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 His first historical reference-point was early photographs of Dutch fishermen – the specific traditional lines of their tiny jackets, voluminous trousers, Guernsey sweaters, and wooden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.

Be The Queen. Viktor & Rolf AW21 Couture

Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren do couture that instantly becomes viral. That is certainly the case with their latest Viktor & Rolf collection, which at first glance, might seem to tread familiar ground, with coat shapes resembling those from their Russian doll collection for autumn 1999, and slogan sashes from spring 2019. The pair carried over their interest in jeweled embellishments here, though in different dimensions and styles; and in keeping with their dedication to reducing waste, many of the pieces are patchworked—as are the concepts behind the garments. As Snoeren put it, “there’s all kinds of elements from all different worlds.” The first theme that comes across is a royal one, and, with continuing buzz around The Crown and the Oprah interview, it’s quite topical. What the designers couldn’t have known is that Young Royals mania would start to heat up at almost the exact time they presented their collection. Many tropes are referenced in the lineup, ranging from fairy tales to cartoons. There are medieval-style brocades and an “ermine” cape. A raffia “fur” is a fantastic take on high/low. Tiaras and crowns of plastic are a clue that everything is not what it seems, which is confirmed, without subtlety, with the queen-themed sashes. “We wanted everything to be bigger than life,” noted Horsting. “It’s like a play on queens or royals. We wanted to be uplifting and joyful and – fun is not the right word – but colorful, sparkling, positive. You are your own creation.”

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

JPG Gone Sacai. Jean Paul Gaultier AW21 Couture

Luckily for the fashion world, Jean Paul Gaultier is back. And his new, collaborative take on couture makes his brand feel fresh and relevant. Sacai’s Chitose Abe is known for her genius for grafting two different garments together to create a sui generis ensemble, so the idea of grafting her sensibility onto that of Jean Paul Gaultier – a designer that she has long admired – seemed like the basis for an exciting dialogue. It was one that Gaultier himself suggested as part of his elegant disruption strategy following his “retirement” from the conventional fashion system. “It was a very intimate, more friendly proposal,” recalled Abe backstage before the unveiling of her Gaultier takeover, “an invitation to come over for tea. It didn’t feel like two companies coming together, but instead like two people.” Haute couture wasn’t something that Sacai had necessarily thought about before, but she acknowledged that it was “a really spectacular experience. The level of perfection is something that Jean Paul and I share,” she explained, “and it made the process so smooth.” Her couture touches included the hidden luxury of dozens of tiny ruffled flounces buoying up the inside of a skirt, and the stripes of Gaultier’s iconic blue and white matelot sweater worked with insertions of satin organza, or seeming to evaporate into wisps of chiffon. Abe knows Gaultier’s work so well that she admitted she didn’t even have to consult the archives. “I didn’t want to take the archives too literally,” she added, “but to make it Sacai and very, very up to date.” So for look number one, Gaultier’s iconic autumn 1984 conical bra emerged from a deconstructed man’s navy pinstripe suit reimagined as a corset and overskirt, and worn over the tattoo print mesh second-skin pieces that reappeared throughout the collection and represented a collaboration with the tattoo artist Dr. Woo. It helps, of course, that there are some shared codes between Gaultier and Abe that she worked into the collection like a love for tartan, a refined take on punk, the co-opting of traditional men’s suiting fabrics, and the reimagining of the trench coat and Aran sweater. That tartan was redone as a sophisticated assemblage of chiffon pieces worked into a fluttering dress, and those pinstripes were reinvented as a high waisted dress crafted as though it was made from an enormous pair of trousers, the abundance of fabric pleated into fullness. The trench coat was re-conceived as a skirt with the volumes of an Elizabethan farthingale, and samples of different ivory Aran knits were patched onto a chiffon dress. On close inspection, the military braid turned out to have been embroidered from safety pins. Gaultier joined Abe for the finale runway walk and delighted the crowds on the street outside when he joined her on the balcony of his imposing Belle Epoque HQ with the models crowding the windows around them. Can’t wait to see who Jean Paul invites next season.

Collage by Edward Kanarecki.

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.