Couture week has come and gone for the second time this year. Held in the run up to Fashion Weeks, the couture shows are not just populated with editors and stylists, but loyal, extra-special customers. These customers are special because they are rich. Not just entry-level rich, but Daddy Warbucks rich.
Couture is what wealthy people aspire to buy. While we lovingly paw the virtual rails of Net A Porter, wondering if next week’s paycheck will cover both the rent and the on-sale Proenza Schouler tee, the wealthy person is wondering how much equity they can release on the holiday home to cover the six figures it will take to snaffle a pure white Givenchy couture gown.
These gowns are special – there’s no debating that. Some are totally unique, all take hundreds to thousands of hours of specialist construction, employing artisan seamstresses, beadmakers, plumassiers and fabric makers. This fashion army is only employed after the silhouette is painstakingly drawn out by the designer, who is him or herself siphoning off a personal list of carefully chosen influences and distilling itself into a singular, original vision. Juicy Couture it is not.
With that in mind, I posed a personal question on my facebook and twitter and facebook account. What is couture? Is it art? Is it craft? Is it commerce or is it total, wasteful irrelevance? I was both heartened and disappointed to see that everyone without exception thought that couture was a legitimate artform, with several declaring it both art and craft.
Heartened because everyone without exception believed in the importance and vital, transformative power of clothing. Disappointed, because the was no wiggle room for debate.
The Wikipedia definition of art (it IS a legitimate research resource, okay?) is ‘the process of deliberately arranging items in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions and intellect’. If that is true, then haute couture clothing is definitely art.
Then again, under that criteria, a well-timed squeaky fart in a room full of prepubescent boys is also art, as it stimulates both the senses (smell being but one) and emotions (either annoyance, shame or deep amusement), if not the intellect.
Art is not so easy to define. A fart is not art.
I studied Art History in college, and one of my old buddies believes that couture is definitely art. It’s takes specialist skill to complete, it’s aspirational, i’s open only to the very wealthiest people, it’s the product of a person’s creative vision.
But, she argued, high street clothing could also evolve into art, because if Andy Warhol could do it with his mass produced screen prints, then why can’t Topshop. Create a covetable design, release a large (yet limited) release, then watch the crowds scramble over themselves to get a copy. This brings to mind the recent Lanvin/H&M collaboration, where people queued for hours to get their hands on a small slice of relative exclusivity.
Jo Dingemans, a lecturer at the London College of Fashion, believes that fashion cannot be art but ‘high craft’, because it is impossible to wear a concept. On the hanger, maybe it’s a work of art. But on you, the meaning of the garment is changed; something that never happens with painting, sculpture, music, literature or film.
The true meaning of art is tricky and elusive; it can be subjective because it is incredibly personal. Until an ironclad definition is found, then couture can be both art and craft, commerce or spiritual communing. You’re wrong and you’re right. Sometimes the middle is the best place to be.