The conversation about the state of the current fashion calendar has been going on for a while. The reprieve of pandemic lockdowns helped highlight the unsustainability, of the ever-increasing numbers of runway shows and constant jet-setting that major fashion houses have been doing for the past few years.

Such oversaturation has been a response to the rise of fast fashion, in an attempt to keep up. But it comes at significant costs, especially to the environment. Previously this conversation was largely focused around the system of ready-to-wear runways, that make up majority of the fashion industry we see.

However this season, that conversation has finally made its way into the space of haute couture when Calum Knight from SHOWStudio, a fashion website that specialises in fashion film and live fashion broadcasting, posted a TikTok that poses the question "should couture be produced as fast food?" Knight recounts his disappointment in seeing the state of the unfinished handiwork that made its way down the Jean Paul Gaultier's runway at the most recent Paris Couture Fashion Week.

WHAT MAKES COUTURE HAUTE

Jean Paul Gaultier is one of the nineteen members who are allowed to use the term haute couture. The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture remains strict about the design houses who are able to use the designation. To maintain their membership, fashion houses must do the following:

  • design made-to-order garments for private clients, with one or more fittings

  • have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least fifteen staff members full-time

  • have at least 20 full-time technical people in at least one workshop

  • present a collection of at least 50 original designs to the public twice a year, consisting of both day and evening garments

The time, effort and labour required to create the garments makes it near-impossible for brands to turn any kind of profit off of it. Instead, it is used to market the mass-friendly products the brand sells ⁠— ready-to-wear, keychains, cardholders, cosmetics, fragrances, the list goes on.

Haute couture is merely the fantasy that makes these goods appear more desirable. A fantasy of custom, handmade, one-of-a-kind, made-to-measure garments made of the finest quality materials by the greatest creative minds of our generation. A fantasy in which artistic vision is prioritised over profit or any other economic considerations.

WHAT'S BEEN HAPPENING AT ATELIER GAULTIER

Jean Paul Gaultier holds a unique position within the fashion industry as being one of the few fashion houses that prioritises its couture showings over its ready-to-wear. It is one of very few fashion houses that has consistently retained designation as a couture house since its launch in 1997.

Jean Paul Gaultier, the designer, announced that he would be retiring and stepping back from his label in 2020. Unlike other major fashion houses like Chanel and Dior, neither Gaultier nor his business partners nominated a successor to his label.

Instead, the label invites a guest designer every season to create a collection inspired by Gaultier's work. Aside from Olivier Rousteing, the label has had collections designed by Glenn Martens and Chitose Abe. Such a model does mean that the collections lean heavily on homage and reverence towards Gaultier in their reimaginations of his legacy.

However this also means that the Jean Paul Gaultier atelier basically have to familiarise themselves with and work for a new boss every single season. Every designer has different working styles, and it can often take time before a designer fully gels with a new team. Moreover, most ready-to-wear designers likely don't come fully equipped to handle the added restrictions and expectations of haute couture.

Such inefficiencies inevitably eat into the time the atelier has to construct, fit, adjust, and refine the 50+ garments in the collection. Hence the safety pins on the runway. Hence, the safety pins.

THE PROBLEM AT HAND

Frederic Tcheng's 2014 documentary Dior & I follows the creative process of then newly-appointed Dior creative director Raf Simons as he creates his first couture collection for the fashion house.

The stars of the show are undoubtedly the artisans who are tasked with realising Simons' visions, working tirelessly day in and day out to make sure everything is perfect when the model steps out onto the runway.

In many ways, the artisans are the actual custodians of a fashion house's legacy. Creative directors come and go, but it is the atelier that remains and keep everything moving along.

By its very nature, set out in its criteria, haute couture cannot be sped up. Any attempt to rush the design conceptualisation or meticulous handiwork, will inevitably lead to a compromised product. And that is what happened at Jean Paul Gaultier.

The runway was by no means a disaster, and Olivier Rousteing undoubtedly still presented some great looks throughout. But it should serve as a reminder for we, the fashion consumer, to think more deeply about the kind of values we want embodied in our fashion system.

Haute Couture is still very much a flawed system, rife with numerous issues that are yet to be addressed. But, as Knight says, it is still "the pinnacle of fashion".

Couture is supposed to set the standards and broaden the possibilities of what fashion can be. What happens in couture slowly but surely trickles down to affect the rest of us.

Compromising that standard is settling for less. It is another step towards the egregious acceptance of haphazardly put together clothes that are not made to last before being tossed out. Couture is supposed to remind us that we deserve better than that.

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