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Couture Creativity Flows From the Fabric

“To do a collection without the right fabrics is as absurd as a painter creating a canvas without any oils,” said John Galliano.

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A Christian Dior fall couture dress hand-stained with ink.

Giovanni Giannoni

PARIS — Imagining high fashion without its fabulous fabrics is like thinking about a peacock without its dazzling feathers, and much of the magic from the fall couture collections presented here last week came from the materials.

This story first appeared in the July 13, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“To do a collection without the right fabrics is as absurd as a painter creating a canvas without any oils,” said John Galliano, who dedicated Christian Dior’s fall couture collection to flowers of every variety. “Fabrics are developed, dyed and chosen especially for each design and collection we work on. From Mr. Dior to today, the designs come to life with the fabrics we chose.”

Working this couture season with silk organza, mohair, felted wool, bouclé, braided mohair, tulle and a “very special” triple-layered organza, the designer said he summoned the aid of embroiderers, painters, printers and plumassiers — couture’s behind-the-scenes elves — “to bring a floral spectrum of ideas to life.”

From there, organza petals were glued to a skirt to evoke a trembling chrysanthemum, flushing from black to white. Bright felt featured jagged appliqués, tufts of ribbon-embroidered lace or fringed organza and tulle, and a gauze bustier base grew a layer of silk sun pleats resembling mushroom flesh. Fabrics were hand-painted with pansies or hand-dyed with indigo ink stains.

“In France, there is this wonderful saying that the fabrics are ‘ennobled,’” Galliano said. “I like to search for the perfect texture, the perfect dye, the perfect print, to exact my ideas.”

Before sketching Chanel’s couture collections, Karl Lagerfeld chooses the fabrics, taking inspiration from colors or the way a fabric falls. Naturally, tweed, Chanel’s signature, formed the core ingredient of the house’s daywear, in a bouclé finish or enriched with lamé and red chenille yarns. Then came cashmere in a houndstooth print, embroidered cotton lace and a heavily worked wool jersey, a fabric not often used in couture, which came braided, embroidered and bordered by silk tulle. Allover embroidered frocks had tulle or organza bases.

Just as designers view couture as a playground for letting their fantasies run wild, the few European fabric mills still specializing in the domain view it as an opportunity to experiment.

“[Couture is] a fashion laboratory,” said Hans Schreiber, creative director of family-owned Swiss embroidery specialist Forster Rohner, which boasts more than a century’s worth of savoir faire. “We stretch the limits of embroidery in every direction. It’s interesting because you come back to this know-how as the base and then bring it further.”

Classical fabrics often form the base for couture collections, said Schreiber, but are subtly modernized with twists. Forster Rohner produced three such fabrics used in Valentino’s fall couture collection. These included a black floral guipure treated to give a leathery, glossy finish and a labor-intensive “cutout” silk lace, mixing hand-cut motifs with surface appliqués to achieve a textured 3-D effect. A white-on-white superposed guipure based on a Fifties archive design was “freshened up” with a more playful pattern. Compared with the prevalence of light, papery fabrics a couple of seasons ago, Schreiber observed a mood for thicker, denser fabrics this season, with a Sixties influence coming through.

“It’s about simplicity, modernity,” he said. “The fabrics had to have a certain volume and density to give the geometry a base.”

Eve Corrigan, chief executive officer of French novelty tweed expert Malhia Kent, described couture as a laboratory for new ideas that often filter down to ready-to-wear fabrics. Malhia Kent has a research and development facility in Paris, with a fabric library containing more than 30,000 swatches. About 10 percent of its fabrics are dedicated to couture. Innovations this season included ultralight technical paper tweed, where paper threads were dyed and woven in warp and weft. A new induction fabric involved printing flowers on tweed that were then coated with plastic.

Working on couture collections, Corrigan said, allows mills to maintain close ties with the studios of luxury houses. The firm’s founder, Michèle Sorano, collaborated with Coco Chanel, and is credited with having invented the woven sequin.

Business this year for Malhia Kent, based near Lyon, France, has jumped 80 percent compared with last year, Corrigan said, adding that she has had to increase staffing by 50 percent and extend the premises. Corrigan believes this success comes from the firm’s doubling of its collection during the crisis instead of pulling out old stock.

“It’s both exhilarating and exhausting,” she said.

Having suffered a “terrible year” in 2009, Martin Leuthold, creative director of Switzerland’s Jakob Schlaepfer, said business has picked up and is “very hectic and enthusiastic.” The firm dedicates around half its fabric offer to couture, a rarity nowadays, churning out 250 to 300 new designs each season.

The price of couture fabrics is reflected in the price of a couture frock. A velvet sequin innovation by Jakob Schlaepfer, for instance, which carries one million sequins per 9 meters of fabric, costs around 1,000 Swiss francs, or about $950 at current exchange, per meter.

“We’re always doing strange things like plastic foils bonded with foam, and we’ll always say, ‘Maybe we’ll find the right person who will know what to do with it,’” Leuthold said. “Then we see it up there [on the podium] and the whole world is watching. It starts from there, from the top of the pyramid.”

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