Backstage at Jason Wu, Spring 2012 (Photo: Kevin Tachman)
Borders are a hot topic these days: At the same time that walls are being erected in Europe and being debated among Republicans here in the States, they are being broken down in fashion where fluidity—of gender, of access, of category—is currently the rage. “Haute-à-Porter,” a timely new exhibition opening April 2 at the Fashion Museum Hasselt in Belgium, charts the flow of inspiration and the changing boundaries between couture and ready-to-wear. Included in the show are garments and photographs by dozens of creators from the 1980s to today. The accompanying catalog includes interviews with leading tastemakers and journalists, including Vogue Runway’s own Nicole Phelps. It’s curated by Filep Motwary, who has worked as a (costume) designer, blogger, photographer, stylist, editor, and journalist—“I’m doing many thing at the same time, this is who I am,” he says—and brings this real life experience into a museum setting. (Yet another threshold crossed.)
Years in the making, “Haute-à-Porter”grew out of Motwary’s observation that the prêt-à-porter has moved forward. “It’s really something else than what it was before,” he explains, something more closely aligned with luxury and haute couture, which historically is the highest form of fashion, made by hand, to measure, and aimed at the 0.001 percent.
In the not so distant past, trends trickled down from couture to dressmakers, home sewers, and manufacturers of licensed (or pirated) copies. Then around came Yves Saint Laurent. In 1958, while at Dior, he added Beat touches to his collection and was lambasted. But less than 10 years later, he became a pioneer of ready-to-wear fashion when he launched Rive Gauche in 1966. Today, ready-to-wear is serious business, and it’s these collections that are copied by the fast fashion retailers.
As the prêt-à-porter grew, couture’s dominance was diminished, its relevancy questioned, and its role changed. Couture became a showcase for craftsmanship, fashion’s “lab,” a place for image-making and experimentation, as well as a brilliant marketing tool. In recent years it has even experienced a revival, according to Motwary, who points to a designer like Giambattista Valli who segued from success in the ready-made realm into that of couture. “You see [couture] designers . . . creating clothes that have a dream,” says Motwary. “I think that at this moment when the whole world is going through a depression . . . all this sadness around, I think that fashion is escapism.”
“Haute-à-Porter” demonstrates that fantasy can be found at both ends of the fashion spectrum, and it proves that nothing in this field is ever static. The industry’s prime mover, says Motwary, is social media. “I think this transition is forcing the creators to be more creative in terms of being photogenic.” Asked to define a successful fashion photograph, Motwary replies: “[One] that you want to put on your wall and look at every day, or be the person in the photo.”