Life as the textile expert at a regional history museum

Monday, July 16, 2012

Couture For Sure

Last week I led a walking tour about the history of fashion and retail in downtown Seattle. I spent a lot of it babbling about department stores and John Doyle Bishop, but the highlight of the tour was a visit to Luly Yang, Seattle's own couture house.

"Couture" is a word that gets thrown around a lot today and is usually used improperly. In fact, in my grad school class on fashion myths, my friend Ariele did her whole paper on the subject. Titled "Haute Couture or Not Couture" she explored the real meaning of the term and tried to figure out when it all went wrong (fyi: should you ever have to walk past a Juicy Couture store the proper response is to shudder and avert your eyes).

So when I first heard about Luly Yang I was a little skeptical. Couture? In Seattle? Sure, sure, Luly Yang designs beautiful dresses, but that on its own, doesn't make something couture. In addition to innovative design and high quality technique and materials, couture needs to be custom made for the wearer in an atelier--not churned out of a factory in standard sizes.

During the tour we met an assistant designer who showed us the "couture room." She explained how the garments on display were runway samples that served as inspiration, but that she worked with clients to design something unique. Some come in just for special occasion gowns, but some have their entire wardrobes done--including swimsuits and casual wear. Couture houses of old would do this as well: I remember hearing a story about Valentina making gardening aprons.

At the end of the tour we went down to the sewing room. I can't emphasize enough what a big deal it is that Luly Yang actually has a sewing room on site. As our tour guides talked, a master seamstress was sewing dress pieces together for a fitting that was to take place the next day. She flitted back and forth between a machine (machine sewing is not a couture deal breaker) and a padded dress form. This was actually the part that got me the most excited. In fashion history class I remember seeing a photograph from some couture house--I think it was Dior--where they kept padded torsos for each of their clients so they could always have the right shape to work on. Our tour guides confirmed that they do the same thing--certain dress forms are kept padded to exact shape of their return clients.

I should clarify that in order to be "haute couture" (rather than just "couture") you have to be part of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris. But other than that, I am giving my official fashion historian seal of approval to Luly Yang's use of the word "couture." When the tour was over I just wanted to float home on a cloud of tulle and figure out a way to have all of my clothes made by Luly. (The first step would be to make some more money, so I should probably get going with my plans to create an "i can has cabbage" Amish meme empire.)

Did I mention that Luly Yang has been in business just ten years? Which means that while the historic couture houses in Paris are seeing a shrinking number of clients, Seattle is home to a successful new couture house. So go ahead. Tell me that story again about Seattle style only being about flannel and rain gear.

Wait. Revision to earlier plan: when I have the money to buy something from Luly, my first request will be to have her make me a plaid flannel shirt with the "Luly Yang Couture" label inside. I will then be the owner of the coolest, most ironic clothing item in this history of Seattle fashion.

1 comment: