratory of ideas and techniques at my hands,’ she said of her investigations with the yin and yang of masculine/ feminine and the ‘graphism’ of Hubert de Givenchy’s archive to play with. The graphic simplicity wasn’t just powerfully modern, it was cool. Take the knock-out look of a simple jet black coat slung over the shoulders of a shimmering dress of silver beaded tassels, or the ink suit devoid of any decoration save a feathered blanket carried by the model. Notably, one third of the collection was black, although she said it wasn’t a political move to entice the red carpet’s Time’s Up initiators, simply a more subconscious ‘what looks right and modern now’.

But black punctuated many a collection, including Giorgio Armani’s show, entitled Nuages (clouds), where it not only anchored his flyaway watercolour chiffons but also chaperoned glistening column dresses by way of men in black velvet tuxedos (Giorgio, please recast these for women!). And what about that single drop- dead chic trouser suit that swaggered down the all-creative-guns-blazing Margiela show, where the avant-gardist John Galliano issued deconstructed layers of plastic that transformed into iridescent rainbows on the flash setting of everyone’s iPhones? No wonder his show was an Instagram victory. (As opposed to the Instagram controversy that engulfed Russian designer Ulyana Sergeenko and influential fashion entrepreneur Miroslava Duma, who were exposed for their offensive appropriation of a Kanye West song.)

Even the sugary sweetness of Chanel was disrupted with black. The all-knowing Karl Lagerfeld set his collection in a formal French rose garden, complete with fountain, in the middle of the Grand Palais – a setting that was stripped back for him. Alongside tweeds that resembled the fabric equivalent of pink candy floss (and, on close inspection in the showroom afterwards, were inlaid with miniscule beads and sequins) and breathtaking evening gowns (there was an oh-my-god bodice made entirely from a bouquet of bud-sized silk flowers), he also nodded to the times with pitch-black dresses and every model wore a black net veil. In true Largerfeldian style, it was more of a wry wink at what’s happening out there – an assertion that women’s liberation can also take the form of unashamed prettiness. And that a bride can wear the trousers, too.

As for the collection of the week, and the one that had us smiling all the way home on the Eurostar, it was the last – Valentino. Its designer, Pierpaolo Piccioli, nailed everything about modern couture. Not by issuing black (although there was some) but with wildly clashing super-charged colour! Ochre, peppermint, fuchsia, aquamarine, violet... in full-blown billowing silhouettes that looked magically, convincingly modern. Was it all the wide trousers striding by? All those grand balloon-sleeved coats, wrapped at the waist with a punchy coloured sash? Or the use of ostrich feathers – the fabric du jour – crafted as giant floaty headgear by Philip Treacy that made spirits soar?

Who knows. But if you’ve got the money, or you’re an actress looking for something to wear at the Oscars, it was a pitch perfect example of feminist couture.

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