"Everybody who is doing ‚Äúanother‚Äù couture is doing haute couture. Haute couture is about different clothes – 'another' couture."
Olivier Saillard, director of the Mus√©e Galliera in Paris, proposed a less than rigorous and slightly blurred line of definition of haute couture, when I spoke to him at his latest curation project – the Paris Haute Couture exhibition, which has just opened at the Salle Saint-Jean of Hotel de Ville, sponsored by Swarovski. It's food for thought to carry around when looking at the pieces on display. Given that I saw the exhibition at the beginning of Paris Fashion Week, I also carried that definition in mind when reviewing some of the collections we saw. For example, Saillard reckons that the likes of Rei Kawakubo or even Yohji Yamamoto do a sort of "haute couture" – that is clothes that are singular and complex. Whilst we can hang houses with official haute couture labels, as sanctioned by the Chambre Syndicale in Paris, it seems more useful to apply the term to some of the ready to wear offerings that we saw this week (Alexander McQueen, Valentino and Balmain to name but a few).
The premise is simple. One hundred dresses name checking every haute couture great there has been in the last century or so, spanning from Charles Frederick Worth to present day Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci. The Salle Saint-Jean isn't vast and with the exhibition being free (something of a rarity in Paris), I urge everyone to take any window of opportunity to relish and absorb this visual feast of haute couture, which has been gathered up collectively for the first time this way.
Listening to Saillard explain the exhibition, he said that he allowed the dresses to "speak" to him when making his admittedly tough selection. He doesn't believe in weighing pieces down with fetishistic statistics (x number of hours spent sewing it or x number of beads or sequins) but instead, he wishes the dresses to communicate instantly, why they are in the upper echelons of garment craftsmanship. For the most part, that means embellishment – intricate beading or embroidery, crystals provided by Swarovski, beautiful applique. Anything that shines and shimmers and immediately screams hand-made. To that effect, the embroidery and feathered samples provided by the likes of Lesage and Lemaire were wonderful to see, showcasing the "hands" behind the decoration. Or we have phenomenal silhouettes and complicated pattern cutting as displayed by the likes of Vionnet, Balenciaga and Pierre Cardin as well as in the daywear section of mostly black dresses that may not look like our preconceived ideas of haute couture but display masterful and subtle strokes of technical difficulty.
Saillard also interestingly picks out pieces by couturiers that are mostly forgotten today – people like Jacques Heim or Marcelle Dormoy – to reveal another facet about the current state of fashion that seems odd to both Saillard and myself. These designers, who faded away after periods of success at their own maisons, were of their time. Today, the insistence upon constantly reviving fashion houses and instilling creative directors, who are then heaped with pressure to perform, feels ill-conceived. Why spend money communicating and marketing names such as Charles Frederick Worth or Jacques Fath (both undergoing quiet revivals) when they can be invested in new designers, new names, who are completely in control of their creative destiny? It's a rampant system that doesn't seem to want to cease as yet but perhaps a tide of change is around the corner. PPR's investment in Christopher Kane and LVMH buying a minority stake in Maxime Simoens could well be catalysts to further bouts of funding for young and independent designers. Or at least, that's the hope. Whilst this exhibition has pure and unadulterated aesthetic pleasure attached to it, Saillard does have a stronger agenda, which is ultimately uplifting and uses the past to shed optimistic light into the future.
"It‚Äôs important to communicate that you can do something with your name and not necessarily for a label. If I was a young boy, it would be great to see this exhibition and to think 'I can invent my own name and label!'"