Widly Odd. Bottega Veneta AW21

Daniel Lee‘s autumn-winter 2021 collection for Bottega Veneta, which went public just yesterday, makes me wonder if the designer’s vision for the brand starts to get over-worked and somehow distorted. The collection was presented months ago at Berlin’s Berghain to a handful of house-friends, and as the label ambitiously went Instagram-less, the mist of mystery should have done its magic. But nothing works here, and I feel like nobody paid attention to yesterday’s release. Is the flop-era of “new Bottega” on the horizon? Looking at the hectic garments, Daniel Lee’s latest line-up is ripe with diversions which rather create a sense of inconsistency. The fringed shearling coats that are this collection’s showpieces look odd, but not good-odd, rather cumbersome-odd. Reportedly, the line-up emphasizes couture-level craftsmanship. The brand’s press notes revealed that the glass dresses here take between 135 and 250 hours to complete; a black and white zebra stripe coat, meanwhile, features 4.3 million stitches on an embroidery machine; and each of these colourful outfits have over 4,000 feathers, all hand-embroidered. It sounds spectacular, but in reality it just gets lost in all the noise (or maybe the foggy look-book shots are unfortunate…). The merging of the “fabulous” and the “functional” might be one of the smartest and most satisfying pandemic after-effects on fashion, but this season Lee gets it wrong.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

Glamour-To-Wear. Area AW21

Area’s Piotrek Panszczyk and Beckett Fogg continue to push the envelope with their made-to-wear glamour. Since launching the brand in 2013, the designers have done so much introspection and recalibration that it’s hard to know if it’s the go-to brand for haute space bitches, haunting Dadaist ghouls, pop star glamazons, or former first ladies. Ask Panszczyk and he’ll answer that the label has always been for everyone but the clothes didn’t always show it, seasonally skewing in favor of one audience while cutting out the rest. Panszczyk and Fogg took 2020 to recenter themselves and their brand, choosing to show in season and to make salability and creativity equal parts of their process. Not either/or but both. As Panszczyk explained over a Zoom call, their shoppers have just as much desire for a couture-grade crystal pantie as they do a pair of crystal-studded jeans. To meet their needs, Area presented its own kind of solution dressing this season, injecting glamour into normcore and normalcy into high-gloss glamorama. Jeans enter the picture in a medium-wash straight-leg style adorned with crystals and paired with a bitchy little bustier. Tweed suiting is cropped and shrunken, with rhinestone fringe falling from hems. A classic LBD comes in vinyl, and the brand’s famous pale pink lamé returns in the form of iridescent minidresses, corsets, and skirts. Knitwear is growing too, with pink and lime pieces dotted with tiny crystal bows. This new Area wardrobe captures the vixenish nature of the label without compromising on wearability; exactly the branding exercise a company needs to push it from emerging to established. But Panszczyk and Fogg are smart to not let their good business sense totally overshadow the weirdness that makes Area special. During the pandemic they connected with Chinese designer Dingyun Zhang, whose enormous puffer jackets have also caught the eye of Kanye West and his Yeezy team. After a couple DMs, the trio decided to collaborate, cropping Zhang’s puffers into cloudlike vests, bralettes, and skirts, and then tamping them down with Area’s crystal harnesses. The results are delightfully kooky, heavenly, and sensual all at once. Area’s year of questioning has yielded some good answers.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

La Grande Bellezza. Valentino AW21 Couture

What a show. What a feeling. What a symphony. Celebration of great beauty. Valentino’s creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli set his sublime couture collection in the Gaggiandre, or ship building yard, of Venice. He was drawn to the place’s haunting beauty which he likened to a De Chirico painting with its arches and robust columns. In Renaissance times this place represented the hub of the city’s trading machine, a sophisticated production line that was said to churn out a boat a day. This being Venice and the Renaissance, of course the place – now part of the Arsenale where the city’s art and architecture Biennales are showcased – is as beautiful as it was once productive, having been built (between 1568 and 1573) by Jacopo Sansovino, one of Venice’s most revered architects of the period. Piccioli set his snaking runway under Sansovino’s soaring arches where the ships were once sheltered to be repaired, so that it appeared to float over the water. Guests were bidden to wear white. Luckily everyone did as they were told, and the effect, as the golden light of early evening streaked the water, the stone, tile, and brick, was undeniably poetic. To add to the spine-tingling moment, the collection was serenaded by the British singer Cosima, whose plangent voice gave a powerful twist to Calling You from the 1987 movie Bagdad Cafe, that opened the show. Piccioli brings the ultimate level of gasping wonder to fashion’s color wheel, setting flamingo pink, chartreuse, violet, cocoa, and mallard green ball gowns one after another, for instance. Or he might throw a raspberry double-face balmacaan over darker pink pants and an orchid pink crepe shirt, or a lilac cashmere cape over violet pants, frog green sequin t-shirt, and pea green gloves, and then ground the look with eggplant shoes with the heft of Dr. Martens. These last two ensembles, by the way, are part of the menswear offerings in the collection, in case you were wondering, and very persuasive they were too.

There were 84 looks in the show, and each one was a different proposition, from puffball micro minis, (shaded with Philip Treacy’s giant trembling ostrich frond hats that moved like jellyfish), to trapeze silhouettes, skirts that hit the mid-calf or hovered above the ankle, and slinks of satin and crepe cut to spiral round the body like affectionate serpents. From ball gown to micro mini the effect was one of commanding elegance. The fashion history sleuth will find echoes here of Madame Grès, of Cardin, and Capucci, as well as note taking from Mr. Valentino’s own magnificent oeuvre, but Piccioli takes these iconic moments of design history and makes them uniquely and persuasively his own. Also unique were the artist collaborations, curated by Gianluigi Ricuperati, who assembled a roster of 17 painters, including Jamie Nares, Luca Coser, Francis Offman, Andrea Respino, and Wu Rui. Art and fashion have often united in symbiosis – think of Warhol and Sprouse, or Schiaparelli and Dalí – but here the effect was a celebration of creativity, the hand, and of the nonpareil Valentino workrooms whose talented artisans evoked the source artworks through various cunning means. There were elaborate collages of textiles, for instance 46 in all for Look 6, Kerstin Brätsch’s The If, 2010, (as the Valentino show program notes helpfully noted, alongside the names of the craftspeople in the ateliers who have made them). Meanwhile, the five pieces by Patricia Treib, combined in the ballgown of Look 68, called for 140 meters and 88 different textiles, and took 680 hours to complete. On close inspection even the fine lines of Benni Bosetto’s pencil strokes (Untitled, 2020), that appeared to have been drawn directly onto the pale satin of Look 46, turned out to have been suggested by subtle hand-stitching (a stunning 880 hours of work, if you are counting). The ball gown and cape that closed the show, Look 84, were scrolled with motifs drawn respectively from Jamie Nares’s It’s Raining in Naples, 2003 and Blues in Red, 2004, requiring 700 hours of work, 107 meters of fabric, and custom screens for the hand-printing as it had to be done on such a large scale. The effect was appropriately magisterial. Summing up: total magnificience.

All collages by Edward Kanarecki.

Higher Forces. Maison Margiela AW21 Couture

The idea of how we all felt through this pandemic, and being brought to our knees by the power of mother nature.” That’s a succinct clip from a long conversation with John Galliano about the making of his Maison Margiela Arstisanal collection, which he scripted into the epic film, A Folk Horror Tale, that had its premiere in a Paris cinema this week. The comment seemed emblematic. A romantic, mysteriously troubling struggle with the elements was on Galliano’s mind as he designed and crafted clothes and moving pictures with the French Oscar-winning director-producer Olivier Dahan. “The effect of the weather, the sea, the moon, the elements, started to play on my psychology.” Galliano has been a story-teller, a stream-of-consciousness creator since his very beginnings as a student who made his first historically-inspired French Revolution collection, Les Incroyables, in 1984. Images and self-imagined characters who connect the past with the present have stimulated and preoccupied him for his entire career. In 2021, finally, he’s seized the opportunity to bring those ideas alive through a medium that reaches far beyond the limitations of the catwalk formula. Even the lookbook of his collection breaks with standard conventions. In what is probably the most personal of all the collections he has done for the hand-made Artisanal line – the house equivalent of haute couture – it’s a triumph of emotionally-driven material experimentation. He said it “came out of hours and hours of dialogue” in his studio, giving form to the conversations with the young group of house models – his ‘Muses’ – who take part in his process of making clothes on their bodies; and who eventually act out their meaning.

That’s how he reached into a gothic, time-traveling manifestation of weather-beaten, tattered, ancient-looking clothes set around the idea of an isolated community of fisher-people battling for survival against the sea. His first historical reference-point was early photographs of Dutch fishermen – the specific traditional lines of their tiny jackets, voluminous trousers, Guernsey sweaters, and wooden clogs. Another, the legend of King Canute, whose people forced him to command the tide to retreat, and who surrendered them his crown when he failed; saying that only God is in charge. A smashed-mirror crown played a recurring part, found and refound in scenes conjuring a sinister medieval ritual playing over centuries. The idea of people living at the mercy of uncontrollable forces tuned into the conversations he’d been having with the young people in his studio: “Talking about mental health issues, trans issues around the table with my muses, listening to some of them describe how they were feeling and acting,” during the troubles of lockdown. He has empathy for them. “I don’t profess to be a therapist, but I’ve done some hardcore rehab myself, and I recognize myself and a lot of what they’re saying or doing. And all I was saying was, you know, the best thing is to talk about it.” As an older and wiser person, he said, “there was a privilege and a joy in sharing.” As he put it in his introduction to the film, “it’s about the fast-wash of anxiety, the power of nature – and when faced with that, how helpless we are.” That idea took literal form in the way he processed his fabrics, treating them with enzyme washes and stone-washing to remove color; shrinking and wringing them out in a technique he calls “Essorage.” In many ways, his methodology appears to be the complete opposite of the traditional formalities of haute couture, but represents his break away into an equally intense study of how clothing can be transformed from vintage and found materials in the modern world. He described how garments were graded up six or 12 times, and then shrunk to fit. How linings of skirts and suits were turned inside out and converted into dresses. How he attacked denim jackets and loden coats and a 19th century woman’s corset jacket, unpicking and revealing their original colors in the seams when the washing and wringing was done. There was a beautiful sweeping blue-and-white patchworked coat made from chopped-up charity-shop finds. Delft tile-patterns were crocheted together in a sweater. The artist Celia Pym darned a blue Guernsey with newspaper reports of the death of King George V.

Galliano is always pushing for progress, experimentation. Nevetherless, with their little cotton Netherlandish hats and kerchiefs, their tabi-clog waders, and their romantic, shredded piratical looks, the Margiela Muses looked more purely Galliano than they have done for many a year. “The narrative of the story is make- believe,” he said, “which is always what I want with a collection, anyway.” With so much at his fingertips it’s almost as if John Galliano has gone back to rediscover the primal power of who he always was from the beginning.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.