Breathing new life into the fusty, dusty world of haute couture
Breathing new life into the fusty, dusty world of haute couture
First published The Independant UK
Bouchra Jarrar's couture house is based round the back of the famed French hotel Le Meurice. It's a street away from the Westin, too, and round the corner from the glistening, diamond-filled vitrines of the Place Vendôme. “Being here is a studied decision,” Jarrar admits.
Other houses have also shifted towards the eighth arrondissement - Jarrar's closest competitors are Elsa Schiaparelli, cheek by jowl with those bauble merchants on the Vendôme, and the couture bastion of Chanel, taking up near enough the whole Rue Cambon - and they are fitting comparisons, because Bouchra Jarrar, 44, is a contemporary counterpart to those twin female titans of haute couture whodominated Paris' interwar fashion scene.
She doesn't have the strident self-promotional streak of Chanel, nor Schiap's urge to outrage, but she does have a distinct, instantly recognisable style, and a loyal group of clients happy to make the brief trip from those adjacent hotel suites to order Jarrar's expensive clothes. And those clothes are causing something of a quiet revolution in the rarefied but airless world of haute couture - because they're minimal, modern, geared to the lives of contemporary women. In short, everything we assume haute couture is not.
“I don't do the princess dresses,” states Jarrar, emphatically shaking her head. You couldn't imagine her wearing them, either. She is a delicate woman, whose sparrowlike frame and straight, dark hair with its scribbled fringe makes her resemble a speedy Sem caricature of Françoise Hardy drawn with a Caran d'Ache pencil. That's pretty French.
So is Jarrar's past. Born in Cannes, to Moroccan parents, she studied at the Ecole Supérieure des Arts Appliqués de Duperré in Paris, preparing her for a career in fashion. After a stint in lingerie and creating jewellery for Jean Paul Gaultier, she began working at Balenciaga shortly before the arrival of Nicolas Ghesquiere. She stayed for 10 years, followed by three as manager of Christian Lacroix's haute couture studio. (Lacroix is something of a vache sacrée to the French.) In 2010, she set up on her own.
Those are some high-level antecedents. When Lacroix opened his house in 1987, it was the first new French haute couture house to launch since Yves Saint Laurent. The next? Jarrar's. And just as Yves Saint Laurent's slick Mondrian-pieced mini-dresses and Lacroix's exuberant poufs exemplified the Sixties and Eighties respectively, Jarrar's clothes are about the here and now. “Une couture moderne,” says she. “Une couture d'aujourd'hui.”
To further explain, Jarrar pulls me into her atelier. In fact, it's more her bureau - a thimble-sized room compared to those of other haute couture houses, where Jarrar works alone. She is insistent that her work begins with her: she not only sketches, but cuts and drapes cloth, and even turns her hand to weaving, creating the prototype for the hand-loomed tweeds that have become one of her trademarks.
Jarrar speaks little English - I speak even less French - but it doesn't matter. Words frequently fall down when talking about her metier: hand-woven, for instance, doesn't really cover the fact that these fabrics - a robust, lurex-flecked tweed, say, or a pellucid silk-satin the peachy colour of a baby's foot - start with Jarrar.
She excitedly shows me a few threads pinned to paper: her equivalent of a fabric sample. Jarrar hand-wove a strip, on looms that are more than 100 years old, varying tensions to achieve different effects. Artisans will then duplicate the effect, for a sleeveless jacket. “For me, this is the real know-how of couture,” she says.
That's what couture is founded on - hand-work. Garments are entirely made by hand, as opposed to ready-to-wear, where clothes are machine manufactured and frequently languish for months on shop rails. Haute couture is made to demand for a small - but still-present - cadre of exacting clients willing to pay through the nose for something unique.
We're in the midst of Paris's autumn/winter 2015 haute couture schedule right now - and Jarrar, the newest kid on the couture block, shows her winter collection tomorrow. She will also quietly present a ready-to-wear collection - although, eschewing the traditional high-octane catwalk, it will be by appointment. But then, she classes her ready-to-wear as “high end” and counters that a client may buy a coat from the couture and team it with ready-to-wear trousers.
As if to illustrate, she slips on a coat she'll be showing tomorrow, in that baby-peach satin, over the top of her crisp blue cotton shirt, black trousers and white trainers. It looks fantastic - haute couture, without any hauteur.
So, what will Jarrar's women look like next season? There's a new delicacy to what she's doing, which actually harks back to her start in lingerie, with duchesse satin bandeaux and delicate pleated silk tulle skirts mounted onto elongated silk faille foundations - a bit like couture Spanx - from breast to hip.
Even pragmatic garments - the sharply-cut outerwear Jarrar has gained a cult reputation for - are executed in icy silk in 18th-century porcelain shades of rose beige and Bleu de Roi. I ask if it's tough to get these kinds of materials, and Jarrar rolls her eyes, exhaling an extended singular syllable: “oui!” She fans out a sheaf of papers, showing an intricate network of pattern pieces. “Comme joaillerie,” she murmurs. “It's very precise.”
Starting in haute couture is, for a fledgling label like Jarrar, very clever. It gets her valuable press attention on a schedule with barely a dozen shows of note. However, Jarrar insists this is “Pas de marketing! Very natural, no strategy... I have experience with pret-a-porter, big groups, and couture. But I needed to understand what is couture, how does it work and who buys it?”
That's something everyone wonders - but, given the diminutive size of her company, Jarrar's ear is closer to the ground than most. “Ready-to-wear sells in Japan and the US,” she reels off immediately. “Couture is American and Middle East. The younger generation,” she says. “They study, they travel, they're open-minded. They're brainy women.”
Smart, in every sense of the word. Just like Jarrar's clothes.