Disruption is a vogue-ish word as overused in the modern fashion industry as “iconic” was in the last decade. But when evening wear at Paris haute couture fashion week means pink velour Juicy Couture palazzo pants worn with a promotional T-shirt for lager rather than ball gowns, then disruption is definitely happening.
The invitation to join the haute couture schedule extended to the alternative design collective Vetements, whose previous show featured Kanye West on the front row and repurposed Justin Bieber tour merchandise on the catwalk, is nothing short of revolutionary. Paris haute couture, which until now has maintained a defiantly pre-revolution Versailles image – think organza and corsetry – has taken a leap into the 21st century.
The Vetements show was held in the Galeries Lafayette department store. This is the haute couture equivalent of Alexander McQueen staging his 90s London Fashion Week shows in freezing, leaky warehouses. Department stores, where the clothes have price tags, are frankly déclassé in the haute couture realm of the bespoke and unique.
The clothes were deliberately off-kilter. Trousers are cropped above boot level, as if the models have outgrown them, or shrunken eye-poppingly tight at the groin. Models don’t look like models, or walk like them. They look pale, and awkward, and anxious.
There have been weird clothes at couture before – Galliano’s Dior was outre in its day – but the difference with Vetements is that the alt-thinking permeates everything the label does. Status, and the value placed on craftmanship, are the bedrocks on which haute couture and its billionaire-class price tags are built. But Vetements have a mischievous, Warholian viewpoint which sees beauty in the everyday (the DHL logo, which they adopted as a signature) and venerates mass-produced brands such as Levis and Hanes.
Vetements is led by Guram and Demna Gvasalia, who moved with their family from civil war-torn Georgia to Dusseldorf as children, and are now based in Paris. With Demna now installed as designer at Balenciaga, they are an unlikely but formidable new power duo in Paris fashion. This show replaces the Vetements ready-to-wear show that would have taken place in October, meaning that the team had three months rather than six to produce that collection.
In direct opposition to the seamstress-in-an-atelier heritage of haute couture, Vetements tackled the challenge of this short lead time by collaborating with 18 best-in-class brands ranging from Italian tailoring house Brioni to Reebok. In this way Vetements, granted a golden ticket to couture, opened the doors to 18 other labels. Even the Vetements own-label tracksuit – a holy item in the 2016 fashion world – was poked fun at with a collaboration with Britney Spears’ favourite, Juicy Couture.
Meanwhile at Versace, the essential alchemy of the brand is a cocktail of mass sex appeal and high class. Before the show, Donatella Versace said of this haute couture collection that it “reveals a woman’s power and her allure”. The verb is telling, reminding us that strategic exposure is all part of the Versace gameplan. A combination of sex and status gives the Versace woman an air of bomb-proof, self-confidence that any consumer in her right mind would want a piece of.
It is a much-emulated formula, which means that every Versace show is an important opportunity for Donatella to remind the world who owns this piece of aesthetic real estate. The Italian brand has a new British CEO in Jonathan Akeroyd, who joined less than a month ago from Alexander McQueen, but the aesthetic on the catwalk was pure Donatella. All the firepower of Atelier Versace’s formidable army of tailors and embroiderers were laser-focused on creating the most sumptuous of body-conscious gowns. Think drapery that would become a classical goddess, with a thigh-high slit for good measure.
But Versace has to be about fashion as well as sex, because the younger consumers Versace needs to communicate with if it is to stay relevant are hardwired to demand constant newness. The messy buns and oversized hoop earrings were based on contemporary model-off-duty style rather than on traditional couture beauty tropes, while oversized evening coats worn dramatically falling off the shoulder reflected fashion’s new proportions.
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