Elevation. Balenciaga AW21 Couture

18 months were worth the wait. Demna Gvasalia‘s first (and the maison‘s 50th) haute couture collection for Balenciaga is one of the best things I’ve seen in fashion… in years. Yesterday, a fierce and noble elegance for our new age stalked through the couture salons of Balenciaga at 10 Avenue Georges V. The sound of the gasps of fashion journalists and clients was heard again for the first time in the 53 years since Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his couture house. Monsieur Balenciaga showed in silence to focus the audience on the line, cut, and presence of his clothes. So did Gvasalia. Facing the biggest test of his career, the designer brought a heightened dignity to his own revolutionary vision of 21st-century people while simultaneously honoring the greatest couturier of the 20th century. “It was my minute of silence to the heritage of Cristóbal Balenciaga but also a moment of silence to just shut up for a minute,” he said. “The pandemic made me take that minute of silence – or few months of silence – and really understand what I like in this ‘metier,’ as Cristóbal used to call it,” he said. “And I realized it’s not about fashion – actually, I love clothes. I’ve been talking about clothes, clothes, clothes rather than fashion.”

His couture debut had rigorous black tailoring, sober and austere; expansively extravagant gestures of taffeta; swathed stoles; gorgeous flowered embroideries; and the offhand drama of set-back collars. And haute couture jeans – hand-made on original American looms bought by Japanese manufacturers and commissioned there. To the point: the feat he managed with this ultra-aspirational collection was not to turn his back on the aesthetics of the street and underground but to give the inclusive values of a generation a sensational elevation. Confidence, grandeur, ease: His focus was on how to imbue these clothes with “couture allure, posture, and attitude,” he said. How to give equal value to a black turtleneck, pair of jeans, utility jacket, or T-shirt as to a grand ball gown or skirt suit? “People put me in the box of someone who designs hoodies and sneakers – and that’s not really who I am. I really wanted to show who I am as a designer, considering the legacy [of the house] that I’m lucky enough to have here,” he explained. “It was a challenge to find a balance between the fusion of the architectural legacy, the history, and what I stand for.” We witnessed Gvasalia resolving all that, upgrading everything that he’s liked and tried out and established as his language at speed at Balenciaga over the past few years. All his giant tailoring, oversized shirts, bathrobes, jeans, T-shirts, and utility jackets, perfected and carried off by his diverse (though still mainly mono-size) cast of models. “I don’t like standardized beauty. I don’t know why it’s supposed to be beauty if someone told you that,” he said. Cristóbal Balenciaga was the original couturier who had no time for designing for anyone other than the individual client. His house models were routinely described as monstrously ugly by the press. In his own way, in all kinds of different contexts, across a ridiculously long time gap, Gvasalia found a connection in that.

In his return to the physical, real-time, human, hand-stitched present of the presentation, there was something here that felt more radical than anything. “We cannot only look into the future. We have to look into the past to see where we’re going,” he said. “Clothes have a psychological impact on me. I realized they make me happy- and I realized that’s the purpose of fashion. It’s not about the frenzy and buzz – and the white noise, I call it, of the digital mayhem we’re living through. The essence of it is my passion and the tools. I realized that couture is the best way to manifest it. And this is what really turns me on.”

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

Properly Pretty. Chanel AW21 Couture

This was a Chanel haute couture collection that left me with a rather mild impression. It was proper, properly pretty. When she began thinking about the autumn-winter 2021 line-up, Virginie Viard was struck by a series of photographs of the arch modernist Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel dressed in throwback 19th-century bustles and crinolines for some of the society costume balls that were all the rage in the 1930s. In that menacing era, these parties might have been a form of escapism, but as we now look to a post-pandemic future, and as Paris couture week unfurls in a flurry of dinners and in-person gatherings, Viard’s gentle romanticism suggests level-headed optimism instead. Viard also spoke of two women artists, the acclaimed Impressionist Berthe Morisot, sister-in-law of Manet, and the Cubist Marie Laurencin, a key figure in the cultural landscape of Jazz Age Paris, whose delicately colored works include a portrait of the young Coco Chanel herself. These painterly inspirations came together in a collection characterized by a lightness of touch. Viard encouraged some truly remarkable work from the great embroidery houses of Paris, including Lesage, Cécile Henri, Atelier Emmanuelle Vernoux, and Atelier Montex, and the feather and flower designers Lemarié. These masters cleverly emulated an Impressionist’s bold, impasto paint strokes à la Van Gogh, or delicate pointillist dabs à la Seurat to create small works of art evoking gardens of rose blooms or fringes of dahlia petals. Lemarié’s incredible gardenia-strewn cardigan jacket, crafted from feather strands, took 2,000 hours of expert handwork as Viard pointed out during a studio preview. That airy spirit continues in the quirky way Viard marries bouffant skirts or even suits with delicate bustiers of pale pink broderie anglaise or chalky lace, and lingerie-light chiffon and lace camisoles and bloomers that she aptly calls her “little deshabilles.” As the girls lined up backstage in the galleries of the Palais Galliera museum, currently hosting the exhibition Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto, Viard’s clothes suddenly found themselves in dialog with Coco Chanel originals from the 1920s and ’30s, a garden of handcrafted beauty.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

Outrageous and Fab. Schiaparelli AW21 Couture

In difficult times fashion is always outrageous“, Elsa Schiaparelli once said. Daniel Roseberry believes so as well – his latest, fabulously dramatic haute couture collection for Schiaparelli is the best proof for that. Visitors at the brand’s Place Vendôme salons are greeted by a lavish wedding gown. Typically, couture shows end with the bride, but Daniel Roseberry gave pride of place to the dress constructed from 70 meters of white cartridge pleated taffeta. “We’ve had so many requests from clients who come looking for this irreverent grandeur that we’ve been doing,” he said. Roseberry’s bride is not the shy, retiring type, but she is representative of what the designer described as the “new kind of prettiness” he was after this season. If this collection is as intense as his past outings, it’s a shade or two less irreverent. There are none of the molded leather six-pack abs corsets that were the defining looks of his last couture, for example. He came at prettiness in several different ways. Following on from that entrance-making bride is a salon devoted to embroidered jackets. These borrow as much from Lacroix and Jean Paul Gaultier as they do from Schiaparelli, with their curvaceous shapes, Versailles colors, and cone bra references. One black jacket blooms with pink silk roses, an ode to a collaboration between Schiap and Jean Cocteau circa 1937. Others are embellished with decades-old gold Schiaparelli threads that the embroiderer Lesage had saved in its stockpiles. All of them are trophies, perhaps especially the denim jacket that’s patch-worked from 11 pairs of used Levi’s sourced at a local vintage store – the very essence of haute friperie. Where this season’s jackets have a delicious propriety, a sculpted gold flower corset worn with a skirt barely clinging to the hips, and a scoop-front dress with a breastplate made of gold-dipped bronchi – the lungs being a locus of our attention in the pandemic – are more provocative. A silver bustier is accessorized by a fringed stole made from shredded black garbage bags, of all things. That’s couture heresy – and fabulously so. For the dessert, a cocktail dress punctuated by a shocking pink rose, a strapless black gown featuring a bust-line shaped like fiery orange lips with a matching train, and a voluminous infanta gown in a shade of lavender Roseberry said that he’s never used before. In his two years at Schiaparelli, he’s only doubled-down on the surreal glamour this historic house is known for. Turns out, he’s very good at pretty, too.

Collages by Edward Kanarecki.

Power Move. Area Couture SS21

You really couldn’t wish for a better ending of an incredible (digital) haute couture week. Saying that this was Area‘s debut couture collection is quite a false statement, since each collection coming from New York-based Piotrek Panszczyk and Beckett Fogg is a couture-level fantasy. The designers ditched the spring-summer 2021 ready-to-wear schedule, making a bold power move not only for themselves, but for American fashion (same can be said of Schiaparelli’s Daniel Roseberry!). Area’s bold 14-look couture collection showcases their range of talent (think showgirl crystals and outlandish silhouettes combined with technically ambitious tailoring), and their lookbook, which stars Precious Lee and Yasmin Wijnaldum, is a sort of statement of intent. This is most certainly not old-world couture, with its strictly sample size casting. “Difference for us is a positive thing,” Fogg told Vogue. Lee opens the lookbook in a black smoking, featuring extravagant metalwork trimming the cuffs. The designers, who are catholic in their references, said they were looking at the coin embroideries of Berber peoples for the jacket’s embellishments, as well as for a pair of delicate and quite dreamy dresses made from thousands of individually hand-finished circles of organza. The rib cage pieces, embroidered with Swarovski crystals in India and assembled in New York, look destined for the Grammys or concert stages, once IRL events ramp back up again. Cake dresses whose tiers are fashioned from duchesse satin fully panniered in tulle do take their cues, Panszczyk said, from the couture of Emanuel Ungaro, Yves Saint Laurent and Cristobal Balenciaga, but the Area designers constructed them so they are open on one side. Wijnaldum flashes skin from her shoulders to the crystal-encrusted tops of the black leather platform clogs that Area will be selling with their third ready-to-wear drop later this year. This couture season has shown us that some of the designers are ready to challenge the system and are capable of reflecting the times we are living in. But seeing the new generation taking couture to new dimensions and redefining it is what I’m looking forward to the most!

“Live” collage by Edward Kanarecki.

Be Bold, Be Extra. Charles De Vilmorin Couture SS21

Couture is changing, and the best sign of that is the appearance of new, young talents. When Charles de Vilmorin launched his first collection after graduating from design school last year, no less a French fashion legend than Jean-Charles de Castelbajac was singing his praises: “Charles designs his dreams, paints his creations on the skin as on paper – and these silhouettes transform his muses into psychedelic conquerors…. His future is passionate.” Then, in December, Jean Paul Gaultier sponsored the young designer’s guest appearance on the Paris haute couture calendar. His spring-summer 2021 debut was virtual, but there’s no arguing that De Vilmorin is enjoying a charmed rise. The exuberantly patchworked puffer jackets of his first collection evoked Niki de Saint Phalle’s iconic Nanas. He must feel a connection with the artist. In the video he made this season with Studio L’Etiquette, De Vilmorin operates a paint gun, an obvious reference to the shooting paintings of the early 1960s with which De Saint Phalle made her name. The late artist attached buckets of paint to her canvases, then invited people to shoot at them; the paint would splatter all over her work when the bullets hit. De Vilmorin’s technique is more controlled, but his Instagram account reveals that he did paint his textiles by hand before they were assembled into the 11 looks in this collection. Flowers, butterflies, and psychedelic nudes are his chosen motifs, and the silhouettes, which are worn by all genders in the video, are playful. He likes a puffed sleeve and a full skirt and sprays of feathers at the hem of a dress. The short film stars De Vilmorin’s friends, and he says he keeps them in his mind when he’s designing. “You don’t need a special occasion to wear something extra,” he insisted. Hope to see more of his bold fashion in the near future!

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.