Fall 2019 Haute Couture: Sustainability in Couture

It’s that time of the year when the rarefied world of luxury craftsmanship is on show to an adoring crowd with deep pockets. Paris Haute Couture is often in its own bubble, full of embroidered sequins, feather flowers, and acres of tulle ruffles, a showcase to the world of the skilled ‘petite-mains’ that will translate in price tags of over $20,000 for a dress and north of $100,000 for a more extravagant gown or wedding dress.


For Fall/Winter 2019, though the focus remains very much on offering escapism through exquisite fabrics and elaborate craftsmanship, some couturiers are also offering touches of realism. At a time when consumers are increasingly conscious of the impact that fashion is having on the environment, many couturiers are keen to highlight how craftsmanship can elevate upcycling to new heights.


Couture and Sustainability


By its very nature, it’s hard to associate couture with sustainability. Though there are only two collections a year and their craftsmanship is all about slow movement, its production also involves the client (or the couturier and a ‘petite-main’) flying across the world several times for fittings.


Nevertheless, some designers like Ronald van der Kemp and Viktor & Rolf are aware of the issues and have been putting upcycling at the heart of their design.


This season, van der Kemp, who just received the Grand Seigneur, Holland’s highest accolade in the fashion industry, continues to show how to elevate by-products and discarded materials into what he calls a “sustainable demi-couture” wardrobe. In previous seasons the designer had created a floral dress with leftover lampshade gauze and transformed an antique silk bedcover into a cape; this time, the designer says 98% of the collection was made through re-appropriating fabrics and materials. That included a “No-fake-fur-coat” using vintage silk floral tubes stuffed with recycled down, a statement about the most damaging habit of using fake fur.


“Couture in its heyday set the tone in fashion! With my sustainable couture I want to inspire girls out there to experiment with their wardrobes and with vintage clothes; to teach them to enhance their personalities and be conscious about buying clothes!” van der Kemp told CNN Style, adding, “I also want to show the world that it’s possible to make couture with existing materials, dead stock, high-end leftovers, vintage fabrics, and that sustainability can be glamorous, sexy, and high fashion.”


Alternatives to fur were also offered in Jean Paul Gaultier’s Fall/Winter 2019 collection, which played on a what is real and not real concept. Offering a new silhouette with exaggerated proportions (the coat collars, bows, belts, cloths on the head), the designer entirely eschewed fur for the first time, but still created for his clients the illusion of wearing them with the trompe l’oeil use of feathers and 3D embroideries.


Meanwhile Viktor & Rolf followed their last Instagram-friendly Spring/summer 2019 collection with a new one on sustainability creating colorful patchwork dresses using vintage garments, while also collaborating with Dutch artist and textile designer Claudy Jongstra, who provided wool felt from a herd of rare Drenthe Heath sheep that she raises and shears herself for a series of theatrical coats. Jonstra also dyes her felt only using plant pigment from her organic garden. The designers told WWD they aimed “to cast a positive spell that says things can be done.”


Meanwhile, on the fringe of couture, Philipp Schueller and Rens de Waal, the Dutch design duo made an experimental, performative presentation as an alternative to the traditional fashion show. Instead of choosing a venue and changing it to the needs of a show, Schueller de Waal, conceptualized and executed a fashion show that had a small positive effect on its location by asking their models, dressed in upcycled garments, to pick up litter in front of the 15th district town hall in a “cleaning action” organized in partnership with two local environmental NGOs.

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New Beginnings

One of the hottest tickets in town this season was the Chanel presentation, the first couture presentation entirely created by Virginie Viard, following the death of Karl Lagerfeld in February. In recent years, CHANEL Couture presentations have been associated with the grandest of grand runway décors at the Grand Palais – think space shuttle, an Eiffel tower replica, or a Mediterranean villa complete with palm trees and giant pool — so the double-tier circular library at the Grand Palais, complete with walkways, seemed a little tame by comparison, but it was a befitting tribute to Lagerfeld’s and Gabrielle Chanel’s irrepressible love of books – “Books are my best friends,” Chanel once confided to writer Paul Morand, while Lagerfeld had collected more than 300,000 books.


With this show, the long-time collaborator of the great designer confirmed the Maison was in good hands, as she sent a polished collection down the runway with her vision of the CHANEL allure: Slender and elongated silhouettes walking hands deep into pockets and wearing comfortable flats even with an evening gown (a trend embraced by many other couturiers this season. "I dreamt about a woman with nonchalant elegance and a fluid and free silhouette; everything I like about the CHANEL allure," Viard said.


Meanwhile, the Texan designer Daniel Roseberry was unveiling his first couture collection for Schiaparelli, having taken over from Bertrand Guyon in April. Unlike his predecessors, the 33 year old who worked with Thom Browne for over 10 years, didn’t delve into the archive of Elsa Schiaparelli, deciding that “shocking pink” was no longer shocking, but still brought a dash of surrealism to his collection such as his giant cloud-like silk flairs.


Tech Couture

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Couture remains essentially about beautiful tulle and lace often heavily embellished, but some designers are also pushing their use of delicate fabrics in new directions.


Leading the way each season, Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen collaborated with kinetic sculptor Anthony Howe on the “infinity” dress, which used a skeleton of aluminum, stainless steel and bearings embroidered with a delicate layering of feathers that soared in cyclical flight revolving around their own centers.


The designer explained her overall collection reflected “the beauty and complexity of our environment, exploring the patterns and structures within its fragile landscape.” And in sending models through and around Howe’s portal-like kinetic sculpture wearing multi-layered transparencies or organza around their body, the she offered one of the most memorable (and Instagram-able) moments of the week.


Elsewhere, Lebanese designer Tony Ward presented a couture dress from material that had been entirely 3D printed using 33 pieces of eco-friendly TPU material (a biodegradable plastic that takes a relatively short 3-5 years to decompose) and tulle gathered meticulously with the pieces. Ward said the dress was completely recyclable. “Even though Couture is all about the ‘fairy hands,’ I had the curiosity to integrate this technique and mix it with our know-how,” Ward said.


Dreams are real for some

Once an exclusive insular world, where the names of clients were closely guarded secrets, uttered only behind closed doors, and the public would rarely see many of the couturiers’ creations, today couture may still be priced out of most people’s budgets, but it is at least available for all to see, whether in real-time runway shows thanks to livestreams on social media like Facebook or via Instagram accounts of clients who are happy to showcase what they wear .


While 10 years ago some were heralding the death of couture, a bevy of new clients coming from newly emerged economies, have bolstered the dwindling clientele base.


Looking East, Asia was the inspiration for both Stephane Rolland and Elie Saab, but with very different results: Rolland embracing the spirit of calligraphy, sending garments with pure lines and minimalist embellishments down his runway, while Saab looked to Chinese traditional symbols (peonies, dragons, cranes and cloud motifs) for rich and sparling embroideries.


Chinese couturier Guo Pei concluded couture week with a poetic, dream-like collection. Completely free from any commercial constraints, the couturier imagined the afterlife as an alternate universe, where light and darkness co-exist. Showcasing her atelier’s craftsmanship, she elevated pineapple hemp fiber, hand-folding it in pleats, and embroidering it with pearls, feathers and Swarovski crystals. Her use of a natural material seems on point given the current discussion on sustainability.