How does couture cope in a pandemic when no one has a reason to dress up?

Paul McLauchlan is granted a rare audience with artistic director of Schiaparelli, Daniel Roseberry
How does couture cope in a pandemic when no one has a reason to dress up?

Daniel Roseberry 

If the pandemic has taught the world anything, it is the true value of human touch. 

It has also revealed that technology cannot replace physicality, that tangible experiences are far more powerful than their digital alternatives.

It is at the heart of haute couture, an age-old practice of dressmaking that melds craftsmanship with self-expression. Daniel Roseberry knows this all too well. 

As the artistic director of Schiaparelli, a 109-year-old haute couture house based in Paris, his job is to conjure up spellbinding creations with a painstaking attention-to-detail to the liking of private clients.

At the heart of the house of Schiaparelli is the philosophy of artistry meeting personal style. After months spent indoors, the direction fashion is expected to take, according to Roseberry, will be defined by both the people who make our clothes and how we, the wearers, inhabit them.

Navy jersey gathered dress with embroidered iconic jewels from Schiaparelli's spring/summer 2020 haute couture collection at Paris Fashion Week in January 2020
Navy jersey gathered dress with embroidered iconic jewels from Schiaparelli's spring/summer 2020 haute couture collection at Paris Fashion Week in January 2020

Haute couture, unlike the lower-priced and more widely distributed ready-to-wear, is a form of dressmaking that utilises hand-executed techniques, expensive and often unconventional materials, and are worked on by trained craftsmen and craftswomen who spend thousands of hours creating custom-fitting looks for private clients — affluent members of high society from across the globe. 

At Schiaparelli, a ‘crystal swag jacket’ with satin lapel and collar would take five people from the atelier (petites mains, in French) and eight embroiderers 540 hours to embellish the jacket with 20,000 crystals.

In 1927, Elsa Schiaparelli founded the label in Paris. What started out as knitwear that playfully hewed on the optical illusions of Surrealist art swiftly became one of the most prominent haute couture houses on the eve of World War II. 

She produced innovations tirelessly in an industry whose gatekeepers favoured tradition. Among her contributions to fashion; she was one of the first to use zips on clothing in haute couture, she opened her business up to licencing deals in America, the use of novelty fabrics, and collaborations with artists of the time such as Salvador Dali.

Elsa Schiaparelli wearing a white dress with white coq feather boa, both of her own design. Picture: CondÈ Nast Archive/Corbis
Elsa Schiaparelli wearing a white dress with white coq feather boa, both of her own design. Picture: CondÈ Nast Archive/Corbis

Schiaparelli became synonymous with a retina-searing neon pink shade that she dubbed “Shocking”. Furthermore, to her lexicon of motifs, she added embellished lobsters and butterflies. She distinguished herself with a light-hearted approach dressing members of high society.

Yves Saint Laurent once said of Schiaparelli: “She slapped Paris. She smacked it. She tortured it. She bewitched it. And it fell madly in love with her.” 

Post-war austerity led to the house closing in 1954. In 2007, Italian businessman Diego Della Valle bought the house. He rebooted it in 2013. 

However, in the seven years since its relaunch, Roseberry is the third designer to take over. It is his reign, modern in its outlook and approach that the house counts on experiencing a sort of renaissance.

Roseberry, the first American designer to head up a storied French haute couture house, is building on the largely undisturbed legacy. “There’s nothing like Schiaparelli. There are things we can do here that you can’t do at other houses.”

Column dress in black silk crepe with dizzying ascending neckline from Schiaparelli's spring/summer 2020 haute couture collection at Paris Fashion Week in January 2020
Column dress in black silk crepe with dizzying ascending neckline from Schiaparelli's spring/summer 2020 haute couture collection at Paris Fashion Week in January 2020

 

Roseberry launched ready-to-wear, the first of its kind for the label since before the mid-20th century. He introduced jewellery which, for the first time ever, is available to buy through Instagram. Like the founder, he is working with cutting edge artists of today such as the American playwright Jeremy O Harris who recently modelled the autumn/winter 2020 ready-to-wear collection at Paris Fashion Week.

He’s caught the attention of Beyonce and Michelle Obama, just two of many prominent figures to have worn his designs.

Roseberry, 35, is intelligent and well-spoken. He has dark brown hair and a neatly-groomed beard and typically dresses in navy or black sweaters with crisp shirts poking out from under.

He was born to a religious family in Plano, Texas. His father was a priest. “The Church loomed very large in our family and in my relationship with my parents,” he said. He spent his teenage years furtively watching fashion television and sketching dresses. He spent a missionary year in the Middle East when he was 19 and considered joining a seminary before he enrolled in fashion college in New York. Fashion was always his escape.

Schiaparelli on the catwalk at Fashion Week
Schiaparelli on the catwalk at Fashion Week

“A lot of gay people can say this, fantasy was always a huge outlet for me. I was always daydreaming,” said Roseberry, “[fashion] was this chance to express those subverted fantasies in a really intense way.” Before Roseberry joined Schiaparelli, he spent 11 years at Thom Brown, a New York-based designer who makes men’s and women’s clothes. 

Like Schiaparelli, Thom Browne is a house known for taking unbridled joy in the whimsical, drawing on fantastical elements to delight an audience. It lends itself to Roseberry’s work at Schiaparelli where he harnesses the power and beauty of fantasy and where the modus operandi is to thrill and subvert expectations.

“I think honouring her work is about bringing it forward and not just repeating it.,” said Roseberry, who isn’t overly reliant on the founder’s favourite motifs, but rather he imbues the designs with an inherently modern energy.

For his formal debut at Paris Fashion Week in July 2019, he perched himself on the runway, sketching, as models paraded around him. He mirrored how the collection was designed, in New York, before he had made the move to Paris.

Shocking' pink bias twisted dress from Schiaparelli's spring/summer 2020 haute couture collection at Paris Fashion Week in January 2020
Shocking' pink bias twisted dress from Schiaparelli's spring/summer 2020 haute couture collection at Paris Fashion Week in January 2020

“I wanted people to see that this extraordinary idea of couture could still be realised in a grimy Chinatown studio, which is where that collection was conceived. That’s a really modern message because at the couture houses it’s all about the savoir faire, the really beautifully-produced videos — and I love that —  but to be a couture house that says ‘this is the process we’re going through and this is who I am’ is a unique happening.”

In January, he showed a collection inspired by the duality of women: how women dress for themselves, inside and out; the juxtaposition between a disciplined, understated daytime outfit and a magnetic, performative evening ensemble. From a black satin wool tuxedo with black faille details, sparkling tonal embroideries with flecks of feathers, and white unstructured silk blouse, to a grand flou dress, with a multicolored swimsuit-style bustier and huge, flowing pink skirt in silk faille, the designer covered all bases.

For the upcoming autumn/winter 2020 haute couture collection, the house filmed Roseberry sketching in New York’s Washington Square Park. The sketches tell the story of a return to the sublime with elaborate gowns in gold and louche, draped tuxedos after a protracted period of sweatpants and slippers. (The realised designs will be shown at a special event for clients and VIPs in Los Angeles in December, depending how the pandemic evolves.) A sense of openness — about himself, the house, and the process  — is integral to Roseberry’s legacy.

“We’re literally at the Place Vendôme and I’m a boy from Texas,” said Roseberry, as he lifts his laptop to reveal the Column Vendôme in the centre of the square in the background. “I would be inspired as a boy from Texas if I had been able to see something like this up close. I want to open the gates and let those wall downs.” 

A sketch of a Schiaparelli dress
A sketch of a Schiaparelli dress

From sketches to short documentary-style videos peering inside the atelier walls, haute couture is rarely this visible. While it is the most alienating form of fashion as far as price is concerned, it reinforces fashion’s true meaning which we could all glean from: fashion is a tool to position ourselves in the world around us.

Even in troubled times like this, our clothes continue to reflect how we perceive ourselves. Who are the suit stalwarts, the glamour doyennes, and the hoodie loyalists? The pandemic and the pervasively eerie sense of doom we have come to live alongside have reinforced how clothing telegraphs a deeper meaning about how we identify.

During a socially-distanced visit to an American client’s country house in Connecticut before he returned to Paris, Roseberry came to the realisation that fashion is going to become a lot less obnoxious. 

 Knitted bustier dress in beaded nylon with sport stripes, balloon sleeves in multicolored faille from Schiaparelli's spring/summer 2020 haute couture collection at Paris Fashion Week in January 2020
Knitted bustier dress in beaded nylon with sport stripes, balloon sleeves in multicolored faille from Schiaparelli's spring/summer 2020 haute couture collection at Paris Fashion Week in January 2020

He observed that the way social pods are now congregating are beginning to reorient the way people get dressed, such as this client who still wanted her haute couture garment.

With no special events or red carpets to attend, he witnessed how the value of self-expression has been reframed for people as something you do for an intimate audience.

“It was amazing to see that people still get dressed for dinner, even if it’s a small group of people. That kind of self-expression still has meaning - even more meaning in the midst of a global crisis” Roseberry pondered, “how do you get dressed for the end of the world? You basically get dressed for yourself.”

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