Monday, January 10, 2011

Couture Intrigue

Far from Paris, amid the gilded opulence of an 18th century château, The Polyglot reveals one of the year’s most stunning (and overlooked) couture exhibits This past summer, Paris was awash in shows exploring the beaded heritage of haute couture. Days before the Fall 2010 couture collections Dior unveiled a pop-up exhibit of its couture archives at LVMH headquarters; while a blockbuster show exploring Yves Saint Laurent’s legacy had been attracting crowds to the Petit Palais. Yet the most intriguing exhibit of last summer took place miles away from Paris in a picturesque château.Princess Minnie de Beauvau-Craon, Phillipe Venet and Hubert de Givenchy

Built in 1720, the Château d’Haroué is located in a small village in the region of Larraine, known more for agriculture than fine dressmaking. The home of Princess Minnie de Beauvau-Craon, today it is one of the few remaining châteaus still used as a private residence and has been in the same family for over eight generations. Few visitors have had the opportunity to walk through its gilded rooms; filled to the gills with antiques, art and portraits of ancestors sporting period couture and glittering jewels.
Of French and Bolivian parentage, Beauvau-Craon has been a long time friend and client of couture legends such as Balenciaga, Givenchy and Phillipe Venet. It was this close relationship which pushed the princess to propose the idea for the show to Givenchy and Venet; who also designed Beauvau-Craon’s wedding dress.

Curated by Hubert de Givenchy himself, the couturier was able to open doors to the archives of his namesake house and the foundation Cristobel Balenciaga in Getaria, Spain. Even clients pitched in to help; Bunny Mellon lent a large number of her Balenciagas, while Venet (who shuttered his house in 1996, and has never had a major retrospective of his work) asked his clients to lend pieces as well. The result is a mesmerizing collection of gowns, some of which have never been exhibited in public.

The decision to show the work of Balenciaga, Givenchy and Venet together was not an arbitrary choice, as all three men are connected and form a couture triumvirate that has not been explored in an exhibit up until now. Givenchy first met Venet at Schiaparelli, where they were assistants to the designer. Both men knew Balenciaga while young couture apprentices in Paris. When it came time for Givenchy to set up his own house in 1952, he brought Venet along with him as his right hand. Venet would head the house’s tailoring atelier, and he played a vital role in the success of Givenchy’s house in the 1950’s before going on to establish his own couture business in 1962.

By costume exhibit standards it was a modest enterprise; about 45 pieces in all grouped by designer in three connecting gilded salons. Instead of presenting a retrospective of each couturier’s work, Givenchy cherry picked what he felt were the most alluring creations. Thus ball gowns and evening ensembles dominate the show, which came to life under glittering chandeliers and 18th century portraits. Some of the stunners included Balenciaga’s wedding dress for Queen Fabiola of Belgium, the black cocktail number Givenchy created for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as well as the pink embroidered Givenchy evening ensemble worn by Jacqueline Kennedy during a 1961 state dinner with Charles de Gaulle.

Those who made the trip to the château (more often than not) had the entire exhibit to themselves, with nothing separating the viewer from the exquisite clothes. It is a rare opportunity to view up close the handiwork of couture’s fabled ateliers, amongst them Lesage, Lemarié, Vermont, Goosens and Xavier Lummen. The intricate patchwork of techniques and materials that go into a Lesage embroidered jacket are mindbogeling. While a weighless Balenciaga evening coat came complelty covererd in curled ostrich feathers sewn onto a tulle backing. Lemarié provided the flowered headpeices on the mannequins, while the master French artisan jeweler Stephane Marant created the glitering accessories.

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