Each generation tends to look at its own with a dash of disdain and affords the past a kind glance through Vaseline-streaked, rose-tinted glassed. “Dior is perhaps the last of the great couturiers, fighting valiantly to maintain creative values in a sombre epoch of history”, wrote Cecil Beaton in 1954. True, there have hardly been more impactful designers than Christian Dior ever since and the house still stands, but I refuse to confirm we’ve already seen it all. A part of me feels the ‘last great couturier’ was the one whose regal makings we were still admiring exactly one year ago, Azzedine Alaïa. Quite likely, we won’t see anyone orbit close to Alaïa’s perfection any day soon. But even though haute couture is all about drama, there’s little need for all-the-good-ones-are-dead theatricals. Greatness can still be found in the profound elegance of Pierpaolo Piccioli at Maison Valentino, for instance, or in the techno-fabulous dreamweaving of Iris Van Herpen or masterstrokes of sustainable futuro-couture at Maison Margiela.
The days of Beaton’s ‘m’as-tu vu cocottes’, eccentric dowager marchesas clinging onto past glory in their destitution and radical ingénues may have long passed – along with most of the chasmic social inequality of pre-war societies – but couture still stands. It's entertainment for today's aesthetes with shallow pockets and an old-world folly for our new-world stars and money-movers. Couture is forever. I’m quite sure our future alien overlords will still be able to appreciate the fine feel of a marabou-lined silk moire opera coat. Let's look ahead at the upcoming season of luxe.
Like the show’s Guido Palau-sculpted hair, this collection comes close to the heavens. “Renaissance meets Versailles meets ’60s whatever” reads designer Pierpaolo Piccioli's own description and it's safe to say attendees ate it up with gilded spoonfuls. Season after season, Valentino's brand of deadly chic inches forward under the loving but sufficiently distant gaze of Emperor Garavani himself and the label has become a guiding example of how to hand over your house gracefully. At the show, 'tangible manifestations of emotion’ were represented by mythological figures such as Apollo and Daphne woven by an indefatigable team of seamstresses and sartors in gold georgette intarsia on crêpe. Capes weighed down by pure brocade, sequin and pearl extravaganza swished before designs like crêpe de Chine vests with dove embroidery, satin blouses and silk wool trousers. There were showstoppers, if you can call them that in such a sea of exuberance. Like Kaia Gerber in the “Flamingo” dress, an organza cloud embroidered with pale rose feather merlons. Big Bird is shaking. And try getting the stunning Adut Kech finale in that “Crisalide” tangerine puff of taffeta and velvet plissé out of your head anytime soon.
Jean Paul Gaultier has been flipping gender templates for about 40 years now – radical at the time of its inception and maybe less headline-garnering but still important today. For couture AW18, Gaultier gave us vorticose re-imaginings of the classic smoking for all genders. Topped by Stephen Jones fez hats, all of the focus went into sublime tailoring reconstructing a clothing icon from the ground up. And just like a waft of 'smoke', Gaultier's newest bride Soo Joo Park closed the show. At 71 looks, this collection was a lot, but JPG still commands a room like ever before. Now, someone finally free the nipple already. I'm looking at you, Instagram algorithms.
Maison Margiela's AW18 'Artisanal' collection was constructed around the idea of taking life on the road, portrayed through excessive layering of fabrics intermingling and morphing into something new. The models represented wanderers of the current age, ‘neo-digital natives’. Taking repurposing to new heights, John Galliano put out quilted bin liners, used an ancient Chinese recycling technique bonding discarded pieces of fabric together with rice glue, recycled silk scarves and vintage slip dresses, all in the spirit of Martin Margiela's trailblazing everything-could-be-beautiful ethos. Oversize caban coat in fabrics created from hand-felted sustainable wool on organza commissioned from Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra complemented real iPhones strapped to ankles and arms while live-streaming in real time. The famed Tabi shoe has now officially gone platform and nylon knit tubes strapped in entire bodies or faces to eerie effect. Take a close look at the classic Margiela “décortique” technique in the coral foam cape-coat, revealing the underlying core construction. With Pat McGrath on make-up and Eugene Souleiman on hair, the dream team remains unbeaten.
The official low-down on this collection? “‘Syntopia’ explores the new worlds that arise within synthetic biology and the intertwining relationships between the organic and the inorganic, visualizing the fragility and power within.” What that looks like? Otherworldly couture, as we’ve come to expect from one of the Netherlands’ foremost contemporary designers. It’s all-in the symbiosis of tech and natural inspiration. It looks like a pretty Barbarella swirly dress, but it's bird soundwave patterns lasercut from stainless steel and black cotton, heat-bonded to black silk and constructed like a feather. Yes, it's flowy and gorgeous but it's also made from chronophotographic lines of bird wing movement, lasercut from mylar and cotton attached to hundreds of nude organza layers, giving a time-lapse effect when in motion. What look like glass wings is a dress poured from a gossamer plissé fabric. Awe-inspiring.
Okay, so quite a few looks from Schiaparelli AW18 were literally culled from the archives, so you’d be quick to dismiss the legendary label's revival as imagined by Bertrand Guyon as reductive, tribute tripe. But think about it, why shouldn’t today’s kids get to relive the brilliance of Elsa Schiaparelli’s genre-shifting mind in real time? What she did back then was pioneering, now it’s a fun print paired with a great Stephen Jones animal hat and Asia O’Hara-looking bulbous headpiece. The designs' shock effect has lessened over time (the pink remains Shocking™ forever) but it doesn’t take away from the original's merit and current relevance. Sometimes it can just be a bit of fun.
For twenty-five years, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren have towered over fashion with daring focus and an instantly recognisable, avant-garde eye. The duo recently dove headfirst into their archives for the "Viktor & Rolf: Fashion Artists 25 Years," expo at Kunsthal Rotterdam and looked back at their career for "Viktor & Rolf: Cover to Cover," the upcoming coffee table book. It seems only natural, with this happy anniversary looming, that the pair would revisit their greatest hits for couture AW18. So they set upon recreating 25 of their most iconic pieces in white editions adorned with more than 500,000 Swarovski crystals and dubbed it 'The Immaculate Collection'. Who could truly forget the duvet and pillows dress from AW05 or that tulle Swiss cheese gown that only Rihanna truly did justice from SS10? Viktor & Rolf been able to keep their creative spirit alive due to the lucrative structure of the V&R perfume business and Renzo Rosso's Only The Brave-backed infrastructure, doing away with ready-to-wear in 2015 to focus on couture. And you can only be grateful for that. Art paired with smart commerce keeps the dream alive. And yes, I still need that ‘NO’ coat like nothing else.