What the Heck is Happening at Couture Week?

Big changes are afoot


It was either pure happenstance or, more likely, a collective decision amongst multiple Man Repeller employees to tack an extra vacation day onto the stretch surrounding the Fourth of July, but Leandra, Leslie and I found ourselves the only team members physically present at our usually-robust weekly editorial meeting (Haley phoned in, which was fortunate because I can’t go more than a week without hearing her angelic voice, or I start to get the shakes).

Regardless, after reviewing the editorial calendar for this week and next, our meeting soon devolved into a discussion about couture week, which officially wraps up today. Leandra and Leslie were remarking on some of the major changes taking place during this couture week — most notably Rodarte and Proenza Schouler deciding to show their Spring 2018 ready-to-wear collections in Paris on the couture schedule. Weird, right? Well, maybe not so weird, when you consider the business strategy behind it: “By showing Spring 2018 on the couture schedule, two months ahead of their peers, they are the first collections of the season that buyers will bet on,” observes The Business of Fashion. “By presenting in Paris, they are also exposed to an entire new set of international buyers who don’t attend New York Fashion Week, and press who are less stressed by back-to-back appointments.” Vetements was the first to take this approach, in 2016. The Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (a.k.a. the organization in charge of the French fashion industry) has since relegated an entire day of couture week to ready-to-wear.

The fashion calendar isn’t the only aspect of the industry in a state of experimentation, though. This past week highlighted a noticeable shift not only in terms of press attendance (i.e. there seemed to be more of it than in previous years) but also in terms of attendees’ attire. Multiple pairs of JEANS were spotted front-row at Chanel, in fact. The overt casualness of people’s outfits carries particular significance in the context of couture — which has historically represented the height of luxury. To receive the designation of being “haute couture,” a designer must not only create made-to-order garments for private clients, but also must operate an atelier with a minimum staff of 15 and show at least 50 original designs in Paris during every couture week. In other words: couture is PEAK FANCY. The contrast between this rarefied opulence and the casualness of denim-clad attendees is further evidence of the argument for doing something simply because “that’s how it’s always been done” is holding up less and less across the board in fashion. Changes are afoot!

Below is the slack conversation we had as a follow-up to our post-editorial meeting musings. We decided to publish it because we’re interested to hear your thoughts, too.

Leandra: So…we’re the only ones in the office this week, huh?

Harling: Post-long weekend crew.

Leandra: It’s given me a lot of time to look at the couture week coverage from Paris, which so bizarrely seems busier than usual.

Leslie: It feels weird to NOT acknowledge that couture is going on. It also feels weird that couture is going on over the Fourth of July.

Harling: I actually forgot it was happening until I saw all those photos of the Rodarte show on Instagram. I shared one on Man Repeller’s account because those flower crowns were so terrific.

Leandra: No one seems to care about observed holidays in America, but whatever. Despite it coinciding with the long weekend, there was seemingly MORE U.S. press attending couture shows than usual — arguably because Rodarte and Proenza Schouler showed Spring 2018 a la Vetements? That made it so much more confusing, because what are we there for: ready-to-wear or couture?

Harling: For the sake of people who aren’t super well-versed in fashion terminology/the fashion calendar (a.k.a. me), can you explain the difference between ready-to-wear and couture?

Leandra: Ready-to-wear = mainline clothing collections. Sometimes they happen 2x a year (spring, fall), other times 4x a year (spring, pre-fall, fall, resort). Couture = made-to-order, handmade clothes. One might argue that if in this day and age anyone could be a fashion designer, the same is not true for a couturier.

Leslie: The thing that is weird about this couture week is that it seems, from the outside, to be very much just another “week” in that editors/important fashion people are all going to shows, instagramming, etc. But the difference you’re asking about, Harling — it’s something I don’t think many people know.

Leandra: Couture clothes are EXTREMELY expensive, and the season is seemingly in place so that clients can preview new collections. It’s not as much for press (it does get shot editorially, but not as frequently as ready-to-wear does).

Leslie: Business of Fashion‘s Lauren Sherman posted an Instagram from Chanel and a commenter noted that a front-row person was wearing jeans. There were a lot of casual looks.

Leandra: There were a lot of jeans at Chanel specifically. I looked at the front row coverage on Vogue — super, super casual.

Harling: I noticed a lot of people wearing tank tops and pants that gather at the ankle — like, ’80s-style sweatpants. Bella Hadid, Cara Delevingne.

♡ QUEEN 👑🗼♡ #CaraDelevingne #Delevingners #CJD #Chanel

A post shared by C. Jocelyn 🇧🇷 (@carasbaec) on

Leandra: But why wouldn’t they dress casually, right? If the editors are infiltrating these shows at a higher volume than actual customers, they’re not there to see and be seen, they’re there to werq. The people who truly get dressed for shows are the celebrities/influencers and the couture clients.

Leslie: But even though they’re dressed casually, they’re still wearing outfits. They’re wearing full “looks.”

Leandra: Because fundamentally they’re still fashion peeps, right?

Harling: “Jean looks” have also been infiltrating formal occasions a lot more recently. I’m thinking about Isabelle Huppert on the red carpet at Cannes.

Leandra: Trends have gotten so weird. It’s like they start, they explode, they trail off, then explode again. They used to have a real beginning, middle and end…but I’m digressing.

Leslie: People say that couture is where the trends start? I’m not sure if that’s actually true.

Harling: I don’t think it is.

Leandra: No no, I think couture is immune to the concept of trend. I believe that to be true about the entire house of Chanel, actually.

Harling: Right, because it adheres to such a consistent formula.

Leslie: Given what the clothes are supposed to be, you’d assume that couture week itself would be very inaccessible — like, not as many people, not as democratic. But it doesn’t feel that way.

Harling: Instagram makes everything democratic. I don’t think anything is immune at this point.

Leandra: I’m wondering if that’s because more designers are taking themselves off the ready-to-wear calendar and putting themselves on the couture calendar. I know it’s only three designers right now (Proenza, Vetements, Rodarte), but that’s enough to start a trend and muddy the H2O.

Harling: What do you think the impetus is for designers muddying the fashion calendar’s waters?

Leandra: It’s a low-risk decision. If you think about it, you’re still showing, but instead of showing during an extremely loud period, you’re showing during a quieter season. That probably makes a brand like Rodarte or Proenza feel better about their mission, because they’re aligning themselves with old tradition, artisanal craftsmanship, etc. This is all conjecture, but I think it has something to do with noise.

Harling: And cutting through it. That makes sense.

Leslie: We know from the content side that the traditional February/September fashion weeks are way too overwhelming. People tend to tune out after just a few days.

Leandra: Yeah, but sometimes I wonder, if I were launching a fashion label today, what would I do? How would I do it? I would want to create something that did not have to adhere to the broken-ass system. I wouldn’t enter that side of the industry to play the same game. And as an editor in fashion, I also wonder: what would be ideal? At the top of the UNideal list: Skipping Fourth of July weekend to cover shows in Europe.

Leslie: The idea of going to couture week SOUNDS more fun than a regular week, though. Like, more novel.

Leandra: BUT I LOVE BBQ. New York is a magical place for four months a year and I do not want to miss a second of it.

Get more Fashion ?
  • Néo Bourgeois — Montecito

    ‘This is all conjecture’. Is NYC even fashion its more Finance and Real-estate I think. No one in NYC has the time to paint flowers by hand on fabric. In Paris they have plenty of time to do artwork because its the land of tradition ( Couture is a state sanctioned artform ) scribbling their little signatures and figure drawings on everything in blue, yellow, red and green colors. Perhaps MR needs to open a French office on the Champs-Élysées. Grow the brand.

    • Leandra Medine

      new york fashion is a big and lucrative business! but it is by no means couture. this city thrives on contemporary wear: the digesting and simplfying of all the complicated ideas that emerge elsewhere

      • Néo Bourgeois — Montecito

        Right On:)

  • Mariam Elle Zoghbi

    I don’t think I love anything as much as Leandra loves summer in NY.

  • Imaiya Ravichandran

    the best part about this year’s couture week was celine dion AM I RIGHT?!!

    • the best part of anything is always celine dion.

    • Kelsey O’Donnell

      Yes. You are right.

  • Gregory Apparel

    I can’t help lump this conversation with my theory. I’ve been feeling for a while now, (since 2008- 2009) that fashion is slowly falling out of fashion. Popular tastes are changing. I will keep going with mine but I’m so grateful for my side gigs. The ones that are really in to it will keep going but Fashion had a good run.

  • The very best of Couture Week has been Ulyana Sergeenko. Everyone else presented collections that looked like previous ones.

  • Sarah Tinoco

    I always thought many people believed Haute Couture was irrelevant, simply because it’s made-to-order, incredibly expensive and often disregards trends (as explained in the Slack conversation), but I am happy MR is having a conversation about it!

    The audience situation at Couture Week this week is interesting. Couture Weeks weren’t always influencer-heavy. I remember not too long ago, Dolce & Gabbana (which, funnily, isn’t actually an official couture house!) very strictly invited clients and a handful of industry figures to their Alta Moda shows. Considering their RTW shows now are FILLED with influencers (that’s a whole ‘nother discussion!), it’s almost hard to believe. And on the topic of audience, did anyone read Julie Zerbo’s article in the NYTimes about disclosing paid travel and accommodations for shows? It’s all quite interesting thinking about it – what does Chanel need influencers at its Couture show for if only private clients can and will purchase what’s actually presented? Obviously, it’s not so much about the business of couture as it is about the business of influencers.

    On the topic of Rodarte & Proenza showing RTW, it’s the complete opposite of the see-now-buy-now Burberry and followers started just a year (or has it been longer???) ago. I think the reasons Leandra mentioned are smart, especially the idea of “aligning with old tradition, artisanal craftsmanship, etc.” Isn’t that why Valentino, Alexander McQueen, Miu Miu, Rick Owens – and not to mention all the Japanese designers – show RTW in Paris in February/September? But look, Vetements shuttered runway shows this season!

    I don’t know, fashion is more in flux than I think people think it is, and not discussing Couture Week would be detrimental to awareness of it, so thank you MR for starting this conversation!

  • Nirali Surati

    At the BoF voices event, John Galliano articulated beautifully how margelia translates their artisanal collection to RTW and accessories. Couture gives these houses a chance to be super conceptual, a starting point if you like. But agree with Leandra that couture is immune to trends. My take on couture is that of truly viewing fashion as art. The whole idea of RTW shows amidst couture is very confusing. I actually looked up whether Rodarte was now doing couture. While it makes good business sense to cut through the noise, its only a matter of time before the noise follows there too. What would help the fashion system is to reduce the no. of collections & allow some breathing space for creativity. Fast fashion gets blamed a lot for over consumption, but with so many designer collections on offer throughout the year, possibly luxury design houses are also to blame.

  • Kelsey O’Donnell

    I don’t think I love anything as much as I love summer in NY! Also, I want more than a digression re: trends! Leandra, I think you’re hitting on something! I’ve noticed the shift myself and I can’t decide if I love it or hate it. I also have an uneasy feeling that it might be signalling a bigger shift, like maybe the end of trends? Could that ever be? Or the division of the fashion world into very distinct groups that follow very different trends? Also, why the shift? Could the impetus possibly the democratization of EVERYTHING, or the logical outcome of constantly recycling trends from decades gone? New Tangent: I found this conversation very interesting because it seems, to me, to echo conversations going on in the political world. Vox recently posted an interview with Fareed Zakaria about the future of democracy wherein Zakaria distinguished a liberal democracy from an illiberal democracy, and emphasized that “democracy” without [classic] liberal values is not an inherent good, and could be very bad. For example, an illiberal democracy can result in the rule of a tyrannical majority. My thoughts on how this relates to fashion are just forming, and therefore not even in the oven, let alone half-baked, but I’m wondering if his analysis and commentary could be applied to the fashion world and this shift in Couture? Are the metaphorical tectonic shifts we’re feeling in public life being felt across the entire spectrum of human experience? What will result?

  • Nat Ch

    I always thought of couture as the intellectual, mystic leg of the fashion table. It’s art. It’s conceptual. Couture still holds the original and not vulgarized sense of “exclusivity” that many things have lost, and I think overexposure (by means of the media and technology) is to be blamed. On that note, I don’t know if influencers are an ideal crowd for the shows; I would like to see more clients in the traditional sense of the word (people who buy and have somewhere to wear this kind of singular, thoughtful art pieces).

    On the other hand, designers are brands. Couture as an art form trascends its wearable quality to actually project and simbolize things that everyone sees in other branches (like the RTW) of the brand that are more accessible and democratic: they can have it. Thinking of couture as a vehicle of the brand attributes more than as pieces of art may be a significative reason of why the shows have opened up so much in the last years.

  • Mquankep

    Every time I see the word robust, I think of Leandra’s valentine video