Couture in the Digital Age

A look from the Ralph and Russo couture show

Writer and director Kinvara Balfour attends the couture shows in Paris and discovers how the traditional ateliers are embracing the techno-how of today’s digital world

The art of couture has been around for millennia. Back then, tailors used mannequins made of hay to incarnate the bodies of their clients (as seen at Chanel’s on-site atelier show set—more of that later). Nowadays they use computer-generated avatars. Or, at least, they will—very soon.

I am passionate about the worlds of fashion and tech. I am always excited to see where they meet. Though the world of haute couture is famous for using the methods of old, it is incorporating the new. Traditionalists would argue this is the beginning of the end; I think it’s anything but.

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The Chanel atelier which featured as part of the a/w 2016 couture show

If the on-site atelier staged by Karl Lagerfeld at the Chanel couture show proved anything, it’s that a large team is needed to run a fashion house and keep the billion dollar, global industry turning. Those petite mains may never be replaced by technology. Let’s hope their nimble skills are passed down to future generations, and fast. (We must be thankful that Lesage, Lemarié, Goossens, Massaro and Lognon are owned and nurtured by the house of Chanel.) But couture—the act of designing and building a dress to a client’s personal requirements—is no less couture if aided by the techspertise that benefits so many other industries today.

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Ralph & Russo couture a/w 2016

Couture is spectacular. Dazzling. Immaculate. Precise—and machines are being used to achieve that precision. Laser-cutting, for example, is prevalent in many collections this season, like Giambatista Valli, Valentino, Giorgio Armani Privé and Dior. Tamara Ralph, co-designer of London-based couture label Ralph & Russo, says “Digital printing and laser-cut taffeta flowers are two digital elements that feature heavily in the AW16 collection.” She showed these with a supreme techno soundtrack by Rob Harnetty and Kalos (thanks Shazam).

No-one fuses technology and handcraft like Iris van Herpen, who exhibited her collection amid the haunting reverberations of singing bowls and an eery, smoky haze at L’Oratoire du Louvre. Van Herpen’s work is as futuristic and experimental as it gets. One dress features pearl-coated, laser-cut fabric which is hand-stitched onto cotton and tulle. The result is something reptilian, alien-like, a modern-day armour or shell. Another is crafted with over 1,000 hand-blown glass bubbles moulded in transparent silicone liquid. Fabrics resemble fish gills and the skins of slippery snakes. Models look like sci-fi avatars.

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A model in the Iris van Herpen couture show

The avatar is increasingly used in the fitting of couture. “We’ve used a lot of technology in our collection” says British designer Giles Deacon, who presented couture—several pieces of which were laser-cut—for the first time. “We have computer-generated avatars of clients so we can fit them, even if they can’t come to the atelier. We cut according to the avatar and send physical mock-ups to the client, wherever they are in the world.”

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Giles Deacon couture a/w 2016

So that’s what the maisons are doing today. But if they are to capture the custom of a younger audience, as they must for their survival, what will they do tomorrow?

One option is VR. If clients can’t travel, they will be able to watch runway shows on Gear VR and Oculus Rift at home. So far, I have watched one, by Tommy Hilfiger, in VR and it was awesome (no traffic; no jostling with grumpy photographers and editors; no hanging about). I can’t wait for more.

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Models in the Ralph & Russo show

Get ready for holograms, too. We had a Burberry show in Beijing in 2011, and Dita von Teese at the Design Museum in 2012, but little else since. Currently at Le Meurice in Paris are two jewellery cabinets hosting holographic displays—watches by Hublot, diamonds by Didier—that are as captivating as anything real. If it works for jewels, it’s only a matter of time until clothing, accessories, magazines, newspapers, cars, and even humans, follow suit.

In the future, couture-clad models could appear on runways in holographic form. And if the designer is weary (Karl Lagerfeld, how do you do it?), he can be rendered with pixel-pefect technology into an interactive hologram that appears at the end of the show.

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Iris van Herpen couture a/w 2016

You can expect robots to come into play too. I follow the work of companies like Boston Dynamics and Google DeepMind avidly: their AI techspertise and virtual artificial agents are doing big things. I see no reason why the fashion industry should be exempt from casting, employing and enjoying such machines—to (partly) make, model and measure their clothes.

However, those humanoids won’t mimic the work of any petite mains soon; the techniques of couture are probably harder for a machine to master than AlphaGo. Many will be relieved about that. “The majority of the fabric manipulations and embellishments that we create are handcrafted,” says Tamara Ralph. “The beauty of couture is that it is unique and personal, whilst digital is generic and, in many ways, impersonal. Many of our looks are individually hand-painted; the natural perfection and texture of the brush strokes are aspects of savoir faire that cannot be mimicked by machines.”

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Dior couture a/w 2016

There is a post which does the rounds on Instagram:“I won’t be impressed with technology until I can download food.” I want to download clothes—and why not couture clothes? However they come, they have my full attention. The true intricacy and complexity of haute couture is genuinely awe-inspiring and I will always respect those who make it, be that man or machine.

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