The casualization of fashion and an obsession with street wear, wellness, and wearable fashion tech are everywhere, mirroring our fast-paced, tech-obsessed lives. Sneakers have become a powerful engine of growth for luxury houses, sales of high heels are shrinking and hardly anyone wears a necktie anymore.
So why is it that the V&A has had to extend its Dior exhibition for a further seven weeks, until September? Why do the Paris couture shows remain the most awaited of the fashion season? In January, Balmain returned to the couture calendar after a 16-year hiatus, while Hedi Slimane plans to expand the category as part of many new initiatives as creative director at Celine.
Younger labels — including Mary Katrantzou, Richard Quinn and Marine Serre — are all exploring demi-couture while British designer Ozwald Boateng recently unveiled his first collection of tailored clothing for women in Harlem in Manhattan.
Why? I believe the reason is that deep down, we still want to dream. We are entranced by beauty and craftsmanship and yearn to retain some of those values. To some, the world of couture may seem detached, irrelevant, archaic even, but it still exerts a powerful pull, and also sends a strong message about longevity, sustainability, and our social and cultural values.
I learned to sew when I was just seven. I was just amazed at the journey of an idea becoming a garment you could wear. My fashion career was shaped by an obsession with haute couture.
My first experience with couture was in my teens, during a field trip to Paris while studying at the Edinburgh College of Art. Our professor had arranged for us to see the Chanel couture show in Paris. This was back in the era before social media, so there were no spaceships or alpine chalets, and none of the extraordinary sets that we see from Chanel today. Just two simple rows of pristine salon chairs flanking a simple cream catwalk.
The show was otherworldly, with models descending the iconic mirrored stairs and gliding by in breathtaking clothes. I was hooked.
In my teens, I also worked in London for the couturier Victor Edelstein. I was impressed that he was striving to have his work seen at the same level as the houses in Paris and Rome. The atelier was filled with dresses from Dior, Givenchy and Valentino and they were examined forensically by his technical team.
I watched, learned and practiced all the amazing handwork and techniques. I learned how to hand tack silk crepe with organza to keep its shape. I watched how to make the most beautiful, hand-stitched buttonholes. I understood just how a complex boned bodice was constructed as the support for a gravity-defying, deceptively simple dress.
Since those early days I’ve passionately believed in the philosophy of buying less, but better. It’s the first thing we can control in terms of sustainability.
“Couture is possibly the most sustainable end of the fashion spectrum,” argues my lifelong friend Stewart Parvin, couturier to HRH Queen Elizabeth. “Garments are very rarely purchased for one-off wear. Once you’ve taken the time for the fittings required they might well last a lifetime. They have the ability to be altered as the client changes size and shape. There is usually considerably less wastage of raw materials, as often the expense prohibits wastage and the carbon footprint is considerably more sustainable.
“Combine that with the fact that workers have to be paid an appropriate wage for the level of skill required and the location that they’re working in. Far more well-paid hours are employed per garment at the top end versus the bottom of the market,” he says.
Parvin would also say that while not everyone can afford to buy couture, they can still have a couture mind-set.
“For most people who buy couture, the process is as much part of the fun as the finished item. Over years they’ve often gained a huge knowledge not only of how they like things to be done, but how they should be done. I think there has to be a return amongst the more general public to investing in clothes rather than throwaway fashion. Even having off-the-peg garments tailored for an individual fit, makes them look better, the wearer feel more comfortable and it ultimately gives them more longevity,” he believes.
Having clothes made to measure is still common practice — and big business — in many counties, like the Middle East and Africa, even in places where designer, ready-to-wear and fast fashion are freely available. It’s a conscious choice.
In the U.K., the habit of having one’s clothes made disappeared a few generations ago, but it is starting to make a comeback. There’s a resurgence of made-to-measure and bespoke, especially with suits and tailoring, and for women, not men. Emerging entrepreneurs such as Daisy Knatchbull of the tailored clothing company The Deck are focusing on this, and it seems that women are happy to invest.
“A good tailor, dressmaker or designer using traditional techniques can provide something unique, and ultimately flattering. With a lot of designer off-the-peg clothing, that can be a challenging demand,” says Parvin.
“Often I find that clients wear some of their more basic clothes to the point of near destruction because when something is a perfect fit both in terms of their body and lifestyle, it’s never off their back.”
Having lived and worked extensively in Milan, I know it’s part of European culture to eat well and dress well. Europeans put time and thought into the process. Once they find something that fits well, they will take care of it.
It’s no surprise then that bespoke is on the rise again in Italy. I caught up with Roberto Gigli, founder of Profili consultancy and an expert in the Italian luxury sector. He sees exclusivity as the reason behind the increase in demand.
“There have been real ups and downs in the made-to-measure sector, but we’re entering a phase of high request, especially in men’s wear brands and in made-to-measure suits and shirts,” he said. “In women’s wear, they’re not so much seeking made-to-measure, but more the ability to personalize products. Things like initials on accessories like bags or shoes. Made-to-measure is definitely on the rise. Being involved in the product’s development gives brands a way to offer something exclusive to clients.”
There is even more to learn from the world of couture and another reason why we will see a return to bespoke services: Customer retention. Once a client invests time with a maison and receives incredible service, not just the bespoke item, but also the relationship that is built passes between generations.
John Rushton, owner of the last independent men’s shoe retailer in London’s West End, and a purveyor of bespoke English shoes, has been serving customers for more than 30 years.
Rushton, who has a list of loyal customers, proudly showed me some of his genuinely bespoke shoes and told me: “I have a customer who’s been with me for many years. I’ve known his son since he was very small. He’s now 18 and going to his first important interview, so his father brought him into the shop.”
My book, “The Fashion Switch,” underlines the importance of building trust to ensure customer loyalty. Customers today want transparency, value for money and service. They also want to shop sustainably and look good in their clothing for longer.
So while we can’t all dress in couture, we are seeing its values become relevant once more.