#SuzyCouture: Haute Couture’s forceful blender with gender

The concept of gender fluidity is now spreading across haute couture. Whether it means including men’s silhouettes alongside the more familiar work designed for a female client or deliberately fluid styles in a high-fashion collection, the expectations of appropriated designs are changing fast.

Givenchy gave a show with a tease, as artistic director Clare Waight Keller created the feeling of a seedy ancestral home where the models appeared to challenge couture grandeur with chopped-off hair and messy accessories, but elegant clothes.

‘Anarchic’ was the word the designer used for her show under the soaring roof of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in the heart of Paris.

By contrast, at the atelier of Maison Margiela, designer John Galliano had a different vision for his new Artisanal collection. As if going back to the early years of his signature brand, he revived a gender-neutral vision that he was probably the first to understand. But this new collection came over more like other shows that the designer has done recently, putting male models in clothes that appear to be designed for women.

The official show notes described it as “Maison Margiela’s ongoing study of decadence… caused by a culture of excess”. The complex text then went on to discuss interesting but ultimately confusing ideas about clothes that should surely speak for themselves.

Givenchy: bold, witty and British

In her earlier career, and especially during her time at Chloé, designer Clare Waight Keller often gave a nod to wacky or dreamy British girls. That spirit came back in her winter 2019 couture collection for Givenchy, where a broken-down grandeur gave conventional clothes a piquant character.

It is only two years since the designer brought high fashion back to Givenchy. If she had seemed to re-invent classic couture – especially in the wedding dress and wardrobe of the new Duchess of Sussex – this show gave formal aristocratic style a wicked wink. Hence her description of ‘anarchy’ and the sense that she has taken elements of upper-class living and then deliberately messed them up.

“The idea is of a noble château, and this anarchic woman comes through. She finds objects and then reworks them into clothes,” the designer said. “I love the idea of slight dishevelment, which is why you see threads hanging like they are gathered from around the house.

“Then there are the androgynous figures with short hair, facing four more obviously male models,” she added.

“I love that crisp, small head with mysteries about androgyny, and that haircut. It’s really tight and small. And then suddenly you get Big Bird hair. The idea is that these creatures came through a collection, but there is still a crisp modernity in the shapes and volumes.”

Talking about historic Indian fabrics and woven embroideries, silvery or inky, the designer gave a complex description of the handwork. Yet the importance of the Givenchy show was that it took classic looks, unbuttoned them mentally, chopped off hair and cut away cloth to produce something both classic and original.

Maison Margiela: unexpected and forceful

Perhaps the most significant thing about John Galliano’s time at Margiela is not that the designer has embraced openly what people might describe as gender blending. It is rather that Renzo Rosso, the company’s owner, said of the show that he has never felt happier about the sales and the growth of the company.

This season’s show was presented casually in the Margiela building, the audience standing, with artistic entertainment. It featured cut-out photographs of bodies and disembodied hands by artist Katerina Jebb. The pictures were displayed on a see-through floor below the models’ pathway.

Gender-fluid clothes included men in outfits cut away in surprising places, and women’s grand gowns that were balanced on the body. As always with the designer, the forceful way that the clothes are worn, by either sex, makes them seem convincing, even if they are weird or unexpected.