“In a virtual era characterised by technological acceleration, it gives me pride and makes me feel full of hope keeping alive the atelier in Rome, which I consider a true artists’ studio” Pierpaolo Piccioli (creative director at Valentino) told the press before his SS18 couture collection. And he is right to draw a contrast between past traditions and the unending march onwards of time and technology. This is a tension which has underlied couture since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century. Couturiers have always heeded the dictums of past glamour, looking back to the finest fabrics and cuts of bygone generations to distinguish their customers from the commonplace fashions of modernity, which since the 1920s have often been associated with mass production and a loss of quality.
Yet as with any aspect of fashion, couture has also been shaped by a constant push towards the new and exciting. Thus the most successful couture houses have usually been the most daring, those like Chanel, Christian Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent who set the agenda for future designers with their radical interventions in tailoring and evening wear. Though couture retains trenchant support from its long-term, super-rich customer base, there is a sense that it needs to justify its place in a world where the ready-to-wear collections easily match couture in terms of innovation and excitement, and which has witnessed the rise of streetwear and the subsequent wide-scale democratisation of the fashion industry.
It is therefore appropriate that the designers this year have looked to the past and the future. To the past, to remind us of the language that the great couture houses have developed through generations of craftsmanship and artisanal expertise. To the future, to teach us to speak that language again. We take a look at how some of our favourite couture houses have done just that with their SS18 collections.
Chanel – Couture SS18 – Vogue
Chanel is the undisputed leader of the couture pack. In the recent past, Karl Lagerfeld has used elaborate theatrics to thrill and shock show-goers in Chanel’s classic Grand Palais venue; erecting a scale model of the Eiffel Tower and even having a rocket take off. This year, by contrast, the palatial garden setting was almost mundane. It was as if Karl was purposely letting the quality of the clothes speak for themselves, insisting that couture does not need grand surroundings to maintain its relevance.
In this collection we saw lots of classic Chanel in terms of fabrics, cuts, and – naturally for a collection meant to signify bespoke glamour – feathers. This was a traditional, sophisticated, old-world fare for Chanel, and perhaps a little conservative – that said, the signature tweed suits and evening wear came in fresh and trendy colours such as pinks, lilac, light green. The lines of the Chanel silhouette were tweaked and the shoulders enlarged to give a slightly chunkier, oversized look to the suits, reflecting the broader move towards comfort in clothing. Ankle boots with low transparent heels were a pleasing gesture towards a modern way of wearing Chanel. Sixteen year-old woman-to-watch, Kaia Gerber, made her catwalk debut, reminding viewers that Chanel can still incubate the fashion of the future.
Viktor & Rolf – Couture SS 2018 – Vogue
Expert couturiers Viktor & Rolf took a more playful look at the past in their SS18 collection. The clothes were made solely from satin duchesse, putting a witty and timely (given the increased importance placed on sustainability in fashion) spin on couture’s usual insistence on an exuberance of rich and sumptuous materials. Pussy bows, stripes, angular cuts, and florals featured heavily, satirising fashion’s recurring obsession with arguably outworn motifs.
Ellie Saab – Couture SS 2018 – Vogue
Ellie Saab’s collection likewise featured oversized bows, which, like Viktor & Rolf’s, also formed part of a retrospective strategy of mining past motifs for inspiration. At Ellie Saab, however, this backwards gaze was centred firmly on the 1920s, an era of extreme change in fashion when Chanel introduced her groundbreaking collections to the world. However, visually delightful though the collection certainly was, it felt perhaps a little too focused on the past. As Vogue’s Suzy Menkes commented, “the effect was pretty, rather than vulgar, yet with women wearing black dresses and proclaiming “Time’s Up!” in the post-Weinstein era, the Ooh! La, la! effect seemed awkward.” Rather than simply rehashing the looks of 1920s designers, perhaps for its SS19 collection Ellie Saab should look at the way those designers used couture to challenge accepted notions of what fashion could be and do.
Jean Paul Gaultier – Couture SS 2018 – Vogue
Jean Paul Gaultier is nothing if not consistent. As a review for Business of Fashion wrote, “the couture collections he presented under Gaultier Paris are heavily nostalgic, drenched with quintessentially French topics and clichés.” This year’s show was openly intended as an homage to Pierre Cardin, but it nonetheless felt very Jean Paul Gaultier. We saw his signature camp aesthetics and penchant for sailor stripes applied to some shapey, sixties style silhouettes borrowed from his legendary French mentor.
Givenchy – Couture SS 2018 – Vogue
47-year-old British designer Clare Waight Keller offered her debut couture collection for Givenchy. A vision of glamorous romanticism in clean monochrome, the collection was described as a ‘moonlight sonata.’ Of course, the predominance of black in the collection could be seen as a safe bet for a couture debut. However, Vanessa Friedman’s comment that one of the looks was “definitely an Oscars dress” is a reminder of the significance of black for a collection for which a significant proportion of the customer base is made is constituted by award ceremony attendees. The fact as well that Keller included men in the collection – the second couture house to do so in the history of fashion (the first was Dolce and Gabbana) – reassures us that she has a beady eye trained on the future, whilst keeping Givenchy’s past heritage in sight.
Givenchy – Couture SS 2018 – Vogue
Valentino – Couture SS 2018 – Vogue
The Valentino SS18 couture show ended the Paris collections with a perfect blend of past and future; as Emma Mccartey wrote for The Evening Standard, Piccioli “looked to the past to inform the future.” And he did so masterfully. His show notes supplied the clothing with meaning: “Tradition is a connector: it transfers knowledge and values through time. The history of haute couture is its reason of being in the present day.” Thus we saw some classic couture looks on the catwalk, but also a refreshing injection of everyday clothing: chinos, trench coats, tank tops, sweatshirts and oversized T-shirts. This inclusivity is very much in keeping with changing attitudes to comfort dressing. Attitudes voiced most loudly by the athleisure trend that has been going strong for the past few years. This fusion of established traditions and risque innovations was met with thunderous applause from editors and buyers alike.
Maison Margiela – Couture SS 2018 – Vogue
John Galliano has been putting his unmistakable stamp on Maison Margiela’s long-standing design DNA since his debut collection back in AW15. Vogue wrote of the formerly disgraced designer: “his relationship is with the future: a designer with decades in his legacy backpack, now more foresighted than ever.” This was a masterclass in deconstructed, prismatic glamour, viewed through a fairytale technicolour lens. A buzzword for the collection was ‘frozen glamour:’ Galliano encouraged show goers to use their camera flashes to capture the multi-layered, reflective glory of the collection, in a nod towards the social-media generation’s obsession with suspending images in time forever on twitter and instagram. It is this creatively insightful approach to fashion that Galliano is famed for, and we are pleased he is bringing it to Margiela in such an entertaining manner.
Article Written By: Desmond Huthwaite
Featured Image – Maison Margiela – Couture SS 2018 – Vogue