Vionnet and the Rise of Demi-Couture

An infusion of funds and enthusiasm from oil tycoon-turned-creative director Goga Ashkenzai has put Paris-based Vionnet back on everyone's radar after a decades-long absence. However, judging by the recently revamped house's Fall/Winter 2014 demi-couture collection, which was unveiled during the F/W 2014 couture shows in Paris last month, Vionnet's greatest strength may actually lie there and not in its ready-to-wear offerings. In honor of Vionnet's 100th anniversary, Ashkenazi introduced the collection, which consists of one-off dresses made using a high level of craftsmanship, but sold at lesser prices than traditional couture pieces, for Spring/Summer 2013. She has since handed off the design duties for this collection to Hussein Chalayan, a conceptual design genius, who has been likened to John Galliano and the late Alexander McQueen.

Known as “fashion’s arch avant-gardist” and as ”one of the most cerebral designers of his era,” Chalayan, 43, has created dresses constructed from LED pixels, others containing moving airplane parts and even a robot dress loaded with Swarovski crystals, as well as Tyvek garments that resembled furniture and could be folded down to envelope size. But Vionnet tapping into the talent of Chalayan, who showed his second collection for the house last month, is not the only meaningful factor here. The collection itself, demi-couture, is a noteworthy concept. The rise of demi-couture is technically not the brainchild of Vionnet, even though the house may be one of the first to give it the title and dedicate an entire collection to the concept.

Others have been investing in the rise of demi-couture. For instance, in 2011, British Vogue commented on the rising sales of "highly-priced, highly-decorative items created by ready-to-wear designers," citing a handful of designers, including Mary Katrantzou and Matthew Williamson, and ornate collections by Christopher Kane, Prabal Gurung, Jason Wu, Rodarte and Proenza Schouler. Matthew Williamson's president, Joseph Velosa told Vogue in 2011: "Pieces over $5,000 now account for 6 per cent of our business. Two years ago we sold nothing at that price."

Vogue also called attention to London-based e-commerce site, CoutureLab. The site, which launched in 2006, is known for making couture-like garments and accessories, such as the late L’Wren Scott’s very first couture collection, shoppable ... online. A members-only community, CoutureLab has worked with over 150 designers, including Alexis Mabille, Haider Ackermann, Nina Ricci, and Roberta Furlanetto, with 80 percent of its stock being handmade. The site sells couture-quality pieces; however, unlike traditional couture, each piece is conventionally sized rather than individually fitted, thereby, making the pieces more accessible in terms of price and removing any of the fittings associated with traditional couture.

Other designers come to mind when discussing demi-couture (think: Azzedine Alaïa and Karl Lagerfeld). The Wall Street Journal's Meenal Mistry spoke to Alaia's 2013 return to couture, writing: "Further evidence of the rise of halfway haute is Azzedine Alaïa's showing of what he called 'semi-couture' during the fall couture season in July […] This upgraded version of his ready-to-wear can be purchased as-is." Similarly, a handful of Karl Lagerfeld's collections for Chanel, as distinct from its haute couture collections, appear to rise to the level of demi-couture. Most notably: the Chanel Metier D'Arts collections, which rely to an extent on the skills of the house's couture atelier.

It appears the goal that is motivating the demi-couture movement is, at least, two fold. For the haute couture houses that once were, the Givenchy's (the Paris-based design house notably stopped showing collections two years ago, opting to make custom creations for clients in lieu of taking part in formal presentations), Alaia's, Balmain's, Lanvin's, etc., this is a way to produce couture-like collections (or an array of couture-like garments), even though they no longer meet the standards established by the Fédération française de la couture, du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode, and thus, cannot technically hold themselves out as hate couture houses.

Givenchy is an interesting example. On the heels of the house's December 2012 announcement that it would not show a couture collection,  Riccardo Tisci told Style.com's Tim Blanks: "I wanted to make a much more couture collection for menswear." He was referring to the house's Fall/Winter 2013 menswear collection, and the result was, according to Blanks, an offering of "something more chic, more…well, couture-ish. And there it was, in experimental new cuts, collarless and lapel-less, and in a new depth of fabrication."

Like Givenchy, which decided to focus on ready-to-wear, for what we can only assume was for financial reasons, the movement towards more wearable, more accessible garments sheds light on the evolution of fashion. As I suggested on the heels of the Fall/Winter couture shows, much of the beauty that can be derived from couture may, in fact, come from house's abilities to marry the inherently dated practice of couture with the modern day notions of dressing.

The Independent's Alexander Fury commented on where we find ourselves in connection with haute couture today, writing: "The only trouble? Women don’t really want to look like they stepped out of a [couture] salon. So the quandary of the couture is thus: how do you evoke the history the art form relies on, and yet make it modern enough to appeal to real women? Finding the right point between the two is difficult." Maybe it is this balance upon which Vionnet and other houses showing demi-couture creations have set their sights.

Speaking with Lisa Armstrong of the Telegraph about Vionnet, Chalayan (above left, with Ashkenzai) addressed the meaning of demi-couture, saying: “It means the number of fittings is reduced. Instead of ten, you have one. It isn’t a reflection of the value of the garment." W magazine commented on the collection in March, writing: "Cutting out the extra fittings means prices start at just over $4,000—a fraction of traditional haute couture. This makes the pieces a lot easier to sell."

Vionnet's take on modern-day couture is certainly catering to the changing climate in fashion. Because there really are not very many haute couture customers out there, as distinct from the good old days, there are simultaneously not many haute couture houses either. In 2000, the number of official couture houses had dwindled down to just 18. With the enormous financial losses to houses that show couture as a result of production of the bi-annual collections (YSL co-founder Pierre Bergé, for instance, revealed in 1987 that the house, like many others, simply did not profit from couture; instead, it served as a form of advertising), the number of houses that can afford to remain on the haute couture schedule is small. With this in mind, demi-couture provides designers with the opportunity to show garments of heightened craftsmanship without having to sacrifice an often unbearably high level of resources, such as the 2,000 hours of cutting and 4,000 hours of sewing that went into one look from Givenchy's Spring/Summer 2011 collection, or the 30 hours it took to make one pair of the sneakers in Chanel's Spring/Summer 2014 collection. (Roughly 65 pairs were made).

Second, the movement towards heightened ready-to-wear gives younger labels and others that never reached the level of haute couturier status, the opportunity to provide speciality pieces and to distinguish themselves from the truly significant market of design pirates (think: Zara and co.). While still acting as CEO of high fashion trunk show website, Moda Operandi, Áslaug Magnúsdóttir, shed light on the market for couture-like fashion, saying: "Our customer wants something really special that a lot of people won't have. That is very much the theme right now." Magnúsdóttir has since left Moda Operandi and launched Tinker Tailor, an online retailer that fuses couture customization with ready-to-wear pricing. Tinker Tailor offers customers the ability to modify existing designer ready-to-wear garments (such as those from Marchesa, Vivienne Westwood, Bibhu Mohapatra, Andrew Gn, Alberta Ferretti, Roksanda Ilincic, Preen by Thornton Bregazzi, and Giambattista Valli, among others - note the latter has a haute couture collection). Also, the site allows shoppers to choose from a selection of fabrics and cuts, and ultimately, design a one-of-a-kind dress.

The creation of such speciality pieces is also a way for high fashion to draw a line in the sand, so to speak, placing knock-offs squarely on the other side. It is also an opportunity for designers to put their namesake wares on a pedestal, situated above any other projects or collections they have done, an especially important tool in the age of designer x mass market collaborations. "Between all the designer collaborations and everything that's going on, we need to give people a reason to buy," said New York-based designer Jason Wu, who started using Parisian ateliers like Lemarié and Lesage, and lace mill Sophie Hallette, a few seasons ago, to up the ante for the garments and accessories in his eponymous label. You may recall that Mr. Wu has teamed up with Target, Melissa shoes and Lancome in the past.

London-based Mary Katrantzou is one of the designers, who has been producing collections above the traditional ready-to-wear standard for some time now, at least in terms of cut, construction, and ornamentation. Known for her hyperrealist aesthetic, eye-popping digital prints, and boundary-pushing silhouettes, Katrantzou was awarded NEWGEN sponsorship for six seasons, making her nothing short of an industry darling. Tim Blanks referred to her skills in 2011, noting the "borrowed silhouettes from the haute couture wardrobes" and the season prior, commenting on the "hallucinatory depth" and "exquisite symmetry" to her prints with their "dangling pendants of crystal."

In February 2012, the designer, a MA graduate of Central Saint Martins, spoke to silhouette, saying: "I'd already done the peplum and hourglass. So I was looking for different silhouettes to emphasize embroidery and embellishments." All the while, she was being copied; blatant replications of the young designer's prints and silhouettes have been selling for a tenth of their original price in an array of fast fashion retail giants' stores for years. Of it, she says: "When you put ‘lampshade skirt’ in Google, you get ASOS! It’s so unfair!”

However, since then, it seems Katrantzou and an array of her high fashion fellows have gotten a hold on their strengths, including their ability to out-perform copycats, in terms of quality, quantity (less is more) and overall allure. This, coupled with designers' need to differentiate their eponymous labels from any existing mass market collaborations for their loyal customers, and the evolving nature of how women dress and what that means to for the very traditional practice of couture haute, seems to be pointing to an elevated interpretation of ready-to-wear. An added bonus that comes with this type of garment: longevity. These are inherently the opposite of garments dominated by seasonal sensibilities which change each year, such as from S/S 2014 to S/S 2015. Moreover, their quality transcends the disposable nature of  many pieces of clothing. In this way, not only are we touching on a very important point that we seem to have lost, the beauty in building a wardrobe that is meant to last, but we very well may be moving - albeit, slowly - towards a more regularly paced cycle of fashion, one with which we seem to have clearly lost touch.