Twice a year in Paris, the few remaining couture houses — along with a small cadre of guest designers selected by the exacting committee of the Fédération Française de la Couture — present their collections on the runway.
The "haute couture" designation itself is a legally protected category in France, and only those who are approved by the committee are able to use it to describe their brand. The few permanent members of the Fédération Française de la Couture can change each season, with big names like Chanel, Valentino and Dior sharing the schedule with smaller French houses which fly under the radar for the rest of the year, including Stephane Rolland, Franck Sorbier or Adeline André.
Take Schiaparelli: The fashion house originally founded by Elsa Schiaparelli opened in 1927, closed in 1954 and relaunched in 2013. And just recently, in late 2016, Schiaparelli achieved couture status again under its current designer, Bertrand Guyon. Before joining the house of Schiaparelli, Guyon held positions at Valentino, Givenchy and Christian Lacroix — all prestigious French houses, but none with so much history (or relation to couture) as Schiaparelli.
Schiaparelli is unique in that the brand now only does couture. Interestingly, Guyon has found inspiration for reviving a couture house by referencing the personality of its founder for the very first time. "Looking at the archives or at Schiaparelli's body of work is not always in my mind when starting the creative process of a new collection," said Guyon after the show. "But, for the first time this season, I wanted to focus on Elsa's personality. For instance, she used to wear a lot of black in the [daytime] accessorized often with the same jewelry or leopard. Therefore, I wanted to go into this direction and explore black suiting in a contemporary way so that the Schiaparelli signature look has a 2018 version."
The label presented a fantasy-inspired range at the Opéra Garnier earlier this week, which tapped into maximalist details in every way, from the simplest of constructed jackets embellished with bronze hand-shaped buttons to more extravagant pieces such as a coat cut in "shocking pink" silk styled with a matching butterfly mask. It was a collection filled with callbacks to house codes.
For Schiaparelli, now a revived couture brand, focusing on house symbols that clients and hardcore fans of the brand instantly recognize is incredibly important to the designer. Those include that "shocking pink" shade, the motif of butterflies, padlocks and hints of surrealism. "As my inspiration this season is around Elsa Schiaparelli the woman, her personality and what she wore daytime and nighttime, the house's symbols are probably more diluted into the whole collection," explains Guyon. “But, shocking pink — the Schiaparelli color — is strongly represented with several looks and accessories. I wanted that shade to be a focal point throughout the line-up."
Azzaro is another heritage couture brand recently revamped with a new hire. Founded by Loris Azzaro in 1962, the brand was a favorite of celebs like Marisa Berenson and Raquel Welch in the 1970s. Just a little over a year ago, French designer Maxime Simoëns was named artistic director of the brand, with a major overhaul of the Azzaro brand in mind. And while Azzaro shows both ready-to-wear and couture, some could argue couture is its main focus; Simoëns, after all, was well-known for dressing the likes of Beyoncé, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and Léa Seydoux in custom-fitted, crystal-dripping creations from his namesake line before he joined Azzaro.
But to make the brand more modern and appealing to today's clients, Azzaro adds in a few ready-to-wear pieces alongside his couture creations. The result is a mixture of party-ready dresses and separates inspired by the designer's recent trip to the tropics.
"This is more pieces of couture than ever before," said Simoëns backstage. "With all the embellishment and even the snake motifs, it's very traditional and done inside our atelier." Referring to the few ready-to-wear pieces he put in the collection, he added, "I think it's nice because sometimes you need a breath when it's lots and lots and lots. We try to do everything with the haute couture spirit."
Viktor & Rolf is another brand on the calendar which only does couture, after discontinuing its ready-to-wear line in 2015. This season, the brand collaborated with Swarovski to recreate some of the most iconic pieces from its archives for its 25th anniversary (like the matryoshka-style dress from their Russian Doll collection in fall 1999, or the sleeping bag inspired pillow dress from fall 2005); the designer duo also recreated one piece from their very first collection. "This dress started our story, and it's now in a museum," said Viktor. More than celebrating their brand, though, the designers used couture as a platform to showcase highly technical pieces that took nearly half a year in some cases to create.
"It's our goal to not be too sentimental," Rolf added backstage before the show. "It's really creating a whole new collection executed in all white and Swarovski crystals."
"Couture is like a laboratory to be creative and to experiment without restraints," explained Rolf. "It has always been like that for us and it's at the heart of our creativity. It's total freedom."
Like Viktor and Rolf, Jean Paul Gaultier made the decision to go couture-only in 2015, when he discontinued his ready-to-wear and menswear lines. "The biggest change I've seen since I started in fashion is that it's now more about marketing," he explains. "Now you can't start like I did, with no money, no help from anyone. Even in France, it's a big group and you have to do a lot of advertising and compete in that way."
"In some ways you can feel more free," he says, about choosing to only work on couture collections now.
Looking for more from the Fall 2018 couture shows? Check out the Chanel Fall 2018 couture collection below: