The haute couture fascination inspiring London’s newest class of designers

Haute Couture is finding a new audience with a group of upcoming designers who place craft and individualism at the forefront

Take it from social media: We have never been more fixated on fashion exclusivity than now. Instagram is packed with people’s smug pictures of their limited-edition Supreme x Louis Vuitton bags, personalized patchy Gucci jackets, and Chaos phone cases with our initials embossed into the leather. You’d think we were all traveling with Joan Collins. “I feel people are a little bit uninspired by how similar everything has become,” Matty Bovan tells me in August. “People are always looking for something more handmade. If they are spending money they want something more unique. The world is pumped to capacity with fast fashion and products. I don’t want to flood it with a huge amount more.” The 27-year-old is part of an illustrious new generation of young London designers for whom the quest for the unique is translating into decidedly grand and handcrafted fashion. Over the past year, I’ve noticed in Bovan and his fellow emerging designers a newfound desire for fashion’s highest form of exclusivity: haute couture. New hopes like Bovan, Charles Jeffrey, and Michael Halpern may fit the “struggling young artists” category, but with their ingenious D.I.Y. attitudes and flair for the theatrical, their creations are anything but humble.

For Autumn/Winter 2017, Bovan transformed his show space into a theatrical three-dimensional skyline, lining the runway with miniature skyscrapers to underline his tribal dystopia: a kind of futuristic folklore. Like a couturier he numbers all his pieces, whether they’re multiplied for retail manufacturing or too precious to put into production. Last season’s more laborious pieces included a layered, hand-crocheted dress that “took forever,” he recalls. “Everything I create pretty much has that handwork element to it. Transforming mundane materials into something couture and presenting them in a new light is beyond exciting to me.” Twenty-nine-year-old Michael Halpern launched his eponymous label after graduating from Central Saint Martins last year, and was soon headhunted by Atelier Versace, Donatella’s haute couture line. “I have learned a lot of the techniques there that I implement in my own collections now,” he says. “I am doing a really intricate jumpsuit at the moment that we have been working on for about two months, and won’t finish for another six weeks.”

Halpern’s couture heroes count Christian Lacroix and Roberto Capucci. His love of the old super craft doesn’t just lie in its exclusivity or grandeur, but the artisanal work it brings. “So much is measured by the eye rather than a ruler. It’s a total dream to just be able to create with your hands and not have to transfer it to some boring paper pattern.” For Autumn/Winter 2017, Halpern created a trouser covered in some 12,000 sequins applied individually by hand for over 120 hours. At 27, Charles Jeffrey—contemporary London’s answer to Beau Brummell—has an affinity for Charles James, Cristóbal Balenciaga, and Christian Dior, where he used to intern. He’s behind the creative studio Loverboy, a fashion community that stages performance art fashion shows as well as flamboyant club nights in East London, where intricate costume is life. “We talk a lot in my studio about going ‘full fantasy’ with our collections: pushing the extravagance as far as we can. Sometimes that’s aesthetically-driven, but it might be more about a feeling,” says Jeffrey, whose Autumn/Winter 2017 spectacle served as a response to the fear-driven political climate. “When I think about how we can translate big ideas like that, almost everything comes from couture.”

His Spring/Summer 2017 collection saw his most intricate piece to date: a sleeveless jacket with 23 over-layered pockets. “It took about five toiles to get right.” Jeffrey’s last show, for Spring/Summer 2018, paid homage to Elsa Schiaparelli in a corseted gown printed with lobsters. His friend Bovan says haute couture was the foundation for his own love of fashion: “It’s pure narrative and aspirational creativity. I’ve always loved Schiaparelli and early Balenciaga and early Dior.” Mutual to this new generation of designers is their 90s childhoods and the showmen they grew up watching. “I loved Jean Paul Gaultier’s couture, Dior couture with John Galliano, and now what he is doing with Margiela,” Bovan says. More than anything, Galliano’s work embodies an extreme sense of the glamor personified by haute couture—a sense of escapism he zoned in on in his Autumn/Winter 2017 couture show for Maison Margiela, or the Artisanal line, as the house calls it. Proposing “a new glamor,” Galliano re-appropriated the values of garments and fabrics using universal codes of glamor. A dress appeared as corrugated cardboard, but was made of the finest rippled organza. A humble men’s coat had been turned into a couture dress, carried by a single hidden corset structure and imbued with those codes of glamor: the nipped-in waist, the décolletage, the flash of a stocking top.

Left: Dress, jacket, headpiece, sleeves, socks, and shoes by Rick Owens. Right: Bodysuit by Richard Quinn. Dress, bag, and pantashoes by Balenciaga. Gloves stylist’s own.

“Gold is cold, a limousine is just a car, and a Tiffany box is just really carton. It’s all the image,” Galliano quipped when I spoke to him about the collection in July. “Part of my job is to make people dream. And I’m attracted to glamor—I think we all are, aren’t we? We all hanker after those obvious symbols of luxury in these kinds of times. We just do it, like a security blanket, because those symbols make us feel secure.” Hidden in his subversive haute couture was a message much more telling of our current desire for refinement in an age of mass production—elevating oneself from the masses. “Respecting yourself, I think it’s called?” Galliano corrected me. “Because when you respect yourself you respect others. No?” His words could be the mantra for the emerging generation of couture-inclined designers growing up in a politically unstable age where big statements are your best weapons against reactionary times. And it doesn’t just go for the newbies. For his Autumn/Winter 2016 show, Rick Owens draped his entire collection himself. “It’s a handwriting that nobody can really duplicate or maybe should. This is about as personal and intimate and maybe as far away from fast fashion as I can do,” he told me back then.

It was a reaction to the homogenization of fashion and its outside world. It only got stronger at Owens’s Spring/Summer 2018 men’s show in June, where models descended epically from the roof of Palais de Tokyo like dark angels, in heavenly tailoring that literally reached couture heights. “In this time of hate and pain, we need a remedy. I need a freak,” Owens cited backstage, quoting his Sexual Harassment show soundtrack. “A freak to me is something rare, sensational, inspired by the unusual. And I’m seeing this normality in the world that’s kind of being lionized and deified, and, personally, that’s my refrain: I need a freak in life. I need to be surprised. I need effort. And I need things to be rare and not banal.” Owens is not a couturier. That title is given by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which owns the rights to the term “haute couture” and established the commandments for it in 1945—stuff like, thou shall be based in Paris, have 35 people in your atelier, show a minimum of 50 looks a season, and so on. But as the winds of change blast through fashion, 50 things now seem less important. In July 2016, the cult label Vetements relocated its show to Paris’s hallowed haute couture schedule normally reserved for the ordained few.

They weren’t doing couture, but it inspired the designer Demna Gvasalia to interpret his intensely coveted streetwear—which often comes in limited editions—for the couture platform. “Because of the casting,” he told me then, referring to the diverse non-models, who walked the Vetements show, “we had to adapt a lot of clothes, so this collection was very haute couture.” In March, at Balenciaga, where he also serves as creative director, the designer based his entire collection on the classic fashion poses he’d seen in old Cristóbal Balenciaga couture pictures and concluded his ready-to-wear collection with nine magical, couture-level gowns. They exuded a class of craftsmanship, which is starting to appear more and more on the ready-to-wear catwalks, all the while ready-to-wear continues its invasion of the haute couture week. In July this year, Proenza Schouler and Rodarte relocated their ready-to-wear collections from New York to Paris’s haute couture schedule. “This wasn’t possible in the past,” Andreas Kronthaler tells me in August, “because the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture de lah-dee-lah-dee-dah had all this recognizance: You had to be male and be 12 inches long…Everything had to be a certain thing. There’s been some change there and I think it’s a very good change, because it’s more to do with the time we live in.”

Left: Coat, hat, earrings by Chanel Haute Couture. Gloves stylist’s own. Pantashoes by Balenciaga.

The creative director and husband of Vivienne Westwood designs the eponymous Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood line, the brand’s high-high fashion collection, which incorporates both off-the-rack garments and gowns strictly made to order. Kronthaler, who has spent days of his life in the archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Metropolian Museum of Art studying 30s and 40s haute couture, says the idea of the old craft is becoming increasingly attractive—even to the designer of the brand that invented punk. “From day to day it’s starting to make more sense to do it. I don’t see it as this religious pact anymore where it has to be made in the most amazing way. I was quite respectful of it and I still am, but I’ve loosened up a bit. I see it differently than I did 10 years ago. The restrictions were what always made it unattractive, but that’s changing. It’s more for the people,” he notes. “There are girls out there who have never experienced a certain way of being treated, of being stylized.” In other words, new generations’ attraction to haute couture isn’t simply rooted in a desire for more cultivated clothes, but for more cultivated conduct; that contentment of glamor, which Galliano talks about.

“The reason this is so relevant at the moment is because of ingenuity,” Halpern says. “Whether it is looking to an incredible craft like haute couture or traditional knitting techniques from the U.K., young brands really resonate with it, because going back to traditional craftsmanship is one of the only things that feels real at present.” And the zeitgeist is infiltrating the corporate corners of fashion, too. Due to its straight-to-consumer format, Christopher Bailey’s Spring/Summer 2017 collection had already been produced months before he showed it in February. But for the finale, he couldn’t help himself. The Burberry designer created 78 painstakingly constructed, elaborate evening capes to embellish each of his looks. “It’s a period of focus,” he told me in January. “We’ve been through a decade where we’ve been able to have a much broader view of many, many things, and I actually think we’re going into a period where focus and specificity are really, really important. With that comes integrity, authenticity, research development, and exploring the creative process more,” he said. “I’m in that moment now, which I’m actually really loving again.”

“You start to place more of a focus on craft and putting your hand to things in a certain way, to make sure there’s as much of you in what you make as possible.” —Charles Jeffery

Currently presiding over Christian Dior—the high fortress of haute couture—Maria Grazia Chiuri tells me artisanal fashion is now more relevant than ever. “If you’re a couture brand, you bring that same sense of quality to your other lines. Of course they’re not couture pieces, but you have to make them with the same attitude—with the same point of view, the same attention to creativity and fit. The logo is a guarantee for something consistent.” In her work for Dior, Chiuri is constantly faced with fusing old and young, from a historical brand perspective as well as a creative consumer perspective, and indeed in her seasonal juggling act between haute couture and ready-to-wear. “Now people speak about the human touch; about something that is one of a kind; about craftsmanship. That doesn’t only go for fashion but other categories, like food. The new generation wants to know where you produce the food, what is in it. My son looks at the biscuits to see if there’s oil or butter in them. I say, ‘What are you doing!’” Chiuri laughs. “That wasn’t something you’d think about when I was young. There’s a different conscience about what’s happening in fashion, in food, in everything, because you have more information.”

Certainly, the social media era plays a paradoxical part in our yearning for the rare. While it’s given us unlimited access to the world, it’s bred a discerning desire for individuality—expressed not just in a wave of limited-edition fashion, but in increasing public debates pertaining to gender, sexuality, and race identification. “We’re all pretty self-obsessed, aren’t we? Maybe it’s as simple as that,” Jeffrey snaps. More than anyone in fashion, his work and the movement that surrounds Loverboy represent the young social zeitgeist covering everything from queerness to second-wave-feminism. “The reason the past few years have been so visually exciting,” he says, referring to London’s flamboyant emerging fashion scene, “is that the four or five years before that were so boring. Everything looked really ‘nice.’ It’s had a bit of a defibrillator effect, particularly on graduates and young designers. The creative handwriting has become more extreme, people are making more of an effort to fuck things up and be interesting,” Jeffrey reflects. “To achieve that, you start to place more of a focus on craft and putting your hand to things in a certain way, to make sure there’s as much of you in what you make as possible.”

In a conversation with Valentino couturier Pierpaolo Piccioli last November, he shared with me a similar outlook. “There’s an idea of homologation. There’s something worrying about this reactionary world. I don’t like the intolerance, the giving people boxes to stay in. I like freedom of being whoever you are.” In the age of individuality, what then could be more attractive than haute couture? Made for the fortunate few, official rules decree that no one else will ever be allowed to buy the same garment you’ve bought, hand-stitched and labored on by experts for weeks on end just for you. But the newfound relevance of haute couture isn’t generated by possession as much as what it represents. In a sweeping statement, Piccioli credited haute couture with his entire raison d’être. “My whole job at this house today is about individuality and evaluating diversity,” he told me. “Couture talks about diversity, about one-of-a-kind uniqueness. It’s not something that belongs to a beautiful past. It’s about valuing diversity, and in this moment I think it’s super important to talk about diversity as beauty.”