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What Is Modern Haute Couture? It May Be The Future Of Fashion

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“When we initially launched our brand in 2010, many people thought that couture was a dying industry,” says designer Tamara Ralph, days before her label Ralph & Russo’s Spring/Summer 2020 Couture collection. Clearly, that’s not the case. Since the first haute couture house was founded in 1858, there has existed a corner of the industry devoted to handmade, luxury fashion. But can the haute couture model be modernized? Today, an incredibly select group of iconic names like Chanel, Dior, Valentino, and Givenchy present on the official haute couture schedule twice yearly in Paris. Their intricately detailed, hand-crafted pieces often take hundreds of hours to construct, and it shows in the price. A single piece can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While a market remains for this level of fashion, designers are blending both tradition and exploration of what couture means. “Markets, trends, and clients are constantly evolving, along with their spending habits,” adds Ralph. “Over the years, we've witnessed emerging markets taking an interest in couture, and younger generations also taking notice. There has been a real resurgence in an appreciation for true craftsmanship, spanning all backgrounds and ages.” A representative from couture label Maison Rabih Kayrouz told Vogue France in 2018 that their millennial clientele has grown to make up a quarter of the company's business.

Ralph & Russo Couture Spring/Summer 2020. Photo: Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

In 2020, no longer is the craft restrained to stunning hand-stitched gowns covered in handmade sequins. Though prices are still cost-prohibitive for many, today’s haute couture designers are catering to a younger plugged-in generation by embracing more youthful designs, and understanding the impact the intricate couture work can carry on Instagram. (Schiaparelli's pendant-covered designs from Spring 2020, seen below, have already gone viral on the platform.) By the same measure, the mesmerizing styles of Iris van Herpen have attracted a new era of stars. Actress Joey King, 20, wore a hypnotic 3D printed gown by the couture designer for this year’s Golden Globe awards, a moment the designer considers one of her of all time. “It was so special to see her transform as a young woman and come out and wear couture,” she told TZR. Designers are also exploring larger cultural touch points by experimenting with artist collaborations, testing new technology like 3D printing, and implementing sustainability practices.

And as designers look to court a younger generation of consumers (and social media followers), they're no longer laser-focused on gowns, and instead have expanded into less formal looks. In July 2019, Virginie Viard made her couture debut at Chanel with a collection of neatly tailored floor-length coats, sharp blazers, and strapless tweed tube dresses dotted among extravagant, more traditional billowing gowns.

Likewise, Clare Waight Keller showed that Givenchy is firmly positioned in the new wave of haute couture with a Fall 2019 collection that included ruffled blouses, structured pants, and metallic jacquard jackets all for men alongside both gowns and more modern separates for women. Though more conservative critics may cite difficulty differentiating these less-fussy couture collections with their ready-to-wear counterparts, the reality is that the modern customer is looking for the highest quality in every aspect of their wardrobe.

Chanel Couture Fall/Winter 2019. Photo: Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis Entertainment/Getty Images
Givenchy Couture Fall/Winter 2019. Photo: Peter White/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

“Couture was once largely limited to special occasions and eveningwear, which is of course still a key part of the business, but we have seen a dramatic increase in interest for daywear as well,” explains Ralph. “This shift to focusing more on daywear as opposed to purely eveningwear largely stemmed out of interest from our clients. They didn’t just want pieces to wear to occasions, they wanted to be able to create a full wardrobe that was more versatile and included pieces they could take from day to evening.... We [also] see a lot of our younger clients mixing and matching their couture pieces with more casual items, for more of a high low and very modern look.”

Zuhair Murad Fall/Winter 2020. Photo: Courtesy Zuhair Murad.

Similarly, Zuhair Murad has become a fixture as a guest member on the official haute couture schedule, showing feather-trimmed gowns alongside ‘70s inspired shorts paired with blazers. “When couture first started, pieces absolutely had to be made glamorous and extravagant, and it was very much associated with an enormous fairytale dream,” explains Murad, adding that today's clients are markedly less interested in extravagance. “The focus of couture moved mostly to its exclusivity, to the fact that it is not easily replicable, because of how delicately and intricately hand-crafted it is. Women, of course, still want to stand out and feel beautiful, but without that extravagant aspect of fairytale. What they look for in couture is now mostly the proficient know-how and subtle uniqueness.”

Beyond the design shifts spurred by consumer demand, designers are modernizing this niche fashion category by crossing into other area of cultural interest like technology and art. For Dior's Spring 2020 couture collection, creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri collaborated with the legendary feminist artist Judy Chicago. The show included an immersive space featuring banners emblazoned with questions around the show's concept, "What If Women Ruled The World?"

Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Viktor and Rolf’s Fall 2019 haute couture collection also brought an artist collaboration to the table, this time with Dutch artist-alchemist Claudy Jongstra. “This collection consisted of hand-felted fabrics woven from wool of Claudy’s own flock of sheep and dyed with natural ingredients from her own gardens,” says Rolf Snoeren. “In our case, we use couture as a laboratory for ideas and experimentation, without constraints of industry or commerce.”

Without a doubt, sustainability and technology are two buzzier topics for couture clients value in 2020. Couture is intrinsically more sustainable because unlike ready-to-wear, made-to-wear pieces cannot be mass produced. Viktor and Rolf cite its Spring 2017 haute couture collections as one of their favorites that emphasized sustainability. The "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" collection used existing damaged vintage dresses dating all the way back to the '40s which were then pieced them back together, accentuating the repairs with gold. In the show notes they referred to the Japanese principle Kintsugi, where beauty arises from imperfection.

Japanese designer Yuima Nakazato, a part of the couture’s new guard and a guest member on the official schedule, is harnessing new forms of technology for innovation. “There's a technology that we invented last season, Biosmocking, in collaboration with a Japanese biotech start-up called Spiber,” he tells TZR. “ It's a technique to create 3D texture within a fabric. We took it to a completely different level this season while paying closer attention to environmental sustainability.” Nakazato developed alternative materials, using a brewing process similar to beer-making to create a protein that can then be 3D-printed into fabric, a process known as Biosmocking. The benefit: The clothing is easy to repair or alter sans waste because it can all be printed to exact measurements or specifications.

Sizing and inclusivity have been flashpoints in the fashion industry at large, but couture finds itself uniquely poised to serve an often underrepresented plus-size clientele. L.A. based designer August Getty, just started showing his collections in Paris a year ago, and has dressed clients in a range of sizes (the Kardashians, J.Lo, Ashley Graham). But he may be most well-known for dressing Bebe Rexha for last year’s Clive Davis pre-Grammys party; the singer, who says she is a size 8, lamented on Instagram about the lack of options for women who aren't runway size. “Size inclusivity in couture is modern, fresh, and relevant, and people around the world are responding,” says Getty.

Bebe Rexha In August Getty. Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty Images

“Couture is an incredible platform for size inclusivity because clothes are created specifically for an individual and tailored to their unique taste. My hope is that this mindset doesn’t become a fad and that it actually sticks.” He adds, “The point of modern couture is to amalgamate tradition, technology, and open-mindedness to embrace every demographic, people of all shapes and sizes, nationalities, sexualities, and genders." To Getty, couture has changed and will continue to do so. "For me, it’s about finding the balance between telling my own story, while respecting and appreciating the history, technique, and tradition of couture.”

Murad, who frequently dresses Jennifer Lopez, says he's designing more than clothing; instead, he "work[s] hard to design a piece of art at the same time," he says. "Whether it is fully beaded, crystalized and embroidered or made with plain fabric, I always try to include that 'feel-great factor' in every piece, which I think is essential on red carpets as it is to any other event.”

For Nakazato, part of the goal of showing on the haute couture calendar is to make couture a more relevant choice for shoppers by tackling wide industry bottlenecks like technology and size. “The vision is based on a notion that made-to-measure garments fit wearers’ characteristics perfectly. We want them to enjoy it. In order to realize this vision, we have employed the latest technologies and our own inventions to provide on a one-to-one basis to as many people as possible.”

The centuries-old traditions of haute couture are changing, but for the better. “The landscape has changed, much more is possible with social media and the internet,” explains Rolf. “We are fascinated by the pace of it ... emerging fashion markets and all elements of social media ... everything is accessible in a more immediate sense.”