The Many Mixed Feelings of Digital Haute Couture Week
Paris Autumn/Winter Haute Couture Fashion Week came and went in a three-day flurry of delight, confusion, and disappointment. Thirty-three haute couture houses presented videos hosted on the Paris Fashion Week website in place of the traditional fashion week due to COVID-19. While there were some reoccurring concepts, each had very different ideas on how to take on the unique challenge of translating the grandeur of an haute couture show to the digital realm. Every year, we bring to question the diversity of the fashion industry, but this time it was boldly accentuated by the global demands for change via the Black Lives Matter Movement. Some still chose to ignore the memo.
HAUTE COUTURE DIVERSITY AND LACK THEREOF
Haute Couture Week opened up with a speech by Naomi Campbell calling for change in the fashion industry. She proclaimed, "It is time to call the fashion industry to task regarding the inequality in our workspaces and industry." She mentions the Black Lives Matter movement and their call to action around the world. She may have been speaking with sincerity, but it fell flat and felt performative as the week went on. Of the shows with models (some either featured just the designer or were an artist's representation), there were two directions: 1-3 models or a full cast of models and extras in the double digits. It was difficult to count the people of colour included this year due to the format of some videos, but there were at least forty. Not every show was predominately white, but the event as a whole was. Some of those forty were models, some were in the background, and one of them does not live in the real world.
On top of their 3 "real" models (two white women and one black woman), Ralph & Russo created a digital brand muse named Hauli. The brand's inspiration was the seven wonders of the world and the cultures in the countries in which they are present. Hauli allows them to showcase the clothes in the countries they are inspired by without travel. It will be interesting to see if she continues to be present in future collections and if she will replace "real" models down the line.
One of the biggest disappointments of the week was the Dior show. By far, they had the most elaborate production. Their gorgeous short film of delightful haute couture mythical creatures was devoid of any diversity. All 15 minutes was taken up by a solely white cast. It is crucial for couture houses with as much visibility as Dior to be ambassadors for change and show real diversity (as opposed to tokenism). To see them fail to do so spectacularly, and only minutes after watching Naomi Campbell's speech came across as particularly tone-deaf. There is no excuse for such lazy, ignorant casting.
HOW FAR FROM FASHION SHOW SHOULD ONE GO?
Each haute couture house had a different idea of how to show off their Autumn/Winter collections. The videos ranged from blink-and-you-miss-it 25-second clips to 15-minute short films. There was no clear guideline the houses had to adhere to; however, there were some reoccurring themes. Some designers like Chanel and Imane Ayissi chose to stick close to the familiar and show of their clothes on models either dancing or moving to music, walking through cities or buildings, not quite a fashion show, but the main focus on the garments. Only two, George Hobeika and Alexis Mabille chose to present a runway show as one would expect to see when not in quarantine. Unfortunately, compared to some of the other productions, they were a little ordinary.
Chanel (left) Imane Ayissi (right)
Dior was not the only one to go the film route. Though a little cheesy, Antonio Grimaldi's mother-daughter drama, Aelektra, was without a doubt fun to watch. There was enough story for it to be a worthwhile watch as a film, but it did not take away from the clothes. Frank Sorbier's Il Medico della Peste was a dark and intriguing prelude to a film being released in September. Preludes and previews were dotted throughout the week. Maison Margiela, Valentino, and Elie Saab chose not to present their collections and instead use their spot to announces shows happening later in the month.
SPOTLIGHTS, CREATIVITY AND CONFUSION
Haute couture is more than just the designer at the helm of a house; it takes countless seamstresses and artisans to make each piece a reality. A couple of designers used their video to show appreciation for those who work hard behind the scenes. Ulyana Sergeenko featured the Russian lace artisans responsible for the intricate patterns on each piece of clothing. Rahul Mishra spoke of the importance of artisans, especially during such trying times. The majority of his video showcased Indian embroidery artisans who are responsible for the delicate and life-like garden scenes on his garments.
There was also the delightfully artistic and the confusingly so. Aganovich features an odd but charming video of people dressed to look like mannequins come alive. It sounds creepy on paper, but instead, it was whimsical and fun. Adeline Andre presented miniature clothes on a runway of tiny wooden figure models. However, Alexandre Vauthier and Aelis presentions only inspired one to ask "why?". Vauthier's video was 25-second clip edited to look like old blurry VHS footage, making it almost impossible the appreciate the clothes. The Aelis video was a modern interpretive dance performance. People ran, jumped, limped and staggered across the scene in a baffling manner. Neither the garments nor the people who made them were spotlighted.
Some chose not to present a collection at all. The most unique of these was Yuima Nakazato's Face to Face project. Instead of releasing an autumn/winter haute couture collection, Yuima Nakazato spoke with existing clients to redesign a white shirt of theirs into a brand-new garment based on the stories around the shirt. One of these was a shirt was handed down to a woman from her late mother, which was then redesigned so she could pass it on to the next generation with new life.
DOES THE SUCCESS MATTER?
The digital fashion week felt more accessible than the traditional format, especially for those who usually would not be able to be in Paris. It also meant one could see every show since they stayed up online, though not every video showcased fashion as effectively as others. We noticed some incredible creativity and thought but also some confusing letdowns and a continued frustrating lack of diversity. Though some brands have been calling for change to the fashion calendar, it is hard to imagine a digital showcase such as this becoming a permanent fixture passed COVD. One can confidently say this will not herald the end of fashion shows as we know them. Was it a success? Since this digital-first format is not permanent, does it matter? Will this go down in the history of a fashion week of unique and modern solutions in a difficult time, or will the fashion community sweep it under the rug once we return to a live format? Only time will tell.