How Haute Couture Comes Together From Quarantine

A tale of two fashion houses.

Like many fashion weeks originally slated for the summer, the Paris Fall 2020 haute couture shows were canceled (at least, in their traditional format, which gathers hundreds of customers, editors, influencers and other industry professionals for runway shows and presentations biannually) in March, due to concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic. By May, the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode had found an alternative: Select houses would still unveil new collections in early July — only, it would happen online. 

Aside from finding digital, socially-distant ways to share the latest in haute couture, designers also faced the unique challenge of putting together a collection of the highest caliber of fashion, at least partly from quarantine. We spoke with the creative directors of two houses on the Fall 2020 schedule — Iris van Herpen and Tamara Ralph, of Ralph & Russo — about the process of working from lockdown, what it taught them about design and how they’re going about alternative unveilings.

Iris van Herpen

“Normally we work on the new collection for six months straight. Right after the show in Paris, we start with material experiments for the new collection. The new material and technique developments take a long time, especially to fine-tune and perfect. Also the collaborative side — the collaborations with artists, scientists and institutes outside of our atelier are very time-consuming.

“We’re an haute couture atelier and a slow fashion company, and the pandemic has had a big impact on our usual rhythm. As the globe was in lockdown the last months (and the atelier, since March) and the couture week was cancelled, we’re delaying the new collection. A lot of our collaborators are still in lockdown, which complicates and slows down the creative process.

“The full atelier team normally works together in Amsterdam. The handwork, the machine work, the collaborations, my design process, my draping — it’s all done from there. For every collection, we collaborate with artists, architects, scientists outside of the atelier and from other countries. For the Voltage collection in 2013, I collaborated with Philip Beesley, who is a master in combining traditional craftsmanship and material knowledge into material engineering and new technology and has become a long-term collaborator; and with Neri Oxman, a professor at the MIT Media Lab known for combining biology, computing and materials engineering. That collection shows how powerful it can be when creators from different disciplines work together. 

“We always begin with a phase of experimenting with new techniques and materials, which almost the full atelier works on. A part of the team works on them digitally, sending the laser-cut files out; the other part works on the craftsmanship, hand-stitching the layers and textures into samples. The sample process creates a very organic and dynamic collaboration within the atelier. It’s a journey of discovery in which we really need each other’s knowledge, skills and vision. After the many rounds of experiments, the atelier team turns the small samples into larger samples for me to drape with. After I drape on the mannequin, which takes a few days, the design is close to finished. Then, the final garment starts to be made. In between, there are a lot of Skypes/calls/videos, as well as sample and material shipments sent to our collaborators. 

“As [our work is] already so multidisciplinary, with people based all over the globe, we were used to working digitally and from a distance. This helped us during the quarantine. We mainly work on Illustrator for the technical files of the garments, and Photoshop to refine the printing process. Sometimes [we use] other programs, like Rhino and Grasshopper, which are embedded in the 3D design process. The team communication during the lockdown was e-mail, WhatsApp, Zoom and Skype. I have never seen so much screen in my life… A lot of the days, it was a continuous stream, from Zoom to Zoom. 

“Our material development and collection process for couture is very layered and quite complex — a lot of it is very hands-on, literally, with so many different expertise and team members involved, so some parts were just impossible to execute without being together physically. But drawing, [making] simpler samples and draping on the mannequin were still possible from home and through Zoom. The lockdown has eased up now, and I cannot express how nice it is to have the atelier back together and to be in a creative flow again.

“[Working from lockdown] taught me how incredibly creative, adaptable and positively-minded my team is. I’m really impressed by their fluidity, devotion and creativity in these challenging times. It also taught me how much I value the collaborative process and spirit, and that a lot of inspiration for me comes from the interaction between me and my team. The conversations we have, the physical interactions with the samples — I guess the meaning and value of a creative process lies in sharing together.

“The IVH design philosophy has always valued quality over quantity, and the pandemic makes us realize that even more strongly. Ultimately, we should not be focussing so strongly on the seasons anymore, but on the creative process itself — value inspiration and the flow of collaboration and creation, and launch the collection in a more dynamic matter throughout the year, in various forms, from mixed reality to virtual reality and to a physical show in Paris.

“I [did speak with other designers during quarantine], and it helped me to zoom out to what my vision for fashion is and what new forms fashion can move into. The conversations have been very inspiring, as there has been time for real reflection on how we can and should create, how the industry can evolve, how sustainability and nature can become more intertwined in the materials and production process. Sustainability was an important focus for me already, but the last three months have been very productive on research, and we have been able to establish new partnerships and collaborators to make even more progress on the sustainable materials we work on

“We’re making nice progress on the collection now (although, still some of the partners and collaborators are closed) and will launch when the collection is ready. We’re working towards a virtual reality show, a mixed-reality experience and a runway show simultaneously. This gives us freedom to express the collection in different realities in the near future and to become more creative in the ways we look at a fashion show.” 

Ralph & Russo

“We begin working on the next collection at least six months in advance. As soon as we unveil a new season, we’re immediately onto the next, sometimes even working on collections simultaneously. 

“The first stage of the process is determining the inspiration, which then informs the overall concept of the collection, as well as the show. Inspiration can come to me suddenly and out of nowhere, and often stems from travel, art, film, music or nature. I typically know the inspiration for the next collection before the current season has even gone down the runway.

“Once the inspiration has been defined, we move onto the design stage, oftentimes creating hundreds of sketches which we then review together, as a team, and scale back to the appropriate number of looks (which is always one of the most difficult tasks, it’s so hard for me to choose!). Then comes the actual creation of each piece, which passes through our digital design team (to ensure any prints or patterns line up), our toilistes, embroiderers and couturiers. As the design is finalized or nearly finalized, we begin to try each piece on a model to ensure the fit is exactly what we envisioned. I work closely with my team and continue to tweak each piece as we near the show, to make sure the fit and the aesthetic is absolutely perfect. It’s not uncommon for this to still be happening in the days prior to the show, which doesn’t leave much time for sleep!

“While all of these different stages of design and creation are happening, we’re concurrently planning the show itself — from choosing the venue to conceptualizing the set, choosing the music that mirrors the essence of the collection, casting models and beginning to think about hair and makeup, among other things. It’s difficult for me to place a timeline on each of these stages because, as I mentioned earlier, they often take place all at the same time and it’s just a flurry of activity. Of course we have a schedule we work towards each season, but we have to allow for changes and be malleable. 

“The design process was well underway in March. When the pandemic began to truly take a toll on the U.K., we were affected by our suppliers and partners closing, as they are largely based between France and Italy. Both of these countries were significantly impacted — especially Italy — and everything came to a standstill. We had to get creative and also think through our options, begging the question of whether or not a physical collection was even feasible at that point. The design process, especially for couture, is so tactile; you need to see and feel real fabric swatches, be able to look at embroidery up close, and so on. We had to learn a new way of working.

“We instructed our entire team to quarantine a few days ahead of the government, around mid-March. It was clear that a lockdown was inevitable, and we wanted to get in front of it. We also had to ensure each department was best set up to work from home, so we needed the extra time to sort this out. For instance, while our head office team can quite easily work from home with simply a computer and a phone, our atelier team needs much more equipment.

“[Our team typically collaborates] through many, many meetings together on a daily basis — and a lot of time spent sketching! While the environment is very different, the process itself hasn’t really changed. It has just meant in-person meetings are replaced with video calls. The biggest limitation, really, has been not being able to see and feel all of the fabrics and materials, but we try to illustrate this as best we can to one another via video. Also, the team has been consistently mailing out swatches to me wherever possible.

“[We’ve been using] WhatsApp, Zoom, Microsoft Teams — all of them! I speak to each team on a daily basis; having that consistent, open line of communication, especially when working remotely, is so important. It’s also crucial to find a way to keep your team motivated, and feeling inspired during such trying and unpredictable times. It’s especially critical for my atelier team, as we need to be able to video conference one another and go through designs in great detail.

“To be perfectly honest, I was worried about how this would all take shape, especially when we are used to spending so much time together in person, but I think we’ve all adapted quite well. I’ve learnt that you’re able to still be productive and efficient remotely, and while it might take a bit more work (and I of course miss my team!), it’s certainly possible.

“[Lockdown has] made the sample process more complicated, but not impossible. The most difficult part has been, as I touched on before, sourcing fabrics and materials from outside of our atelier, and working with any partners who shut down entirely during this period or otherwise reduced their output significantly. However, we’re fortunate to have not only an incredibly talented team in-house, but also an extensive library of fabrics and swatches within our atelier to pull from where and when needed. 

“That process, along with the overarching situation globally, has taught me quite a lot about how to move forward. Couture in and of itself is already an inherently sustainable category, as everything is made to order and every piece of fabric is utilized in some way, shape or form. But I have learned how to be even more sustainable by taking full advantage of our own library of materials. I have also learned how to properly take a step back, assess a huge challenge like this one has been, look at the bigger picture, and quickly pivot. We have had to re-think our entire approach, and shift our thinking to be more digitally-focused. This is a lesson that will stay with us, and which, to be truthful, was much needed. Our industry moves so quickly, almost too quickly, and if there is any silver lining to all of this, it’s that it has forced us to re-evaluate what works and what does not, what is dated and what is the future, as well as what’s important and what isn’t.

“We are [presenting a new collection], just in a different way. We will be taking a very new direction for the unveiling, both for us as a brand and also for couture as a category. We will also be working closely with the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, who are still hosting the fast-approaching haute couture week, albeit digitally. We’re very excited to be a part of this, and see how it all takes shape.

“The inspiration for this collection changed completely in light of what’s going on globally. A few months ago, it was going to be a very different collection. However, I’m really excited to present this season to the world. Not only am I passionate about the collection itself, but I’m also hugely excited to be testing new waters in terms of the actual presentation. This year marks our tenth anniversary which has prompted much reflection and the revisiting of our brand archives. So, while this collection is very much looking forward into the future and what’s next for our brand and the industry as a whole, it’s at the same time a contemplation on our history, and what we are known for as a house.”

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