I have a Comme des Garçons cape-collar that is composed of hundreds of tartan strips sewn together in a madcap yet painstakingly deliberate fashion. I bought it a few winters ago at the label’s Chelsea store, and the salespeople said they were pretty sure it was the only one ever made.
It’s a nutty, extravagant item and though Harold Koda, the former curator in chief at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, said he thought it made me look like Dickens’s Little Nell, I love this thing to death. Every time I button it over a coat, I thank the unsung genius who thought up this creation and had the time and imagination to put it together. I have bought many things (Oh, far too many things!) since I bought that collar, but few of them have given me as much joy.
At times like these, when the world feels as if it has gone crazy and the ground has shifted beneath our feet, we find ourselves reassessing what is really important to us. Maybe it was being locked down for months, but the questions—What do we value? What matters to us? What do we really want?—seem more vital than ever.
Here is what we know right now: If you love fashion, what you desire at the moment are clothes that present the kind of artistry and aesthetic brilliance that my plaid collar possesses—things that are worth acquiring, regardless of cost. Of course, brilliant-and-price-be-damned has always pretty much defined couture—those breathtaking triumphs that you are astonished to encounter, even if you never own them.
I remember visiting the Fendi workshops in Rome and seeing fur coats and fur-trimmed dresses of such incredible delicacy that I was shocked, shocked! to find out that these were not fur at all, but cascades of taffeta and silk manipulated to impersonate mink and sable. Just to touch them (Surreptitiously! No fondling allowed!) was a privilege and a pleasure.
The apex of this kind of rigor is found at the house of Hermès, where the unspoken credo—that the quality will remain consistent, whether you purchased your satchel in 1950, 1990, or yesterday—is the justification we give ourselves when plunking down serious money for a Kelly or a Birkin. It’s like money in the bank, we like to think—except in this case, it really is. The return on these handbags has proved far better than pitiable CD interest rates. In June a holy grail among leather goods, a matte white Himalaya Niloticus Crocodile Birkin, sold for $158,375 at Christie’s, about twice its estimate.
This kind of craftsmanship, lovingly rendered by the legendary petites mains in the ateliers of Paris and workshops all over France, where they have honed their skills for centuries, has long been a magnificent obsession for dedicated followers of fashion.
Even as we marvel at the inlaid embroideries at Chanel, or the wildly innovative postmodern techniques at Louis Vuitton, we can also be heartened by the news that there are many younger, less rarefied designers offering the kind of novel, handcrafted fashion that results in clothing to be treasured season after season. (Could this be what “seasonless” really means?)
Think of Molly Goddard, the British designer who began her business by literally hand-smocking her first tulle party frocks on her kitchen table. (I own one of these Molly iterations, an Alice-blue gown that might have been made by hummingbirds in a Disney movie.) Or consider the rich Wedgwood-esque embroidery on a featherlight Simone Rocha skirt, or the finely wrought brocades, the painterly pleating at Jonathan Anderson’s Loewe fall 2020 collection.
In the end it’s a matter of putting your money where your mouth—or, let us say, where your taste—is. To further grapple with what we are all feeling this autumn, and how we balance desire and responsibility, I turned to my friend Marco Zanini, who is working away on his own deliberately small eponymous collections in Milan.
I have known Marco for years; I first came to love his work when he was the creative director at Nina Ricci, then followed his professional star to Schiaparelli. These days Marco is completely his own boss, imbuing his voluptuous silhouettes with dressmaking details, such as a ribbon encircling a hem, or a subtle gathering of a sleeve at the elbow, or the satin blanket edge of a classic camel hair overcoat.
Ever candid, he tells me, “As far as Zanini is concerned, since day one my mantra has been to focus on quality over quantity. I trust that soulful, well-made, and honest clothes are the answer to many pressing issues. There’s a valuable freedom to the niche you feel you need to address in your work.”
Come fall I plan to second this emotion and greet the first crisp days, so full of promise and renewal, by proudly pinning on my plaid collar and rededicating myself to the search for soulful, well-made, honest clothes.
This story appears in the September 2020 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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