Viktor & Rolf leave RTW behind and take fashion design back to its roots

“I put my heart and my soul into my work and have lost my mind in the process.” –Vincent Van Gogh

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Viktor & Rolf photographed by Philip Riches for the November 2013 issue of Netherlands Vogue

Avant-garde fashion darlings Viktor Horsing and Rolf Snoeren of the celebrated Dutch design duo Viktor & Rolf announced Tuesday that they will be leaving ready-to-wear to focus exclusively on their couture and perfume lines. The design duo’s decision comes after Jean Paul Gaultier announced similar plans in September of last year. Could this become a trend? As hard as it is to imagine a world when high fashion ready-to-wear was not the pinnacle of the fashion hierarchy (fast fashion being at the absolute bottom), the decision to focus solely on haute couture, made-to-order clothing, actually reflects a return to the pre 1960s fashion world where couture reigned supreme. A time when the namesakes of today’s leading luxury brands, such as Cristobal Balenciaga, Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, were still alive and would never dream of exclusively designing ready-to-wear clothing, just as the majority of designers today could not imagine just designing couture. It was only with the 1960s Youthquake Revolution that a new generation of young, exciting RTW designers emerged to challenge the dominance long-held by couturiers who had been the leading tastemakers in fashion since the mid-19th century. Visionary couturiers such as Yves Saint Laurent adapted to the times with their own ready-to-wear lines, but other once-influential houses, notably Worth, closed.

Viktor & Rolf couture featured in the February 2010 issue of Dazed & Confused, photographed by  Josh Olins

Viktor & Rolf couture featured in the February 2010 issue of Dazed & Confused, photographed by Josh Olins

Couture has since largely become a realm reserved for more avant-garde experimentations, à la Viktor & Rolf and Gaultier, an assertion of a brand’s prestige and luxury rather than a viable moneymaking venture (although it is purchased by a few wealthy elite). Couture is the arena in which Viktor & Rolf have stood out over the years and they are looking forward to the move: “We feel a strong need to refocus on our artistic roots. We have always used fashion to communicate, it is our primary means of artistic expression,” said Viktor and Rolf in a joint statement, “Ready-to-wear (with its fast pace, many deadlines and fierce competition) started to feel creatively restricting. By letting go of it, we gain more time and freedom.”[i] I, for one, welcome their exclusive focus on couture because it places an emphasis on and brings attention to hand-craftsmanship–skills largely lost in today’s world of cheap, mass-produced clothing. While prohibitively exclusive to all but a select few, we can all enjoy these beautiful designs–if only as avid admirers of the art of dress.

Viktor & Rolf Spring 2015 Couture Collection, photo via Style.com

Viktor & Rolf Spring 2015 Couture Collection, photo via Style.com

For Viktor & Rolf’s Spring 2015 Couture show, the design duo wanted to have a collection “where prints come alive,” said Snoeren, and to see “how far we could take it in terms of volume.”[ii] This experiment translated into over-sized floral patterns that literally came off of the fabric to create three-dimensional creations more akin to sculpture than clothing. But the genius of Viktor & Rolf is their ability to prove that fashion can be both. While the duo’s most recent collection is perhaps not the most functional or practical, it is certainly the most-inspired of the season and can be, and will be, worn by a clientele with a keen eye for artistic flair—and history. In the case of this collection, Viktor and Rolf embraced two aspects of their cultural heritage: the influence of Dutch wax cotton in Western and Central Africa and one of their country’s most famous artists, Vincent Van Gogh. On the Viktor & Rolf runway, these two seemingly disparate subjects merged to create a summertime reverie. “The quintessential summer look: a floral dress, a straw hat and flip-flops,”[iii] said Snoeren–with the unmistakable Viktor & Rolf twist, of course.

00030h_452x678The Dutch wax cotton company Vlisco, who provided all of the fabric for the V&R collection, have been making and selling their version of wax resist-dyed fabrics to West Africa since 1846. Eager to cash in on local demand for colorful Indonesian batiks, Vlisco began to manufacture the fabrics en masse in the 19th century, cornering the market and solidifying a relationship that survives to this day. Instead of masking the fabric as just another ingredient in a garment’s construction, Viktor and Rolf made it the main focus of this collection. The first patterned dress of the show appeared colorless, a black-and-white coloring book waiting to be filled in. Color was added in each ascending look before it broke free in sunbursts of color with rich, beautiful combinations that are synonymous with the Vlisco aesthetic. Over-sized selvedges, normally hidden, edge some of the garments while large floral patterns descend from the fabric to form intricate three dimensional structures. Van Gogh is also present in the colorful ensembles, equally reminiscent of his celebrated landscape paintings, as are the over-sized straw confections that accompany each outfit. Viktor and Rolf evoked Van Gogh’s “raw energy” and even his madness in their unbridled floral structures, a point underscored by the collection’s accompanying soundtrack from the psychological thriller Rosemary’s Baby.

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(All photos of the Spring Couture 2015 collection via Style.com)

[i] Scarlett Kilcooley-O’Halloran, “Viktor & Rolf to Stop RTW,” Vogue.com, http://www.vogue.co.uk/news/2015/02/03/viktor-and-rolf-stopping-ready-to-wear-collection

[ii] Miles Socha, “Viktor & Rolf Couture Spring 2015,” WWD.com, http://www.wwd.com/runway/spring-couture-2015/review/viktor-rolf

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Amy Verner, “Viktor & Rolf,” Style.com, http://www.style.com/fashion-shows/spring-2015-couture/viktor-rolf

The Art of Bouchra Jarrar, Spring 2015 Couture – A Return to the Roots of Haute Couture

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Bouchra Jarrar, Spring 2015 Couture. Photograph courtesy of Style.com.

There are some who consider Bouchra Jarrar’s approach to haute couture outdated—day clothes and minimal theatricality? That seems awfully reminiscent of the stuffy haute couture of a bygone era— when designers like Mainbocher, Elsa Schiaparelli or later King Cristobal Balenciaga and Christian Dior reigned over their salons and presided over the women they dressed. Haute couture, which literally translates as “high sewing” in French, was the prevailing industry since its inception around the 1850s up until its demise in the 1960s.

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House of Worth ball gown, ca. 1872. Photograph courtesy of the MET Museum.

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Quintessential couture “late-day” looks by Christian Dior and Grés. Vogue September 15, 1948, 137.

Charles Frederick Worth, widely regarded as the progenitor of the fashion industry as we know it today, launched his couture house in 1857-58 and fully established the role of the fashion designer as illustrious créateur.[1] For those who are unfamiliar, haute couture, as aptly put by Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times, is even more so today regarded as “that most rarefied of fashion forms, clothes that are made to order by hand for the 0.001 percent who can afford them.”[2] At its height in the mid-1940s, haute couture was an industry strictly regulated by the Chambre Syndicale. Couturiers applied for membership and fulfilled a series of requirements in order to be classified as a couture house.[3]

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Young British Youthquake fashions of the 1960s featuring ensembles by Mary Quant and Foale & Tuffin. Vogue, August 15, 1965, 122-123.

For the client, this meant an elaborate process of showings, selection, and multiple fittings before finally receiving an order. The haute couture remained highly influential up until the early 1960s and quickly became irrelevant as women changed drastically. They no longer dedicated their entire lives to the pursuit of elegance and now looked to their youthful daughters for fashion inspiration.[4] What had once been fiercely guarded by couturiers from flagrant copyists quickly transgressed to becoming a “hard sell” as stiff competition from ready-to-wear designers picked up steam.[5] The haute couture transformed into a laboratory for experimentation— a place where couturiers could work out ideas for their more profitable ready-to-wear lines.[6] Couturiers also took cues from the hipper ready-to-wear designers like Kenzo Takada for their fashion shows and moved out of their intimate salons into larger venues. In general, fashion shows began to evolve into the spectacles we know today— replete with lights, arena seating, music, props, photographers and celebrities.[7]

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Christian Dior by John Galliano’s sensational haute couture show. Vogue, October 1998, 134.

As couture lost touch with reality, the clothes, too, moved increasingly towards fantasy.[8] Vogue in March of 1991 wrongly predicted that “spectacular fashion shows may become a casualty of the cautious 1990s,” and that “ostentatious display may become distinctly unfashionable.” Instead, fashion shows, spurred by John Galliano’s outrageous designs for Christian Dior or bad boy Alexander McQueen at Givenchy, transformed into “publicity vehicles” for brands.

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Bouchra Jarrar, Spring 2012 Couture. Photograph courtesy of Style.com.

Thus, when reconsidering Jarrar’s couture collection for Spring 2015 within this historical context, it is, by comparison, incredibly novel, not to mention, daring that a 21st century designer would upend the current expectations of couture and return to its roots. Although it has been surmised that Jarrar, along with her peers, may be reacting to the current economic climate, which took a turn for the worse recently with the Euro at a historic low and the Ruble, which lost fifty percent of its value in just one year.[9] But Jarrar, since her outset, has shied away from theatrical sets or red carpet-worthy gowns, and instead, has consistently shown ultra-wearable yet supremely luxurious day clothes for the modern woman. Her approach strips away the layers of fantasy while upholding couture-level standards through unsurpassed workmanship and the use of the finest fabrics that are oftentimes woven especially for her.[10] 

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Bouchra Jarrar, Spring 2015 Couture. Photograph courtesy of Style.com.

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Bouchra Jarrar, Spring 2015 Couture. Photograph courtesy of Style.com.

Highlights include a precisely cut white button-down shirt, paired with a houndstooth and leather miniskirt is accessorized with a oversized fox fur collar; or an ivory silk crepe long-sleeved evening gown with a beautifully draped cowl neck. Perhaps the couture details are imperceptible through a 2D computer screen, but consider that Jarrar also maintains a ready-to-wear line. Beyond the more tactile aspects of couture, these clothes are made-to-measure for the specific wearer, which means clothes that fit like a dream. These are highly wearable, timeless clothes for women of the 21st century who adore the art of dress. Rather than creating a fruitless couture collection that will go straight to the storied vaults of museums, without any sort of provenance,[11] or worn merely once as it floats over a red carpet, why not provide a more sustainable alternative for the wealthiest .001%? Middle class arbiters of fashion have long touted “Investment dressing”—buying fewer pieces but of higher quality rather than partaking in fast fashion. Who says this methodology can’t extend to the world’s wealthiest few while supporting the art of dress?

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John Galliano for Christian Dior Haute Couture. Vogue, March 1997, 190.

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Highly unwearable Victorian influenced collections at the haute couture shows of Christian Dior by John Galliano, Christian Lacroix, and Givenchy by Alexander Mcqueen. Vogue, November 1997, 178.

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Extravagant haute couture pink fan gown by Jean Paul Gaultier Vogue, March 1999, 392.


Notes:

[1] Amy de la Haye and Valerie D. Mendes, The House of Worth: Portrait of an Archive, London: V&A Publishing, 2014,

[2] Vanessa Friedman, “Couture Tries to Find Its Place in the Real World,” New York Times, January 30, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/01/fashion/couture-tries-to-find-its-place-in-the-real-world.html?action=click&contentCollection=Fashion%20%26%20Style&region=Footer&module=MoreInSection&pgtype=article (accessed February 2, 2015).

[3] Requirements included but were not limited to: the couture house must be based in Paris; a collection consisting of at least twenty-five designs, created in-house twice a year for spring and fall and crafted on a live model; the collection must be presented on live models in an “appropriate” setting. The regulations also covered the technical execution and client reproduction, etc. For a broad overview: Alexandra Palmer, “Haute Couture,” The Berg Companion to Fashion, ed. Valerie Steele, Berg: New York and Oxford, 2010, 393-396.

[4] Marilyn Bender, The Beautiful People, New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1967, 206.

[5] Bernadine Morris, “Fashion: Top Secrecy to Hard Sell,” New York Times, January 4, 1978, C11.

[6] “Eye View,” WWD, January 30, 1975, 8.

[7] Bernadine Morris, “Paris Finale: Tradition and Innovation,” New York Times, July 30, 1982.

[8] “Fashion’s Fantasy Lab,” WWD, September 1, 1998, 178-179, 182, 184-185.

[9] The Associated Press, “In Russia, Creeping Awareness that Economic Crisis Will Last,” New York Times, February 3, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/02/03/world/europe/ap-eu-russia-living-with-recession.html?_r=0 (accessed February 3, 2015), and Friedman, “Couture in the Real World.”

[10] Nicole Phelps, “Review: Spring 2015 Couture Bouchra Jarrar,” Style.com, January 27, 2015, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1cXauZBn6n0HZFxfqv9tEA1RnCihjfVI2T622N6HRfEo/edit# (accessed February 4, 2015).

[11] Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, “Making Of Christian Dior Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2011,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_RC9Cxjqig and “Opening the Dior,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kn4Zoyw_2rI