From couture atelier staple to streetwear collectable – behind fashion’s latest obsession
Once confined to the exclusive environs of the haute couture atelier, the past century has seen the staff jacket warp from pristine uniform to cult branding device to collectable streetwear coat sanctioned by the likes of Demna Gvasalia and Virgil Abloh. Here we trace its storied history from the workroom to the runway, right up to its modern day revival.
HAUTE COUTURE RENDERED SEWING A SCIENCE, APPROPRIATING THE LAB COAT ALONG THE WAY
The staff jacket’s long journey begins in the world of haute couture: a realm dictated by tradition. To label yourself a couture house, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture stipulates that, alongside many other specifications, you must have an atelier in Paris and employ at least 20 trained seamstresses, or petites mains (“little hands”), to meticulously construct your pieces. Since the early days of couture, these highly skilled craftsmen and women have sported white work coats (or chemises), like those adopted by lab technicians or doctors in the late 1800s, as a demonstration of the scientific precision of their trade and the pristine environment of the atelier. Rendered in crisp cotton or linen, these minimalist smocks are typically knee-length and possess large pockets, a necessary practicality for the storage of pins, tape measures et al. Christian Dior famously wore a white jacket while he worked – a sign that he was no better than his accomplished employees. (M. Dior was previously a gallery owner and, having had no formal fashion training, was always eager to credit his staff).
COMME DES GARÇONS GAVE IT CULT STATUS
In the 1980s Rei Kawakubo took the concept of the atelier lab coat and made it her own: for a number of Comme des Garçons shows (though the details are scant) the pioneering designer created long black jackets for the runway staff in a wrinkled, raincoat-esque material. Underneath, the employees wore black suits, while on the back, the show date and house logo were printed in bold white lettering; an example of CdG branding at its finest. It’s no surprise that these collector’s items in the making now sell for a small fortune, while the newly-announced Supreme x Comme des Garçons SHIRT collaboration features a black, high-sheen, back-printed coat that pays direct homage to the originals. Trust the ever-brilliant Kawakubo to catalyse the garment’s cult appeal.
MARGIELA MADE IT MYSTERIOUS
Which brings us neatly to fellow visionary Martin Margiela. Following in the footsteps of M. Dior, the celebrated doyen of all things white appropriated the lab coat as a staff uniform shortly after founding his eponymous maison in 1988. To this day, all Margiela employees, from the head designers to the interns, wear these so-called “blousons blanche”, complete with multiple pockets, sleek wrap-fronts and side-ties, as a means of establishing a sense of collective identity, unity and mystery (much like Margiela’s decision to sign off all house communication “Maison Martin Margiela”, and never to identify himself in public). One of the most iconic moments in the history of the blouson blanche was Margiela’s groundbreaking AW89 show, set in a derelict playground in Paris. For the grand finale, the models and backstage staff emerged decked in their white workmen’s jackets, the pockets of which were filled with confetti that the models threw into the air to thunderous applause. Thereafter, Margiela and his white-clad army were propelled to global fame, but nearly 30 years on the maison retains its air of intrigue, its covetable uniform still available exclusively to those embraced into the fold.
OFF-WHITE AND VETEMENTS ARE BRINGING IT TO THE STREETS
While few of us will ever number among Margiela’s chosen task force, the staff jacket is undergoing a contemporary renaissance at the hands of brands such as Vetements and Off-White, and as such is finally breaking free of its backstage confines. At first, Off-White’s Virgil Abloh opted to channel Kawakubo, decking his staff – both at Paris Fashion Week and Design Miami for the showcasing of his furniture collections – in long black trench coats with “Off-White Staff Uniform” emblazoned across the back. More recently however, he has opened up the trend to buyers. For example, the luxury streetwear brand’s SS17 collection featured the Scorpion Staff Coat, a black, raw-edge trench bearing the ominous words “The End © 2017” (the “staff uniform” slogan is still reserved for employees only). Meanwhile Demna Gvasalia’s take on the staff jacket is of course the black, hooded “Vetements” raincoat that debuted for SS16, and has since launched the most epic fashion meme battle of all time – a sure sign that the staff jacket has well and truly penetrated millennial popular culture and looks set to stay.