It is easy for non-connoisseurs to dismiss haute couture _ the artisanal, fine art side of fashion _ as big flamboyant costumes completely irrelevant to our everyday lives. As many believe, couture is something reserved for princesses and women at the apex of the social pyramid with plenty of cash to splash.
This perception couldn't be more wrong, because haute couture is all about the workmanship and arduous labour that goes into hand-crafting every stitch in each item of clothing; the very embodiment of the highest form of fashion. The definition of haute couture, after all, is "high dressmaking" and refers to garments custom-made for a specific customer.
"It's not just something for princesses. We're happy to make simple suits and jackets as well," said French couturier Alexis Mabille.
"It is experiencing the design, craftsmanship and relationships with the client that is important."
Mabille, along with a handful of French and international couturiers, was in Singapore late last month for the Fide Fashion Week that took place at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands. The second edition of the Singaporean high fashion extravaganza, Women's Fashion Week took place from Nov 23-25 and French Couture Week from Nov 29-Dec 2. Although only in its second year, this fast-growing affair has become a hub for the biggest names in fashion.
Special guests included Kenzo Takada, Suzy Menkes _ the doyenne of fashion journalism and fashion editor of The International Herald Tribune _ and Didier Grumbach, president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, France's haute couture governing body.
A few years ago, when the global economy was reeling from the so-called Hamburger Crisis, couture was threatened with extinction and some houses struggled to survive. The closing of Christian Lacroix's haute couture department in 2009 heralded an uncertain future for couture.
on aura tout vu
So it's hard to imagine that within the space of a few years, the fine art of fashion is rising again, with the likes of Atelier Versace returning to Paris Couture Fashion Week and new names such as Anne Valerie Hash entering the scene. In addition, Givenchy also boasts a soaring number of couture clients from single to double digits, and even an avant-gardist like Maison Martin Margiela has jumped on the couture bandwagon showcasing an "artisanal" collection at the recent couture fashion week.
That such an artisanal aspect of fashion is being brought to a small island nation in Southeast Asia is probably a sure sign that couture is not only getting strong, but is ready to reach out to non-fashion connoisseurs.
Of course, Singapore isn't a city that comes to mind when one thinks of fashion, even less a capital for couture. There is no doubt that Asia still has a lot of catching up to do in a sphere regarded as the pinnacle of fashion. Nevertheless, it is taking its first steps in the right direction. So, while international fashion labels and Parisian haute couture houses grace the catwalk with their presence again, the special addition this year was more shows highlighting Asian couture labels, raising the bar for the region's fashion industry and haute couture.
"Asia is just becoming seen as consumers and manufacturers. But we're more than that and I hope to encourage Asian designers to really up their game," said Frank Cintamani, chairman of Fide Fashion Week.
"The shows in Paris are a great spectacle, but we do not want to just present another show. The bridge between East and West is not so established and Singapore will serve as the gateway."
Cerrut Thaveechaiwattana, the face behind numerous fashion weeks in Thailand, added: "We cannot just bury ourselves in our holes and think that what we do is good enough. We have to see what others are up to, what they have achieved and how far they've gone in order to improve what we do."
The event kicked off with the Asian Couture Evening on Nov 27, with fashion labels including Guo Pei from China, Barney Cheng from Hong Kong, Torgo from Mongolia and Asava from our own shores. This marked a great start as participation from all over Asia gives local designers the push needed to gain international acceptance and a global market.
The following night showcased Japanese talent in Japan Couture Evening with shows by Tamae Hirokawa, Junko Shimada and Yumi Katsura, followed by Special Couture Presentations on Nov 29 with works from Singapore's Thomas Wee and Marc-Antoine Barrois from France.
Towards the end of the week, Gallic couture dominated the stage from Nov 30-Dec 2 with shows by Maurizio Galante, Julien Fournie, Christophe Josse, Atelier Gustavolins, Alexis Mabille, Bouchra Jarrar and on aura tout vu as well as newcomer Yiqing Yin, with her stunning workmanship that depicted faces on fur coats. As the format goes, Singapore wisely took the opportunity with all the fashion big names gathered in the Lion City to stage a brainstorming symposium on the subject "The Globalisation of Haute Couture". Jessica Michault, online style editor of The International Herald Tribune, acted as moderator.
Along with Didier Grumbach and Dr Satoshi Onuma, president of Bunka Fashion College, 13 other couture designers and commentators were on the panel to offer their opinions regarding the world of fashion.
According to French couturier Christophe Josse, who staged double shows in Southeast Asia after showing his collection at Siam Paragon International Couture Fashion Week in Bangkok prior to the Singapore showcase, customers are the reason for his revisit.
"It is very important to establish links with customers. We cannot merely sit around the office and hope for customers to come to us anymore."
Couturier Livia Stoianova of on aura tout vu concurred about reaching out to customers, stressing the importance of Western couture in Asia.
"We can't just be in one place. We're here to show people the know-how and what we do in Paris so people can be in real touch with what we do."
Bringing the shows over here may be a good start, but what fashion veteran Suzy Menkes suggested is that the most substantial measure is getting normal folks to comprehend this glitzy industry: graphical perspective.
"With technology today, we can achieve things we've never been able to before. A video showing the labour of stitching and sowing every sequin and drape can explain the work of human hands better than anything else. What I'd like to see on the screens right now should be a video of a couturier's hands at work, instead of my name up here."
French couturier Julien Fournie added: "Our job is not only to beautify women. We give a lot, but we also get a lot. It's great to meet and help young women who try to look for their identity through you. You travel the world and what you get is wonderful lasting relationships."
Indeed, haute couture is definitely a culture, and price is secondary. Customers who invest in such expensive creations are not only accepting of the price, but also the vision that comes from the craft.
"Research and development departments are always the last to get cut every time there's a lay-off because they bring innovation and new products," said luxury writer, Helene Le Blanc. "For haute couture to be relevant, it needs to get back to its roots, where it is the incubator for the rest of the fashion world _ it trickles down from the top. If new colours and fabrics are not being experimented with, fashion will become impoverished."
A different identity comes from each region, and that being said, we'll be keeping our fingers crossed for Asian designers to soon emerge with distinctive creations at the international level.
About the author
- Writer: Parisa Pichitmarn
Position: Life Writer