What the Heck is Happening at Couture Week?

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.

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.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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