Couture

Maud Lescroart, the CMO of Sophie Hallett, the family-run French lace maker that seems to supply – well, pretty much everyone in fashion – is in New York this week for Wedding Week, and stopped by the office the other day to discuss her company’s life since the royal wedding (Hallett supplied the lace that covered the bodice of Kate Middleton’s Sarah Burton Alexander McQueen gown). Between four key factors: 1) the spotlight cast by the palace fairy tale; 2) the focus on the hand-made and heritage as key to luxury’s appeal; 3) the growing attention to CSR and the desire to control all parts of the supply chain; and 4) and the imperative in the luxury industry to ensure a reliable source of key materials, which has seen big groups buying up skins houses (LVMH and Heng Long; Hermes and Tanneries d’Annonay) and cashmere specialists (LVMH’s purchase of Loro Piana in 2013; Chanel’s purchase of Barrie knitwear in 2012), they have gone from behind-the-scenes player to suddenly very hot property. Read more

Given the obsessive attention routinely paid to what Michelle Obama or Samantha Cameron wears, it struck me that when Michelle Bachelet was sworn in as president of Chile this month, no one mentioned what she wore: a long navy jacket and matching skirt with a red, white and blue presidential sash.

Even more notably, in a photo taken that day, Bachelet was sandwiched between Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff, who was wearing a black straight skirt and a black and white plaid collarless jacket with black lace appliqué, and Argentina’s president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in a white lace dress under a white car coat with white open-toe platform pumps. And no one said anything about them either.

During the penultimate day of the Paris ready-to-wear collections, just before the Alexander McQueen show, was an event that, given the circumstances, might strike many as odd.

By all rights, designer Dries Van Noten could be excused for being a bit grand. We meet a few days after his wildly applauded Paris menswear show and just over a month before his womenswear collection, one of the hottest tickets of fashion week thanks to Van Noten’s ability to combine the elaborate (extreme embroidery) with the ethnic (far-flung tribal references) and the casual (tailored khakis) – plus, last season, a live soundtrack courtesy of Colin Greenwood, Radiohead’s bass player.

Kiev was burning and in Milan, Jeremy Scott made his debut at Moschino with a series of bad jokes. This is not the non sequitur it might first appear. Mr Scott could not have known, of course, when he was designing his riff on Moschino/McDonald’s – his pun on fast food and fast fashion realised in red and yellow bourgeois suiting complete with golden arches-cum-hearts or Sponge Bob yellow and black polka dots, his evening silks with junk food prints, his gold-chain-bedecked quilted leather mini suits – what would be going on in the world when it was shown. But that does not matter.

Big Pants
Not the Bridget Jones variety – rather, the wide-legged, generously slouchy, swish-as-you walk kind. Blame it on the overarching trend of the season: a return to comfort dressing – or a simple fashion reaction to the past few seasons of skin-tight rocker trousers. Either way, for autumn/winter the trousers on the catwalk are, finally, almost entirely on the upped-side. This is good news physically (they can hide a multitude of issues) and emotionally too; they have the comfort factor of a good pair of sweatpants. Whether in double-faced cashmere or malleable leather, they can go from office to sofa with just a change of top. Daniel Cleaver and Mark Darcy would approve.

It is one of life’s great ironies that the Paris couture shows always coincide almost exactly with the World Economic Forum in Davos. While the latter focuses on the looming issues of the day – the growing gap between the super-rich and pretty much everyone else, for example – the former caters to said super-rich and to their willingness to contemplate €20,000 gowns. It’s a stark contrast, in black and white and gold and silver.

It’s about now that a film studio’s fancy turns to thoughts of awards. They need to get their Oscar/Bafta/Golden Globe contenders in by the end of the year, and general wisdom dictates that it is always better to save the most powerful for the end, so that they remain fresh in voters’ minds.

So the holiday season coincides with the release of high-minded movies such as Philomena , Dallas Buyers Club and The Book Thief – films that deal with big subjects such as adoption and motherhood, terminal illness and the Holocaust, as opposed to, say, superheroes and aliens, or bachelors on the loose. And as in film, so in fashion.

Bare essentials

Blame it on Michelle Obama’s elegant arms and the related tricep/bicep workout craze, but women want to show off their upper limbs like never before and there are few ways to do so as stylishly as in a one-shoulder top. Once upon a time, a bare shoulder was almost a synonym for disco nights, but these versions are altogether more grown-up, polished and accessible. Read more

It’s too bad EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht wasn’t at the couture shows last week. It would have given him lots of ammunition during this week’s EU-US free trade talks (presuming they go ahead) when the question of the French exception culturelle is raised. After all, the fashion industry is not covered – not even the made-to-order highest end of it, as invented and perfected in Paris. What became increasingly clear during the collections is that, other than location, couture no longer seems to have much to do with France.

Part of this is literal: of the big brand names still on the couture schedule, only one, Jean Paul Gaultier, is actually designed by a Frenchman. The rest are created by Belgians (Dior, Martin Margiela Artisanale), Dutch (Viktor & Rolf), German (Chanel), Italians (Versace, Armani, Valli, Valentino), Russians (Ulyana Sergeenko) and Lebanese (Elie Saab). But most of it is aesthetic.

An interesting side show is taking place at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo during couture: Net-a-Porter is unveiling a new initiative involving five artists commissioned to make five one-off pieces of clothing, which you can think of as couture or art, depending, and which will be sold in September in New York – though whether they are to be worn or to be hung on a wall is unclear, as is the price. What is sure, however, is they will be very, very expensive. Take that, Moda Operandi and Farfetch and every other pretender to the throne! Net has just seen your bid for their spot in the e-verse and raised you by a factor of ten. Read more

There has been some confusion in the e-verse after the news that last week I joined Twitter (@VVFriedman). I’d like to clear this up.

Some thoughtful souls have pointed out I actually joined in 2009, tweeted once, and then fell silent for four years after writing a column about how confusing I found the platform. This is true – kind of. I did join, as @VVF67, to find out what my friends were so excited about, but in a personal capacity, not as a fashion professional. I did find all the personal tweets a bit odd. When it became clear Twitter was a fashion issue, I wrote about it. Read more

So you thought the fashion weeks were over for now, and that you did not have to hear about catwalk shows for at least another three months or so (until June, anyway, when menswear begins again). Sucker!

Last night I made my end of fashion week pilgrimage to the atelier of Azzedine Alaïa to see what he has been working on. As usual, Mr Alaïa did not have a show during the Paris collections; he was too busy.

Indeed, he’s got quite a lot to say about the time pressures on designers, and other industry professionals who engage in the catwalk game, to the extent that he’s planning a symposium on the subject. Stay tuned.

Anyway, there’s a lot going on over there.

Starting with the fact he’s not just busy making clothes: he is making the costumes for a French ballet, to debut in April, as well as for a Los Angeles Opera production of the Marriage of Figaro, which will open mid-May. Oh, and he’s getting ready for a major exhibit of his work at the Musée Galliera in the autumn. Read more

It was clean, it was exact, it didn’t rock the boat (or the brand). It was, as the French say, pas mal.

Almost entirely in black and white, Alexander Wang’s first Balenciaga show nodded to the house’s architectural past. Building from a base of a flat suede boot/legging, he layered on skinny black trousers, high-waisted skirts cut in a curve on the hem and waist to dip in back and rise in front. There were white shirts that mixed cotton piqué with a nubbly cloqué added under or over in origami-folds; neat dresses in a marbelised print realised in appliqués on organza; intarsia furs; a cracked painted leather polo neck and matching skirt; and suede trousers flashing bits of flesh between the cracks.

As an interpretation of the now-abstract idea of Balenciaga, it looked exactly like what to expect if one imagined the archives and what a young designer would make of them, which will probably be gratifying from a consumer perspective: not too challenging, but elegant enough, the clothes suggested the past without confronting it. It’s nice to be proved correct when you enter a store (or pick a designer). And they will probably attract Mr Wang’s band of cool, growing-up, society girls – even, possibly, their mothers. Read more

Helen Hunt wearing an H&M gown on the red carpet at the Oscars on Sunday

On Wednesday H&M is having its first-ever Paris fashion show – in the Musée Rodin, the haute art ex-venue of Tom Ford’s Yves Saint Laurent and John Galliano’s Christian Dior. Coming on the back of Sunday’s Oscar moment, when best supporting actress nominee Helen Hunt wore H&M on the red carpet, it seems to indicate more upmarket ambitions for the brand. So, is this a sign of the times or a sign of the decline of western fashion civilisation? Maybe a bit of both.

(Note: it doesn’t seem to be the unveiling of the group’s new, higher-priced brand collection & Other Stories – it’s H&M itself. So it’s not a move to elevate a line to, say, the Martin Sitbon level.)

On one level, it sounds silly. The whole point of great high street brands such as H&M is that it so quickly, effectively and economically translates high-fashion trends for the rest of the world without the frills, hoo-ha and elitism associated with the whole show system, its seating ranks, invitations and exclusionary velvet ropes. It led the revolution to democratise style, and its consumers love it for it. Read more

Marni's sunglasses with “excavated details”. Getty Images

Today is travel day as the fashion flock heads to Paris. Looking back over the past week in Italy, I was struck by the fact that of all the trends to come out of Milan – fur, leather, dominatrix gear, (I’m not kidding about this last one) – the biggest one is the sudden trumpeting, by pretty much every brand, of “Made in Italy”.

From Dolce & Gabbana and their mosaic dresses to Fendi’s extraordinary fur melange, it was artisanship all the way. You just need to read the show notes, supposedly to help journalists understand what a collection is about, but in reality mostly serve as pre-show entertainment.

Take Marni, for example, “the colour palette is severe, with turbulent peaks”; sunglasses have “excavated details”. Or from Armani: “calculated eccentricity shines through in berets featuring special workmanship in woven velvet, their spherical forma adorning the head.” I’ll be tweeting the best ones, so follow us on @FTLuxury360 for some real prose treats. Read more

Maxime Simoens' couture collection. Getty Images

It seems LVMH has taken a new approach to its investment in young fashion brands having made a minority investment in 29-year-old French couturier Maxime Simoens. The company has snapped up between a 20-30 per cent stake in the business, according to an LVMH spokesperson. This means Mr Simoens will not officially become part of LVMH (not yet, anyway), but that the group will act as advisers on the growth of the brand – in particular, Dior chief executive Sidney Toledano, who was the driving force behind the investment. Dior, as the group likes to point out, is the main holding company of LVMH.

Mr Simoens had been rumoured as a candidate for the Dior artistic director job, and though that went to Raf Simons, Mr Toledano and Dior deputy managing director Delphine Arnault were impressed. Their first move now: helping Mr Simoens hold his debut ready-to-wear show on March 3 (he already does couture, which may seem odd, but it does not require the same up-front funding for wholesale orders as RTW). Read more

Over and over came the oversized overcoats: the giant menswear-inspired outerwear items. From grey flannel to navy wool, plaid to pea coat, the runways were covered – literally and metaphorically – by the sorts of toppers that can take a village (inside). It’s less a nod to the romance of filching a too-big item from the closet of a boyfriend or husband than a reflection of the current trend towards toughening up that has also spawned the return of the suit.

These coats cover a multitude of sins, creating their own psychological and physical comfort zone: just huddle, or cuddle, up inside. And while they also nod to ye olde vintage craze, and are smart enough not to advertise their haute origins, make no mistake: in fabric and expanse, they are the ultimate in insider luxe. Read more

British designer John Galliano

It’s been a big week for scandals; Europe’s horsemeat-in-the-beef-lasagna crisis, John Galliano’s appearance in New York in what some construed as faux-Hasidic garb, and CNN’s decision to run a piece comparing war photography and fashion photography. It’s hard to know where to start. Here are some thoughts – in no particular order.

1. Horsemeat: reading my colleague John Gapper’s column today about the supply chain issue being at the heart of the matter, it occurred to me that this bears a notable resemblance to the blood diamond scandals, which resulted in the Kimberley Process. Like the supermarkets that sold the adulterated meat, the jewellers that sold the sparkly end product had never really pushed themselves to know where it came from. When the truth was revealed, they were horrified and embarrassed. It had never occurred to them they needed to take ownership of the supply chain if they were responsible for the end product, and the experience changed luxury’s strategy completely. Read more