In the age of sweatpants, haute couture – fashion’s superleague, in which dresses are made to order and cost about £100,000 – is enjoying an unlikely boomtime.
The haute couture lineup has been invigorated by diverse new names including contemporary American artist Sterling Ruby, who counts the thrash metal band Slayer among his fashion influences and whose new collection includes a red, white and blue loose-yarn coat, which alludes to “the current political climate, the Trump administration and the ongoing threat of rightwing anger.”
The house of Schiaparelli, fresh from a triumphant Lady Gaga moment at the inauguration, have embellished this season’s gowns with jewelled seahorses and gold casts of molar teeth.
Alber Elbaz, a cult figure much missed since his departure from Lanvin five years ago, will launch his new AZ brand with a digital collection and a livestreamed talk-show on Wednesday. Fendi join the January haute couture schedule for the first time in their 95-year history, with a womenswear debut from new British signing, Kim Jones. The digital Fendi show is rumoured to star Demi Moore, as well as Kate Moss and her daughter Lila.
With catwalk shows off limits, Dior designer Maria Grazia Chiuri costumed tarot card characters for a 15-minute film shoot at a Tuscan castle by Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone: The Magician wore a floor-length hooded evening coat embroidered with feathers; The Sun a sundress with celestial embroidery on pale gold lace.
Since 2016 Chiuri has rebooted Dior as a progressive brand, phasing out old-fashioned concepts of feminine charm in favour of the primacy of the female gaze. The tensions of the past year have seen her retreat from political statements towards a daintier aesthetic and a more whimsical mood, with the hot-take feminist slogan T-shirts, which had become a signature, on hold. In a Zoom call from her Paris studio before the show, an angelic beauty from Botticelli’s Pallas and the Centaur could be seen on Chiuri’s moodboard. The centaur, which in the painting the goddess of knowledge holds firmly by his hair, was cropped out of sight.
Garrone’s film had charm – and, after last season’s criticism for lack of diversity, a black High Priestess. There was a brief love scene, suggesting that fashion is learning a few of Hollywood’s tricks of the trade for keeping audiences engaged, for as long as film continues to sub in for catwalk shows. There was even a pinch of Bridgerton spice in the cantilevered empire line bosom of the Wheel of Fortune’s cloud-grey gown. “There is one school of thought that says tarot cards are about the future, but the point of view that fascinates me says that they help you to learn about yourself,” said Chiuri.
Dior clients “are ordering beautiful clothes to wear at home,” Chiuri said. “There are many countries with a culture of dressing beautifully within the home. And the beauty of haute couture is that if a client wants something simpler, then we can make it for them. We can make pyjamas in our couture atelier,” she said, before adding: “I am a little bit lazy, myself. If I am alone, I don’t care so much what I wear.”
The survival of haute couture is a reflection of the inequity with which the pandemic has hit incomes. The privileged few who make up haute couture’s target market have been largely insulated from the economic insecurity of the last year. But it also points to an industry shifting away from the four-seasons-a-year trend cycle which has driven the blockbuster ready-to-wear shows and a return to a slower pace. Haute couture dresses are made to order over several months and worn not just for several seasons, but for several generations – and so do not pander to fleeting trends.