Lots of fashion writers have predicted the death of couture, as pressure grows on designers to produce more and more collections per year, trends appear on the high street within weeks of catwalk shows at a fraction of the price, and, if you are a public figure, being seen in an outfit more than once will be remarked on at the very least, if not ridiculed.
The popularity of couture as an exhibition subject, however, seems to go from strength to strength. I visited Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion at the V&A and The World Of Anna Sui at the Fashion and Textile Museum, and although neither exhibition tops the superstar status of the Alexander McQueen retrospective (when the V&A stayed open through the night to meet demand for tickets in the final few days), the popularity of fashion exhibitions suggests we haven't completed the transition from seeing fashion as valuable to seeing it as disposable. Both exhibitions illustrate something important about couture that we need to embrace again in order to create a more sustainable fashion industry.
The World of Anna Sui showcases a designer with boundless enthusiasm for fashion; someone who is constantly intrigued and inspired by the world around her and has pursued her dream of being a fashion designer from early childhood. Her maximalist creations, a mash-up of pop culture references, bold colours and striking fabrics, are the stuff of my teenage dreams, but her painstaking research into fashion history and her beautifully constructed takes on vintage styles held a particular appeal for my inner costume geek. I was swooning over her 40s tea dresses, which feature Christian Berard prints on jewel-coloured silks and fondly reminiscing about my attempts to recreate her 'pastel grunge' looks with retro finds from Brighton's thrift shops in the mid 90s.
Her brand is centred around looks that are eye-catching and unique, optimistic and playful. Fashion is presented as something exciting, the clash of prints and textures showing a disregard for traditional 'rules' of dressing that echoes the rebelliousness of the subcultures that Sui references in her designs.
There is much more regard for tradition at the V&A's Balenciaga exhibition, which is a celebration of the craft of couture, and of Balenciaga as a master cutter and fitter as much as a designer. The exhibition emphasises the importance of the choice of fabric in determining the drape and hang of a garment, and showcases the virtuoso pattern cutting which is central to the deceptively simple shapes of Balenciaga's outerwear. X-rays, reconstructions of garments in toile form and even a dress displayed on a mannequin inside out reveal the intricate inner structure of evening gowns, the boning and underpinnings necessary to create the perfect silhouette. I was impressed by the proliferation of pockets, even in an elaborate evening cape, and reflected on it over on my Twitter account, where the lack of decent pockets in women's clothing is lamented and ridiculed on a regular basis.
As well as the garments themselves, there were also films showing the process of creating couture: mesmerising clips of the craftspeople at Lesage embellishing fabric with embroidery and sequins, as well as a short documentary showing the stages of cutting, fitting and finishing a made-to-measure jacket. As a dressmaker myself, I always appreciate being given an opportunity to see my fellow makers in the spotlight, as I hope it reminds people of the human labour that goes into the production of clothes. We are all garment workers, in the end, it's just that some of us have been fortunate enough to be given the time and opportunity to develop and perfect our craft, to have our work appreciated and to earn a decent salary.
Obviously couture is elitist, and outfitting ourselves in made-to-measure luxury for everyday life isn’t a practical option, but even clothes that highlight wealth inequality can be viewed as part of a more complex story about the wider fashion industry. Today, the industry’s biggest problems are exploitation, both of people and the environment, through overproduction and overconsumption. People struggling to make ends meet are not going to be overconsuming, but those of us who can afford to splash out on a new outfit when the fancy takes us need to think about what we really value about fashion, and act accordingly. I spent hours at the two exhibitions (and the cost of at least one fast fashion outfit on tickets), and I was delighted by the creativity and craftsmanship I saw, and it reaffirmed that I want my own wardrobe to look like this, as much as possible, rather than the bland and uninspiring fast fashion that has turned me off high street shopping.
There is a possibility that the tide could be turning; earlier this year Stylist Magazine published this article about mental health and burn-out in the upper echelons of the fashion industry. Several designers, including Jean Paul Gaultier, now only produce couture, having found that the pressure to produce an ever-increasing number of collections sapped them of energy and inspiration. For those of us who need more affordable fashion options, many small ethical and sustainable clothing brands have also rejected the high street's emphasis on constantly changing stock, opting instead to sell multi-seasonal pieces that will be versatile enough for even the most carefully curated of capsule wardrobes. The ongoing popularity of good quality vintage clothes also suggest that people are nostalgic for more than cute floral prints, they also still value flattering fit and appreciate clothing that is made to last.
These two exhibitions are a must for fashion fans, but it might be worth taking along a friend who can't understand what the fuss is about. Being encouraged to see fashion as an art form might prompt more thoughtful shopping habits, or a new respect for the people who make our clothes, and this has got to be a good thing.