Divine Haute Couture

We were in the city of light, Paris, and it certainly was that, a city of light, and magic as well, especially when it comes to Haute Couture. Indeed, we had specifically journeyed to Paris for Haute Couture Week Autumne–Hiver 2015–2016 to join our good friend and colleague, Eleonora De Gray, who is Editor–in–Chief of Runway Magazine in Paris, for as many shows as we could attend. To our delight, Mademoiselle De Gray had secured invitations to over twenty runway shows and several presentations.

Haute Couture is unique to Paris and it is quite an honour to attend a Haute Couture event in France, a country that puts a high premium on fashion, art, and culture.

So, exactly what is “Haute Couture?” It is variously defined as “high sewing,” “high dressmaking,” or “high fashion” and refers to the creation of elite custom–fitted clothing. Such exclusive fashion is constructed by hand from fabrics of the highest quality and is tailored to the client’s exact measurements and body stance. The term originally referred to work produced by the Englishman Charles Worth in Paris in the mid–nineteenth century.

The term Haute Couture is protected by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris and has its own organization, Chambre Syndicate de la Couture Parisienne, an association of Parisian couturiers founded in 1868 as an outgrowth of the medieval guilds.

Firm criteria for Haute Couture were established in 1945 and updated in 1992; Haute Couturiers must: design made–to–order fashion for private clients, with one or more fittings provided; maintain an atelier in Paris that employs at least fifteen staff members full–time; and present collections of at least fifty original designs twice a year, in January and July.

Of the many Haute Couture showings we attended in July 2015, we found those of Bowie Wong, Julien Fournié, and Zuhair Murad to be particularly outstanding and charming. These three designers are all masters in their own right and their works show that the future of Haute Couture remains bright.

We were fortunate to interview Bowie Wong right after his dramatic show at the Peninsula Hotel. His designs represented an interpretation and reinvention of the theme “Metamorphosis;” he drew his inspiration from a study of the transformations of the insect family cicada, from its early curved shell to its sprouting of fragile wings. These studies led to ingenious designs, which became the foundation of his current collection.

Wong was born in Hong Kong but now lives and creates in Australia, with periodic sojourns in Paris. We posed the following questions to him:

Is couture a “fairy tale?”

“I wouldn’t describe couture as a fairy tale — from my perspective it is a reality. Others may see it as a fairy tale because they may never get a chance to wear couture designs. However, I am happy for people to buy into the fairy tale concept.” 

So, what does couture mean to you?

“It means very personal and detailed service to my customers. Clients can be involved in the process in a very intricate way and the more they are involved the better I understand their needs.”

How do couture shows directly help sales of your collection?

“In general, couture shows may not directly help sales but do help designers market themselves. We are selling a concept, packaged with staging, sound effects, model choreography, and accessories, all of which help the customers more easily understand where the designer is coming from. And, the more press we get from our shows, the more sales.”

Bowie Wong, who has dressed celebrities such as Kylie Minogue, George Michael, Beyonce Knowles, and Japanese singing sensation Anna Tschiya, most certainly did put on a unique and magical show. I found his collection delicate yet tangible, with graceful intricacies spanning his garments. A standout design was has dazzling wedding dress, replete with butterflies on its veil and arms. His designs were very well structured and had somewhat of an architectural quality to them, with brilliant boning on the dresses. There were some exceptionally delicate headdresses as well, including a gorgeous fur headdress that would be practical in any snowstorm. The headdresses even had cute little insects stuck to them, perhaps in keeping with the theme of the collection. Wong, who stuck to a palette of white, black, and grey for his collection, produced a simply stunning ensemble; it was quite a show to see during couture week. For sure, we will be watching Mr. Wong very closely for another outstanding collection in his next presentation.

Julien Fournié put on an exceptional show as well, one that left everyone feeling good. A French fashion designer who has been in business under his own name since 2009, he previously worked with Jean Paul Gaultier and at Dior, Nina Ricci, Givenchy, Celine, and Torrente. He was awarded the Moet & Chandon Prize for Best Accessories when he graduated at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne.

I asked Mr. Fournié what Haute Couture meant to him. His response: “Haute Couture can only be made in Paris, historically the very first world fashion capital, where fashion designers from all over the world have continuously met to compete for excellence for the last 150 years. Haute couture now constitutes the essence of fashion: it captures in a nutshell the best balance between tradition and innovation. So, to me, Haute Couture is a laboratory looking towards the future, integrating into today’s fashion the very best techniques in current development and allying them with the very best craftsmanship from our heritage. For example, as part of my exploration of new techniques, I am currently doing 3D Design, with my FashionLab partners at Dassault Systèmes.”
The Fournié show was daringly sexual, yet very feminine. In the show notes, the designer says he was inspired by the esotericism and magnetism of two early innovative filmmakers, Karl Freund and Marcel L’Herbier. In his show, Fournié portrays female characters that favor mystery to enhance their strong personality; these are women with smoking sexuality and some hints of the Goth. He was deeply influenced by his reading of the book Letters Between Six Sisters, which details the lives of Great Britain’s celebrated Mitford sisters, each of whom was independent and radical in her own way, especially for the time period in which they lived.

We saw a lot of velvet, chiffon, and jersey, and some fur in the Fournier show. Standouts were a strapless black vinyl dress bedecked with a huge black flower, a spectacular green velvet cut out gown that let the skin show in just the right places, and the sensational final gown, a masterpiece in glittering crinkled black vinyl.

Mr. Fournié, ever the soul of discretion, has a policy of not disclosing who wears his clothes, a rather noble gesture in a highly competitive business. However, based on this show, we suspect Julien Fournié designs are and will continue to be in high demand.

We also greatly enjoyed and appreciated the Zuhair Murad show. Murad is a Lebanese fashion designer born in Beirut and is no stranger to couture, having been in business for over thirty years, which is itself a tribute to his greatness. Murad had an early passion for fashion, which he studied in Paris right after high school. That early zeal remains just as strong today, and his talent is recognized by those in the know: he has dressed the likes of Beyonce Knowles, Marion Cotillard, Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry, to name just a few.

The Zuhair Murad show offered viewers an ascent heavenward, saluting hyper–glam silver screen stars of the 1970’s. Whilst we were seated amidst the twinkling stars of the ethereal firmament, Mr. Murad enveloped us in materials such as crepe de chine, organza, velvet silk tulle, and georgette, and vibrant colours such as lustrous garnet, blue, purple, black, white, and silver.

Standouts of the show included: a dress in “moonshine silver” with a lace see–through bodice and a slit up the side; an ensemble featuring a garnet gown with a slit up the side, a sequined top, and a sequined jacket embroidered in fox fur; and, the piece de resistance, a spectacular sequined wedding gown with a voluminous train. There was also a showing of sumptuous furs; all this constituted another remarkable presentation for Zuhair Murad.

In sum, Bowie Wong, Julien Fournié, Zuhair Murad, and all the other designers we saw provided us with an exhilarating look at Haute Couture Week, July 2015 in Paris. Quite simply, we were overcome by the creativity and showmanship of these artistic supermen. It was an experience not to be forgotten.

We wish to thank two great photographers, Vinh Tran and Sekkat Mehdi, for their heroic work at the events and great pictures they provided to us. Also, we give special thanks to Eleonora De Gray and to her partner Guillamette Duplaix for their kindness to us and efforts to make our visit exceptional, which it most certainly was.

Photos credits Sekkat Mehdi, Vinh Tran and Faith Boutin 
Photos of Bowie Wong’s show: Joshua Fitoussi