The world of style is a very strange place to be these days. Production costs are up, stores are buying less, and the public, blitzed by the glamour of supermodels and designer names, wants to buy into the “dream” for as little money as possible. Over the past couple of years there have been increasing numbers of bankruptcies, buy-outs, crippling economy measures and apathetic markets. Moreover, according to reports in Women’s Wear Daily, things are going to get a lot worse, with more retail closings, before they level out. Yet, curiously enough, fashion continues to attract young people with high hopes of making it big in an ever shrinking industry. According to the Syndicate Nationale des Stylistes, as many as 3,000 designers are trying to work in France alone, and major fashion schools here continue to draw a healthy number of students from all over the world.
One thing that can be said, however, about those entering the business today is that they are armed with common sense, a business plan and a dose of caution. Many young designers begin their careers by entering contests for recognition, then present capsule collections (20-30 pieces) in modest locations such as parking garages or deserted depots, or, if they’re lucky, in a tiny corner of a collective space at one of Paris’ specialized fashion fairs. The phenomenal success of Belgian designer Walt has encouraged many other young people to move fashion forward toward the 21st century by creating simple, comfortable, affordable clothes from such “techno” fabrics as synthetics, plastics and metallic fibers, or finding new ways to work with natural materials.
“The market is very saturated,” notes Fukuko Ando, a young Japanese designer who launches her first collection in May. “With so much already out there it’s difficult for me to find a niche. But I believe the market needs new forms of expression to revive it: new things for a new era.” At Paris Sur Mode, a fashion salon promoting young talent, I was immediately drawn to her line of magnificent dresses made from scraps of printed silk pieced together like stained glass windows. Each was a jewel representing one month of painstaking labor. “I’m inspired by architecture: the châteaux in the south of Spain, villas in Brazil … and the human body, which is defined neither by seams nor fixed lines.” This tiny woman lit up with interest while telling me how the dresses are conceived. “In front of the mirror, I work with a wood mannequin on which I directly sculpt the form of a dress with a piece of fabric. The dress is created as I go along and expresses a sense of the movement, the sensation and thought. It is a process of developing the fabric like a bud which grows and blossom into a flower.” She added, “Each work is the result of trial and error.”
Fukuko attended fashion design schools in Japan before coming to Paris in 1993 to study at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. After an internship at Christian Dior, she returned to Japan to work as a designer but came back to France to launch her own collection. Though her art-wear is beautiful, producing one dress a month is just not feasible in the framework of modern business. “I’m working on a way to make things work,” Fukuko quickly remarks. “What I’m doing now serves as a way of getting my ideas out. My clothes are not commercial, but neither are they haute couture. With my first collection to debut in May, I’m now searching for more practical solutions, as well as a backer.”
Working for someone else to gain experience, make contacts and raise enough initial capital to break off on your own is a common route for young designers. No newcomer to the world of high fashion, Hubert Barrere worked as chief designer at the embroidery house of Guiselin, one of the few remaining establishments serving Paris’ prestigious haute couture houses. He has made intricately beaded and embroidered corsets for Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Lacroix and Thierry Mugler. In his small way, Hubert is edging couture into the 21st century by way of an age-old undergarment updated with modern materials.
The first to catch my eye is what looks like an orange 3-D vinyl bustier. It turns out to be made of a new heat-sensitive material that changes color with the change in temperature. Next to it is a frothy white confection made of crushed iridescent cellophane dotted with small beads, dime-sized pearly sequins and spikes of white turkey feathers. Still another, worked into the design of a dress, has bits of hologram inlays interspersed among beads and embroidery. Amazing.
“My collection is based on the corset,” says Hubert, who created his own company last November. “It works as an accessory or a type of overgarment. I like things close to the body for femininity, especially in the spirit of comfort.” Also featured on his stand are a few jackets, one made from mohair-embroidered Chantilly lace and others cut from Tactel, a new warm, stretchy, lightweight fabric. “We’re starting little by little with the idea of arriving at a complete, more varied collection at some point later on. We’re going to take things slowly, one step at a time, as a way of staying afloat in these economically difficult times.” He concludes, “The problem with the market today is that people are bored. And why not! When you open the magazines you always see the same old thing: fashion à la ’60s, ’70s, ’50s or ’40s … in any case, a rehash from the past.” He continues, “I’m about combining savoir-faire and old-world tradition with new materials and modernity.”
Modern? Did someone say modern? The designers who are attracting a following with “techno” or “cybermode” are those experimenting with New Age textiles. “We are attracted to techno materials,” says Junichi Ito, a young Japanese with an Afro hairdo and a line of young, funky clothes in its second season. “However, I find that fabrics like plastic and latex are often hot and uncomfortable. As a result, I’m turning toward ‘natural techno’ materials that allow the body to breathe.” On the rack behind him are shift dresses with bar code prints, skai (leatherette) vests and jeans with peculiar patches over the knees cut from what appears to be distressed leather. Junichi points out that the material is actually a kind of leather-lycra blend. It is a fabric he invented, patented and uses throughout his collection.
After stints as an intern at Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake, the soft-spoken designer went to work for the Japanese based Welove C Ltd. before creating his own label, Laboratoire. He launched his first collection in Japan last July and won the top prize in a competition for young designers in Sapporo, his native city. Now that he is based in Paris, his collections are made and distributed here. His winter ’96-’97 line, inspired by the cinema, architecture, androids and comic strips, is cut in simple, everyday silhouettes and designed to be worn by either sex.
“Little by little we’re getting there,” says a timid young man who had to be pushed out to take a bow after his show’s dramatic finale, in which a forklift slowly elevated his models within the cold gray surroundings of a parking garage. With four seasons under his belt, Frédéric Baldo is finally beginning to draw a following. Deemed “one of fashion’s newest alchemists” by the Journal du Textile, Frédéric loves to tinker with an assortment of bizarre and unusual materials to come up with a look he feels will be “visually intriguing.”
After his summer collection, where he fashioned clothes out of bonded cardboard, mosquito netting, burned steel screen and hologram skai, Frédéric presented for fall ’96 a few simple silhouettes with complex construction, cut from materials ranging from whisper-thin nylon wrapped to reveal the models’ small breasts, to heavy, thick felt, boiled knits and bonded space-age fabrics. “There is a part of the collection that is mass-produced and consists of basic, easy to wear items,” Frédéric admits. “But I’m really more interested in the handcrafted aspect of my line.” The unique handcrafted items express an emotion. “I love to push this [theme] to the extreme by exploiting the use of interesting fabrics,” he explains. “Last summer was my soft, very sensual collection. This winter I used thick, carapace-type garments that serve as a barrier against the elements.” Among the local boutiques carrying Frédéric’s clothes are Maria Luisa and Victoire.
Yes, fashion is a very curious animal indeed. And thank goodness for that. In spite of the high mortality rate of businesses, a melancholy climate lurking over major clothing capitals, cutthroat operators, French paranoia, the perceived threat of the Internet, bad weather and everything else that’s blamed for the current dilemma, the business of style is rejuvenated thanks to young, talented people, with their hopes and dreams.