Illustration Joseph Larkowsky
In his new monthly column with Re-SEE, Behind the Seams, Alexander Fury deconstructs some of the most poignant shows, moments, collections in fashion with his wit, passion and extravagance.
Welcome to the world of Fury.
Even if fashion has become something of a spectator sport over the past 20 years, I still think of a true passion for the subject as a niche, geeky interest. My friend Susannah Frankel, an eminent journalist and editor-in-chief of AnOther Magazine, once said that if I wasn’t into fashion, I’d be a Trekkie or a trainspotter. My geekdom would apply itself to another niche. She’s probably right. But the collecting of vintage clothes is, itself, a niche within a niche - and that is what this column is here to satisfy. The small percentage of us who obsess over, love and collect vintage clothing, either to wear or simply to ensure that, wrapped in acid-free tissue, they weather another few decades or so of admiration. When asked about my motivation for collecting, I always quote the Duchess of Windsor - “The possession of beautiful things is thrilling to me.” And few facets of fashion produce more beautiful, honestly, than haute couture.
What is so special about haute couture? It was a natural starting-point for this column. After all, the majority of French fashion houses today have their roots in couture - a handful still offer it to clients today. And it’s kind of where high fashion began. It’s a much-vaunted, rarefied term, technically translated to high sewing or needlework, but today synonymous with luxury. Indeed, the moniker ‘couture’ has become virtually interchangeable with that adjective: couture has been tacked onto almost everything, used to hawk wallpaper or toilet tissue, hot-fixed in crystal onto the rear of slimy velour track pants, swirled in neon outside strip clubs. But the actuality of haute couture is far more specific: a history spanning back to the 19th century court of Empress Eugenie and an Englishman, Charles Frederick Worth, who first wove his named into a label and attached it to a dress, declaring himself an artist who dictated fashion to his clients rather than the other way around. You can follow it back even further, to Versailles and Louis XIV, who incorporated guilds and codified rules about who could make certain items of clothes, how, and where. The where, inevitably, was Paris - where haute couture is still anchored today.
Haute couture comprises made-to-measure clothes, created largely by hand and entirely to order, for a clientele less wealthy, more my-surnames-printed-on-your-condiments. Drue Heinz, Mercedes Kellogg, Sao Schlumberger - hers isn’t on foodstuffs, but it is on the back of credit cards. All of those women are dead, FYI, as many have suggested couture is, time and time again, including Yves Saint Laurent back in 1971 (in a fit of pique, when his groundbreaking, 1940s-inspired ‘Liberation’ collection received vituperative reviews). But couture will never die, because couture is engineered to occupy a niche. Lady Amanda Harlech - former right-hand woman to Karl Lagerfeld and now creative consultant to Kim Jones at Fendi - once described it, lyrically, to me, as ‘the impossibility of couture’. Which feels very seductive.
That’s kind of what’s so special about couture - its ability to create the impossible, or at least the improbably. Want a neon-pink dress smothered in feathers laid so they appear to be naturally sprouting from silk organza? That’s easy. How about a pinch-waist ivory jacket with miniature gold tremblante palm-tress perched on the shoulder line? Sure. A corset-dress constructed of miles of silk ribbon and not much else? Pas de problem. We saw all of those improbabilities at the couture shows in January, by the way.
That’s what attracts me - and presumably you - to vintage haute couture. It’s rarefied stuff. Even if you’re wearing it, and it wasn’t made for you, there’s a sense of the magic, the love and care hand-stitched into every seam. It also helps if that magic is a jacket frothing like an inferno of opium poppies, or a bolero of thick corded lace, or a military braided vest softened in chiffon and trimmed in leopard. It also renders even the ordinary extraordinary, through minute details - brown chiffon behind black to soften the colour, shoulder pads hand-stitched, steamed and shaped to give a swaggering upturn to shoulder, a Chanel jacket with passementerie braid hand-woven from threads of the the same tweed for the perfect match. I have an Yves Saint Laurent haute couture jacket, in ciré satin trimmed with sable, from his final couture collection of 2002- its as soft as a cardigan, and seems as relevant as if it was made yesterday. Maybe that’s the true magic of haute couture, made for you or otherwise - while oddly it used to lead fashion, now it exists entirely outside of it.