This article first appeared in Harper's BAZAAR Singapore, the leading fashion glossy on the best of style, beauty, design, travel and the arts. Go to harpersbazaar.com.sg and follow @harpersbazaarsg on Instagram; harpersbazaarsingapore on Facebook. The October 2021 issue is out on newsstands now.
SINGAPORE - Fashion, like much of the rest of the world, is entering a period of re-emergence. This season marks a splashy return for some of fashion's biggest personalities and most bold-faced names after they hit pause in some way or another.
The reasons for their breaks vary. Some were pandemic-related, like Marc Jacobs' retreat from the runway; others were due to sudden deaths, like at the House of Alaia. For Balenciaga, its return to the couture calendar was a strategic move of timing and vision; while at Jean Paul Gaultier, it was about exploring new frontiers through a new collaboration model.
It was 53 years ago that Cristobal Balenciaga closed the doors to his haute couture salon for good.
The couturier that Christian Dior called "the master of us all" was more a sculptor whose medium was fabric, innovating new textiles and shapes that are used even to this day. In fact, so much of what we think of when it comes to mid-century couture can be traced back to Balenciaga.
His house laid dormant until it was snapped up by the conglomerate known today as Kering, and French designer Nicolas Ghesquiere brought it back into mainstream consciousness with a commercially successful 15-year run.
For the past six years, the Spanish label has been under the stewardship of Demna Gvasalia, who turned it into a billion-dollar brand by elevating sneakers, hoodies and even Crocs into wait list-worthy status symbols.
But until now, no one has attempted to resuscitate the couture business. That all changed this past July, when Gvasalia presented the first Balenciaga haute couture collection since 1968.
"It is my creative duty to the unique heritage of Mr Balenciaga to bring the couture back... It is the very foundation of this [102-YEAR-OLD]maison," he said. "Couture is the highest level of garment construction that is not only relevant in today's (mass production) industry, but even absolutely necessary for the survival and evolution of modern fashion."
The collection is filled with Cristobal-isms: cocooning coats, sweeping lines, Watteau backs, hourglass shapes and collars constructed away from the body to elongate the neck.
But it is no mere homage or blind reproduction. Gvasalia made it his and he made it modern. The key is an energy that seems harnessed from the streets - the one he captured so well and to such acclaim when he co-founded luxury streetwear brand Vetements with his brother in 2014.
The result is couture that is decidedly not just for society swans in their gilded penthouses and palazzos. Sure, there are ball gowns and opera coats, but these have the ease and dynamism of streetwear, which Gvasalia referenced through an anorak collar here, a couple of cargo pockets there.
There is also denim, woven on vintage looms in Japan and finished with silver buttons, as well as trench coats, T-shirts and dressing gowns cut from the most luxurious materials.
In short, it is a complete wardrobe. It harks back to Cristobal at the height of his influence, when clients such as American socialite Mona von Bismarck would order pieces by the dozens - down to her gardening clothes.
Gvasalia said: "Couture is above trends, fashion and industrial dressmaking. It is a timeless and pure expression of craft and the architecture of silhouette that gives a wearer the strongest notion of elegance and sophistication."
After the passing of Azzedine Alaia four years ago, the Richemont-owned house took its time naming a new creative director, choosing instead to re-issue archival pieces and develop unreleased patterns left behind by the Tunisian designer.
It made sense as they were big shoes to fill and Alaia famously never rushed his work, showing only when his collections were ready to his exacting standards.
His work celebrated the female form through a masterful sculpting of fabric. His manipulations of knit and leather were unsurpassed, putting sensuality front and centre while never veering into vulgarity.
As befits the house, the designer chosen to carry the torch is not some big, buzzy name. Belgian Pieter Mulier cut his teeth as the right-hand man of Raf Simons at Jil Sander, Dior and Calvin Klein.
His Alaia role marks his first helming a brand. He presented his debut collection during the Haute Couture Fashion Week in July and, in a non-conformist move that would have made the late designer proud, he mixed in ready-to-wear with couture creations.
Alaia's signatures - the second-skin dresses, the fit-and-flares, the corset belts and the kicky little skirts - all made an appearance.
What Mulier brought is a sense of cool, which he honed during those years working with Simons. Even something as basic as a white poplin shirt is transformed from a workday essential into a bombshell-worthy showstopper.
Other standouts include a red python bandeau dress, a cocoon of mint fur and net dresses embellished with little silver globules.
With his first collection, Mulier proves he does not have to tear down the house. When the foundations are this great, one just has to build on it.
All the fashion capitals have been hard hit by the pandemic, but perhaps none more so than New York, which found itself without a tent-pole draw in the past year and a half.
That honour had always gone to American designer Marc Jacobs, whose show traditionally closed New York Fashion Week with a bang. But the last of his spectacles was in February last year. As the pandemic raged on, he hit pause on his runway collections.
When vaccinations rolled out in the United States, he staged a return to the runway in June. "Our decision to pause allowed us to slow down and to reflect, ruminate, re-evaluate and take a thorough inventory of what works, what doesn't work, what we love, what we're willing to let go of, and what has value, importance and meaning," he said.
The resulting collection reads like a love letter to fashion, winding through various points in fashion history to arrive at a destination that is very, very Marc Jacobs.
It is as close to couture as the designer ever got. He freely borrowed the cocooning, enveloping shapes of haute couture's mid-century heyday, threw in a liberal amount of Space Age references, and then filtered the whole thing through the lens of American sportswear, contemporary streetwear and Gen-Z irreverence.
Jacobs also doubled down on layering. There were cocoon coats, voluminous puffers and dresses worn over knits, trousers, bodysuits and gloves.
To drive the layering story home and in a clever merchandising flex, Jacobs had his models walk out a second time - now unencumbered by all the swaddling layers to reveal the foundational garments underneath.
It was a neat styling trick, but more importantly, it showed he could excel at both statements and staples, proving why he is the undisputed king of American fashion.
Jean Paul Gaultier
It is not for nothing that the French designer is often called the enfant terrible of fashion. Long before inclusivity and gender fluidity became buzzwords, he was already centring subcultures, uplifting marginalised communities and upending gender conventions on his rambunctious runways.
He announced his retirement last year, but left the door open for his couture label to live on through seasonal collaborations with designers of his choosing. The first of these arrived in July via a tie-up with Chitose Abe of Japanese luxury label Sacai.
While the partnership might have seemed to come out of left field, a closer look at the oeuvre of both designers reveals a match made in fashion heaven.
Abe is one of the pioneers of collaged and hybrid designs. In her hands, a banker's jacket segues into a military bomber, while a shirt dress can easily be spliced with a trench coat.
She and Gaultier also share a fascination with toying with conventions, particularly those on the masculine-feminine spectrum. Both enjoy a good subversion of uniforms and archetypes.
"I knew from the beginning that I wanted to refer to Jean Paul's archives. I already knew in my mind which looks even before I actually saw the archival pieces," Abe told Harper's Bazaar US.
She tackled what is arguably Gaultier's most iconic signature right out of the gate: the conical bra, which she melded onto a pinstripe bustier for the first look out. It appeared again on the last look, a cobalt blue boiler suit.
In between, she took on other Gaultier signatures such as the pinstripe suit, the trench coat, military uniforms, Breton sweaters and tartan kits.
"One thing that Jean Paul said was that 'designing needs to be free', so he really gave me total freedom to design this collection," she said.
So she deconstructed those codes and put them back together in a very graphic, immediate, Sacai way. The possibilities afforded by an haute couture atelier allowed Abe to go wild.
"For a ready-to-wear brand, Sacai is also made with some complexity and we also only produce what has been ordered, so in some ways, working on couture did not feel all that unfamiliar," she said.
"However, there were techniques and detailing such as hand embroidery and the usage of certain embellishments that one cannot achieve for ready-to-wear."
It was a gamble for Gaultier to hand over the keys to his maison, along with so much creative freedom, but it paid off.