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Comme des Garçons AW16
Comme des Garçons AW16Photography Chloé Le Drezen

The Paris designers rebelling against fashion’s speed

Returning to the couture salon and hand-draping garments themselves, everyone from Hedi Slimane to Rick Owens took a stand against the industry’s breakneck pace

It’s previously been an airport, a casino, and a supermarket – but yesterday morning in Paris, Karl Lagerfeld stripped back the elaborate staging of seasons past to transform the Grand Palais into a colossal couture salon, the intimate setting for fashion’s first ever runway shows. “Front Row Only” declared the invitation, and that was the case: the usual tiered seating was replaced by gilded chairs that snaked around the space in neat lines, making everyone a VIP.

Lagerfeld wasn’t the only one to return to the show system of decades past this week; the previous night, Hedi Slimane took a very select group of guests to the Hôtel de Sénecterre, the house he has personally restored over the last year and a half to serve as Saint Laurent’s couture atelier. Guests sat on chairs with hand-engraved name tags as the man who announced the looks for Yves Saint Laurent’s own shows for decades called out the number of each outfit – which was painstakingly crafted couture, not ready-to-wear.

These early shows – the very origins of the runway – were a world away from the enormous, branded spectacles of today; a return to them feels pertinent at a time when the industry is in the throes of an existential crisis, paradoxically questioning the damaging effects of its breakneck pace (cited by Raf Simons as a contributing factor to his decision to leave Dior) as well as the logic of its six month wait from runway to store. In an age of instant digital consumption, does it make sense that the clothes on the catwalk (and all over Instagram) aren’t available to buy for half a year?

“A world away from the enormous, branded spectacles of today, this return to the very origins of the fashion show feels pertinent at a time when the industry is in the throes of an existential crisis, paradoxically questioning the damaging effects of its breakneck pace”

Certainly not for a mega brand like Burberry, who this season have led the way in transforming their shows into directly shoppable experiences, with all clothes dropping immediately in stores. “Our shows have been evolving to close this gap (between runway and wearer) for some time,” said CEO Christopher Bailey. “From live streams, to ordering straight from the runway to live social media campaigns, this is the latest step in a creative process that will continue to evolve.”

Still, not everyone seems quite as on board with the change of pace. At the end of February, WWD reported that Ralph Toledano, head of The Fédération Française de la Couture du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode (French fashion’s governing body), said that “As far as we are concerned, the present system is still valid.” And this week in Paris, designers have, subtly, reinforced this position, showing collections that pushed back against an industry obsessed with speed, instead evoking an era where clothes were touched by the designer’s own hand, and couture clients sat watching gentile models parade clothes.

Backstage at his show, a sister collection to his AW16 menswear offering which considered environmental destruction, Rick Owens spoke about how this season had more of a personal touch than those in recent years, where he’s been using physicality to express his concepts (exposed penises, women cradling other women). “I was thinking, ‘How can I reduce a physical gesture to me?’” he explained backstage. “And instead of using other people’s bodies, how do I use myself to be more intimate?” His solution was to sit in his studio, hand-draping each piece himself – a total rarity in an era where designers have huge teams working on collections.

“Every single piece has its signature, its handwriting,” he continued. “No one is going to write exactly like me, so even though it’s duplicated it’s very unique. In this day and age, that’s not easy, and so that’s something positive that I can offer. It’s maybe as far away from fast fashion as I can do.” Phoebe Philo echoed Owens’ sentiment, with a Céline collection that was “about finding the stillness in the process”, saying that “all of these looks were…touched by a hand. They were twisted, they were moved, they were turned around, they were turned inside out.”

Rei Kawakubo remained tight-lipped (as usual) on her collection for Comme des Garçons, save to say that its inspiration came from the idea of how punks would look had they lived through the 18th century – an era of change, revolution and, appropriately, upheaval. The clothes were the kind of exaggerated, exploded silhouettes we have come to expect from Kawakubo – but rendered in shiny kinky pink and rich silks. Arguably, it was the fabric that made the collection’s strongest statement – Kawakubo having sourced her materials from Lyon, the world’s silk capital and the source of the fine fabrics used in haute couture. As Susie Lau wrote in her review of the collection, “In a fashion age, where contemporary pricing and accessibility is lauded, trust contrarian Kawakubo to push back and say ‘No, thank you.’” This wasn’t about fast fashion, or getting clothes onto the shop floor – Kawakubo was championing skill, history and the kind of craftsmanship that takes time (and costs money)

By returning to couture craftsmanship and a more hands-on approach to fashion, these designers are pushing back against the pressures of an industry that’s brought others to breaking point. Of course, they are relatively unique in their positions – having spent decades crafting not only reputations but sustainable businesses. As Owens said, “I’m not that afraid. All of those changes are not maybe as threatening to me, because my niche is so specific.” Lagerfeld, too, has shown himself unfazed by the industry’s speed. Still, they’re setting an example – that you don’t have to bow to see-now, buy-now, or to the whims an industry that spins at an ever-increasing pace. After all, what rejects the current, chaotic fashion week system – where seats are juggled around in the last minutes before a show – more than a hand-engraved name label on a couture salon chair?