Haute couture’s spiritual home may still be Paris, but dynamic new talents in high fashion are emerging in Istanbul, Dubai and China
Since the mid-19th century, haute couture has marked the mysterious intersection between fashion and art. While prêt-a-porter, by its nature changes frequently and fast, dominated by short-lived trends, couture remains distinct, proudly upholding its heritage and traditions as a bastion of “slow fashion”. It is the hallmark of visionary designers with the imagination to create looks far ahead of their time, together with master artisans renowned for their intricate crafts done patiently, painstakingly by hand, from needlework and embroidery to lace and button-work; it is not unusual for prices for designs to reach as high as $100,000.
The birth of the medium can be traced back to British-born entrepreneur Charles Frederick Worth — known as the “father” of haute couture — who founded the House of Worth in Paris, 1858. A staunch believer that the forms of costume and art history completed one another, Worth regarded himself as an artist rather than a designer — he was even known to wear a velvet beret and a silk scarf, à la Rembrandt. Patronised by Empress Eugénie and the French court, the popularity of Worth’s lavish tailor-made pieces soon earned him a place in fashion history.
Later, Worth’s successor, Paul Poiret, continued the success of the fashion house with Oriental-inspired aesthetics and modern shapes. He too, claimed: “I am an artist, not a dressmaker.”
Over the years, France — most notably, Paris — firmly established itself as haute couture’s spiritual home, building a globally recognised reputation on the rich history of the nation’s textile industry and the unrivalled skills of its artisans. Yet the second half of the 20th century harboured change. After the Second World War, the number of fashion houses employing the “artists” behind such theatrical, ornate clothes surpassing clients’ wildest stylistic desires numbered 106. By 1979, this number had fallen to 19. Today, there are only 15 brands that meet the exacting criterion set by the Fédération Française de la Couture et de la Mode and carry on the time-honoured French haute couture legacy. Amongst these are such iconic houses as Chanel and Christian Dior, in addition to more contemporary couturiers such as Giambattista Valli.
While France is making efforts to keep up with the times — even going as far as opening its cloistered doors to non-French (and non-haute) designers at Paris Couture Week — with the evolving world order of the 21st century, change feels inevitable. The once-rarefied couture sphere is becoming increasingly globalised in regards to both designer and buyer profiles.
These developments owe much to the significant shift in international wealth of recent years. According to Wealth-X’s 2017 World Ultra Wealth Report, ultra high-net-worth individuals (UHNWIs) with a personal net worth of $30m rose by 3.5 per cent in 2016. The continent with the most noticeable increase is Asia; China ranked third among the top 30 UHNW countries, as both Turkey and the United Arab Emirates found a place on the list.
Of course, for these rising Asian superpowers, with new-found wealth comes increased spending power and the means of asserting status. What says “luxury” more than investing in a piece of wearable art, costing thousands to make, countless hours to complete and not even suitable for everyday wear?
The growing affluence of these nations also creates more opportunities for talented Asia-based designers to make their mark — consequently, the art of couture design, no longer confined to French shores, has spread to new regions around the world.
While many big Western brands regard haute couture collections as simply a marketing device to create exposure, it is the designers catering to Middle-Eastern and Far Eastern markets who are inspiring fresh changes in the couture scene. They bring with them a much-needed sense of newness, excitement and multiculturalism. And a number of such talents can be found in Istanbul, a city proving to be something of a rising star in haute design. The robust costume culture of the Ottoman Empire, which contrasts with contemporary Istanbul’s modern and dynamic structure, nurtures today’s designers.
Özgür Masur, who has showcased his couture designs at Istanbul Fashion Week since 2009, says that he is attached to the Turkish capital with a passion. “There is always something from the city in all of the nuances of my designs,” he says. Masur’s glamorous pieces, often made with opulent materials such as lace and silk, are especially sought-after by Turkish TV and movie stars. “The amount of handcraft spent for a couture gown varies. Sometimes it is sewn in four days. Sometimes the needlework alone takes months.”
Another designer favoured by Turkish socialites and celebrities is Fidan Şimşek, who is unusual in that she mastered her craft on experience alone, without receiving a formal design education. “I got to know fashion at a very young age while working in the ateliers of Turkey’s most prominent designers. It is for that reason that I have learned how to design clothes that fit perfectly,” she says. Her trademark is an innovative take on shape and structure, creating flattering silhouettes. “After we figure out what kind of dress our customers picture in their minds, we focus on the fabric, the colour and the needlework.” Couture wedding gowns have a special place among Şimşek’s repertoire, pieced together with detailed handcrafting to lend a sense of exclusivity to the occasion.
Over in Dubai, award-winning Filipino fashion designer Michael Cinco is at the forefront of the Middle Eastern fashion scene. Renowned for his ultra-feminine couture gowns — often bedecked with glittering Swarovski crystals — Cinco counts many international celebrities amongst his patrons, including Naomi Campbell and Beyoncé, and has shown collections all over the world, not least Paris Couture Week. “Moving to the Middle East was a big leap for me, the region is a haven of haute couture,” he has said. “In my first job in Dubai, I reinvented the image of a slightly staid fashion house and succeeded in injecting new fashion nuances. Now, it’s great to know that the fashionistas of Dubai eventually recognised my passion for fashion.”
Rami al Ali is emerging as another key name to watch in Dubai, having recently showcased his autumn collection in Paris. He claims that haute couture has evolved in recent years and that today’s designs, often made with modern technologies such as laser-cutting and even 3D printing, should be regarded as contemporary art forms.“
I believe opportunities for mid-Eastern designers are growing,” he says. “No matter where you’re from, you truly have to work hard to get to a fashion show at Paris Couture Week. Of course, people see Paris as haute couture’s centre. I guess this will never change. Although most of our customers are from the Gulf region, I work with many different clients; from younger women who want something cutting-edge, to the older, more conservative woman looking for something sophisticated.”
Further east, Beijing-based designer Guo Pei — known as China’s master couturier — employs a dedicated team of 300 artisans to bring her fantastically ornate creations to life. Although she owes much of her international success to Rihanna — who caught the world’s attention at the 2015 Met Gala Ball wearing one of her designs — Pei admits that she had not heard of the pop superstar until she lent her the show-stopping yellow sateen gown for the event, complete with a two-metre-long tail and striking three-dimensional embroidery.
To date, the designer has shown her Chinese culture-inspired creations in Paris four times. In fact, she is the first-ever Chinese designer to be invited to Paris Couture Week at all. Pei reveals the story behind China’s custom-made tradition: “In the past, we used to think haute couture was only in the West because the origin and development of it was in Europe. China has more than 5,000 years of history and culture. In our glorious history, we had excellent craftsmanship. Before industrialism, most of the clothes were custom-made. Therefore, the idea of ‘bespoke’ fashion isn’t strange to us. In the past hundred years, China has been through special historical circumstances; its people had forgotten the significance of the nation’s fashion, couture or even craftsmanship.
“But, in recent decades,” Pei continues, “our culture has gained more attention from the outside world and this has driven the growth of our couture market. I was the first generation to start the couture business in China. At that time, people didn’t quite understand couture; I was more like a tailor for them. But now, 20 years on, Chinese minds have changed. With our fast-rising economic development, China is well recognised and received internationally. This changes the whole perspective of custom-made clothing in modern culture.”
Though ready-to-wear collections continue to dominate the global market, the traditions of craftsmanship and artisanal design will always be held high in fashion. In a world where looks are disposable, where styles are consumed in a glimpse and instantly shared with the globe, haute couture and custom-designed pieces stand the test of time as a real — and rare — luxury. With more international designers than ever getting into the game, there’s everything to play for.
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