The game-changing label is set to shake up Paris’s most revered runway, but what does this mean for the world of haute couture?
It all began in Paris, when a then-unknown label emerged on the fashion calendar with a collection of elongated basics, architectural silhouettes and worn-in denims. Information began to surface that Vetements was headed up by Demna and Guram Gvasalia but was otherwise anonymous, and that the designers had all honed their craft in the iconic and similarly elusive house of Martin Margiela. Subsequent collections took place in obscure locations such as Chinese restaurants and underground sex clubs, and the press quickly began to take notice.
Before long, superstars such as Kanye West and Rihanna were snapping up the brand’s £500 hoodies; their DHL logo t-shirt became one of the most divisive cult buys in recent history and Demna Gvasalia was headhunted by Balenciaga. However, this week’s announcement that the brand would show a one-off collection (a mix of couture and ready-to-wear) at next season’s Couture Fashion Week was still a shock to most. This is couture – the most traditional, tightly-regulated practice remaining in fashion and an unrivalled branding exercise for storied houses to appeal to their richest clients. Vetements, on the other hand, is a youth-driven collective making logo sweatshirts emblazoned with “You Fuckin’ Asshole”. So, what does this guest spot mean for fashion’s most respected division?
“Vetements is a youth-driven collective making logo sweatshirts emblazoned with ‘You Fuckin’ Asshole’. So, what does this guest spot mean for fashion’s most respected division?”
Back in 1945, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture released a revised list of guidelines which outlined requirements of a couture label. It was said that designs must be made-to-order for private clients and require one or more fittings; that each atelier must have at least 20 members of staff, and that the house must present a collection of at least 35 runs with both daytime and evening wear to the Paris press. 71 years later, these rules still apply. While there were over 100 couture labels in the first half of the century, by 1970 only 19 houses in total remained. Fashion had moved to mass production after World War II, and many houses were left unable to fulfil these rigid requirements. To this day, couture remains a small industry and is seen either as a relic of fashion’s ‘golden age’ or an opportunity for houses to build upon their historic legacies.
At Couture Fashion Week you can expect extravagance, exceptional artistry and elaborate presentation – Jean Paul Gaultier even quit to focus on couture specifically, as it was the one stage on which he could share the designs of his dreams, created without limits. It’s also a chance for storied houses to create custom pieces for the richest of the rich and, most importantly, it’s seen as a valuable branding exercise which can influence sales of ready-to-wear and various other diffusions. Despite its traditional roots, there are brands pushing the aesthetic of couture; Maison Margiela’s Artisanal range is the most notable example, comprised of antique objects which are deconstructed and subsequently reconstructed to create new, ‘couture’ pieces.
Despite the fact that Margiela was keen to rebuke the couture label, it’s undeniable that showing blue latex jeans on Paris’ most revered runway is controversial. Karl Lagerfeld has similarly used it as a platform for experimentation, debuting Chanel’s ‘eco-couture’ vision last season. A grand, three-story pavilion set the stage for a similarly grandiose collection constructed from biodegradable materials such as paper and wood. Four seasons previous, he presented what The Guardian called a ‘radical style statement’ with his bejewelled couture trainers, which were largely deemed to be a move towards youth in couture aimed to liberate women from heels by offering a chic alternative.
If trainers can successfully spark a wave of op-eds, what could Vetements’ first couture showing do? The brand has already divided fashion insiders, with The Fashion Law labelling it “the cult of the fashion victim” and The Man Repeller stating that, well, she just doesn’t “get it”. Crucially, the main criticism levelled against the brand is its extremely high prices – the cult DHL t-shirt retails at £185 yet is already sold out basically everywhere. In a recent Telegraph interview, even Gvasalia himself admitted that he’s “not crazy enough to go out and buy these things” and would rather spend his money on a holiday. A couture collection could surely see price tags inflate even further, undoubtedly resulting in extra-critical reviews and a predictable backlash. However, if there’s one thing proven by these slew of op-eds, it’s that Gvasalia is a master at provoking a reaction.
Furthermore, couture methods of production are the antidote to the punishing fast-fashion mentality which has resulted in unethical sweatshops, low pay and disasters like the Rana Plaza factory collapse. As opposed to being created by in exploitative garment factories, these couture pieces are hand-crafted by respected, highly-skilled artisans. Sure, very few can actually afford to buy into couture, but a lot can be learned from the techniques, with designers such as Faustine Steinmetz transferring this mentality into their own collections. Even Vetements is limiting its output, dropping to two shows and shunning pre-collections altogether. This move already demonstrates a shift towards couture mentality – make less, but make better.
Regardless of the reaction to the upcoming show, it’s undeniable that Vetements’ presence will create a buzz. Allowing them this platform is a brave move, especially as the industry of couture usually favours historic brands with a rich heritage rather than those inspired by youth, club and street culture. Can Gvasalia bring this energy to the hallowed stage of haute couture, just like he has done at Paris Fashion Week’s ready-to-wear shows? Few brands are more divisive than Vetements, but no matter whether you love it or hate it, there’s little doubt that you’ll watch it – and, right now, that might just be what couture needs.