As the fashion world awaits the opening of Haute Couture Fashion Week, sustainability is the word on everyone’s lips
Get out your sequins and bobbinet tulle, today marks the start of Haute Couture Fashion Week— one of the most hotly anticipated spectacles in the industry calendar. The four-day event will see the unveiling of the couture Autumn/Winter 19 collections from the finest luxury designers such as Dior, Givenchy, Giambattista Valli and Franck Sorbier.
This year’s highlights will include Fendi’s haute couture show in homage to Karl Lagerfeld. Set on Rome’s Palatine Hill, 54 looks are to be unveiled as a tribute to the 54 years that Lagerfeld spent at the helm of Fendi. Meanwhile in Paris, Chanel's show will also provide an inevitable talking point as it’s the first couture collection designed entirely by Virginie Viard, their newly anointed creative director following the death of Karl Lagerfeld earlier this year.
But there’s another conversation occurring on the front row: could haute couture lead the way when it comes to a radical rethink of fashion’s environmental impact? And could these collections eventually become a prototype for sustainable practice in fashion?
Haute couture is an early example of the slow fashion movement. It epitomises the principle of creating garments for both quality and longevity. One-of-a-kind couture gowns are meticulously crafted by hand and, almost certainly, will be in existence for decades— ending their life in the gilded halls of a museum or in the clutches of the highest bidder at Sotheby’s. In short, couture pieces are the antithesis of a £1 polyester bikini from Missguided—the mass produced, fast fashion found on your typical high street.
Legally speaking, an atelier can only call itself Haute Couture if it complies with the strict requirements of the Fédération Française de la Couture. The garments we’ll see on the catwalks over the next week will typically take a minimum of 700 hours to construct, with an average of twenty people working on one piece simultaneously. Price tags begin at around £8,000, but when it comes to evening wear there is no glass ceiling.
With such an astronomical price tag and only 4,000 clients of haute couture worldwide, this may seem like a world far removed from the everyday fashion sphere. In reality, couture dresses are some of the most photographed clothes in the world; they appear regularly on the red carpet and are transmitted to a global audience almost instantaneously via social media. The haute couture industry is becoming increasingly influential for luxury brands and the fact that sustainability is becoming part of this conversation has positive implications for the wider industry.
In May, the first digital couture outfit was sold for $9,500 under auction— and it doesn’t even exist IRL. Although it appears as a silver bodysuit and a flowing fluorescent, oil slicked coat, it’s actually no more than a digital file. The Fabricant, an Amsterdam-based fashion label, is behind this new era of digital clothing. They describe themselves as “a digital fashion house leading the fashion industry towards a new sector of digital-only clothing.” So what’s their theory? They believe that by making clothes into virtual entities we can completely eliminate the environmental impact of clothing production.
“In an environment that makes the impossible possible, that wastes nothing but data and exploits nothing but the imagination, the very idea of physicality seems outdated,” explained The Fabricant in an Instagram post. “In this new world, there’s no such thing as factories, supply chains, and sample sizes. There are no delivery trucks to wait for, no clothes to launder and no closets to de-clutter”.
The Fabricant sold its couture piece at a blockchain summit in New York and now its new owner will be able to digitally tailor the garment onto a high-resolution photo of their figure. If you don’t Instagram it, did it really exist? Or so the saying goes. This sounds like something from a futuristic Sci-Fi film, but behind this concept of virtual clothing lies a forward-thinking vision about how we may consume fashion in years to come.
Couture menswear is no exception. Ermenegildo Zegna’s couture Spring/Summer 20 show was built on the mantra #UseTheExisting with the whole collection extolling a sustainability-first focus. ‘It is our duty as denizens of this world to live responsibly,’ artist director Alessandro Sartori said. ‘Everything is connected, and everything conveys the same idea: we do not need to create the new from scratch, but we can reuse and reinvent the existing, getting progressive fabrics out of discarded ones, translating traditional techniques into innovative lifetime tailoring, turning an abandoned place into an area of creation.’
Twenty percent of the collection was crafted from upcycled materials— suits were made entirely from wool remnants at Zegna’s Achill farm and recycled cashmere was used for a plum coat cross-hatched in red. Even at €4,990 that particular style was a sell-out.
Meanwhile last month, Chanel announced their investment in a startup developing an eco-friendly silk technology. Chanel’s desire to replace its use of harsh synthetic fabrics and support greener fabric alternatives reveals its intention to reduce the environmental impact of their products. The Boston-based startup, Evolved by Nature, is pioneering a regenerative technology which recycles discarded silkworm cocoons for fabrics, cosmetics, and medical products. This follows Chanel’s investment into a Finnish biodegradable plastic packaging alternative last year. It seems research in eco-friendly chemistry is becoming a high priority for luxury brands as they strategise ways to improve sustainability throughout their companies.
This week will be a showcase of the most exquisite garments in the world. But rather than an emphasis on newness and novelty, we’ll see an appreciation for craftsmanship and tradition— a stillness that runs in contrast to the frenzied, fast fashion generation. As Amy Verner wrote in Vogue, “Haute couture is inherently a push-and-pull of old and new: old techniques, new materials; old maison, new designer; old silhouettes, new interpretations”. We must foster the idea of using the preexisting to create the new, because therein lies the solution to a more sustainable future in fashion.