I feel such a sense of privilege when I am allowed to view and touch haute couture, getting a feeling for the fabric, the stitches, and the extraordinary work that has gone into each piece.
When Riccardo Tisci, the Creative Director at Givenchy known for giving a modern, sometimes even Gothic, edge to classic style, told me that a slim, straight dress, almost Victorian in its high-necked elegance, was made with 87 different laces, I thought simply that I had misheard him. But it was fact.
“We order the laces in advance and we mix them. It’s quite a lot of work to put it together,” the designer explained of what seemed at first glance like an elegant but simple evening outfit.
We were standing in the showroom in the grand Givenchy building on Avenue Montaigne in Paris, looking out towards the River Seine. The room was flanked by two lines of mannequins, giving the opportunity to see both sides of the outfits – and, indeed, every possible detail from birds of paradise, rooster and ostrich feathers to the lightest organza shimmering with crystals.
“I’m presenting it like this to show people how it really works on the body; sometimes with the lights you don’t see the details, and couture for me is about details,” the designer explained. As in previous seasons, he had shown some of the women’s outfits on the runway at the Givenchy menswear show.
The overall theme surprised me: America’s Far West, with its prissy, high-collared, slender dresses, but with even down-home checks re-created as haute couture.
“This is the more romantic, delicate side of my way of working,” Riccardo explained. “The first dress is fishnet in the slim shapes that we worked on. But most of the dresses can be worn in different ways. You can pull down the sleeves, which is typical in Victorian costumes, or you can wear it more like a shirt – more relaxed. Then you have an apron dress with a caped sleeve.”
These “country music” dresses were accompanied by a more masculine outfit in boned velvet, designed with leather fringes and interlacing, with stirrup pants in stretch lambs wool. It could pass as daywear with a horsey elegance.
But the heart of the collection was, in Riccardo’s own words, “lots of feathers – my obsession, as they always have been”.
And what feathers! One dress was pale pink, with plumes like wings curling over the shoulders and a fluff of ostrich below a slender bodice of floral lace. Another was in transparent tulle embellished with rooster feathers, ostrich plumes, and pink birds of paradise – all these bird wings worked into a collage of a lace-encrusted jumpsuit.
I asked Riccardo who his clients were, knowing that he had dressed many on the red carpet.
“We have a lot of celebrities, but most of the clients are collectors – and they like the transformation of the show,” the designer said. “Since we started dressing Michelle Obama and Queen Rania I think we got a new market, which is more American. If you dress the (former) First Lady, you get more attention.”
I still felt frustrated that the Givenchy Haute Couture was shown on static mannequins, however strategically placed and fascinating it was to see the exemplary workmanship and the extraordinary details. What is couture if it cannot speak in body language?
There was one final outfit – long, slim, sleeved and apparently made entirely of rings with shiny black paillettes and crystals. Its origin, Riccardo explained, went back to his earliest work at Central Saint Martins in London, from where he graduated in 1999.
“At Saint Martins, I was obsessed with making romantic material,” he said. “For this collection, I started with chiffon, then denim, and then the symmetry was replicated. Each one here is embroidered with organza and silver metal thread. I am really proud of this dress, because I found the way to make it.”
Such ingenuity and artistry shows that haute couture is alive and well for the 21st century, but it is frustrating that Givenchy does not dedicate a show, however small and discreet, for Riccardo’s collection – rather than a tag-on to his menswear.