If only François Lesage had been able to see – and touch – the clothes this season.
For the uninitiated, Monsieur Lesage was the eminence grise of the embroidery world until he died last December at the age of 82. The company that bears his family name has worked with fashion's finest – Elsa Schiaparelli, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Cristobal Balenciaga – since the mid-1920s. In 2002, Chanel acquired Maison Lesage, in part to help preserve the dying art of hand embroidery.
When Lesage received an honourary distinction as Maître d'Art from the Ministry of Culture just a week before his death, culture minister Frédéric Mitterand said, "I cannot imagine fashion without embroidery, embroidery without Monsieur Lesage."
Well, there's no need to imagine. As singular as Lesage was, the art of embroidery, of fabric manipulation and of all manner of other sartorial embellishment are, thankfully, not only vibrantly alive in the realm of ready-to-wear, but evolving and appearing to stunning effect.
From Louis Vuitton's crystal-studded metallic brocade and Christopher Kane's beading atop chainmail to the geometric plastic and rhinestone appliqués from Prada and bijoux clusters bursting off fabric at Dior, fall 2012 is awash with a flood of innovative ornamentation guaranteed to lend extra dazzle to galas, to cocktail parties and, indeed, to the red-carpet scene everywhere from Hollywood to Toronto this season. (Witness Canadian starlet Sarah Gadon in Globe Style's ode to embellishment and read on for her star turn, among other roles, in Brandon Cronenberg's Antiviral, part of the Special Presentations Programme at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, which kicked off on Thursday.)
"I think people are becoming bored with the materials that are out there," says Logan Horne, a fashion stylist who flits between New York and Los Angeles and is ever-present at the runway shows.
"That's why young designers are really pushing boundaries as far as fabrications; they're using things that people wouldn't associate with ready-to-wear or even with clothing in general."
Certainly some of these flourishes can read as wacky (if wonderfully so). Midway through Louis Vuitton's show last March – when a fully functioning steam-powered train chugged into a tent in a courtyard of the Louvre – sturdy coat dresses appeared to be layered in panels of compact discs. (Actually, they were hologram pieces interspersed with beading, all layered atop luxe tweed.) And not too long ago, the hip Paris shop Colette dedicated one of its two windows to Kane's fall collection. Of the five mannequins on display, two had been outfitted in dresses covered in a nouveau floral motif, its boondoggle-like beading adding even more dimension to the slinky chainmail backdrop.
Meanwhile, stop into any Prada boutique – or store that carries the line – and pay close attention to how the decorative flourishes directly mimic the fabric patterns. They line collars and hemlines, run down the sides of trousers and occasionally appear haphazardly like glamorous little growths.
All of which underscores the sentiment expressed by Nicholas Mellamphy, vice president and buying director at The Room in Toronto: "This is not your mother's embellishment." He singles out Kane's approach to surface detail as "raising the bar" for other designers.
Indeed, the bar has been raised to such a point that it's increasingly difficult to discern where ready-to-wear ends and couture begins. As more and more haute-couture houses tone down the extravagance in favour of stealth luxe, several designer lines are moving into an as-yet-undefined middle ground where intricate, time-intensive technique acts as a preemptive strike against highstreet replication.
Sharon Graubard, senior vice president of fashion direction at the trend-forecasting agency Stylesight, says high-end retailers are eager to carry and encourage such extravagance. "Because it's so personal and so hand-done, I think it offers an emotional draw in a way that has a lot of potential commercially."
Graubard notes that this wave of ornamentation is a conscious departure from the now-gauche "bling" that lost its lustre when the economy took a nosedive in 2008. She goes so far as to define this season's decoration as "intellectual."
Whatever has precipitated it, the fact that uncertainty is still festering four years later hasn't dissuaded designers from introducing more daring statements. In some cases, it might even be considered a catalyst.
At the very least, we have moved beyond craving the classics.
"As the silhouette become more minimal, it's the surface that gives the garment its character," Graubard says. "It's not a nineties minimalism; it's detailed minimalism," she adds, citing early modernist Annie Albers, who used thin metal washers and grosgrain ribbon to create necklaces, as a progenitor of today's chic-craft movement For his part, Mellamphy has no qualms about the word "glitz" (how else to describe Balmain's obsession with pearls, after all?), but he does suggest that the underlying objective is to show off "artisanal" technique.
In the past, the kind of pieces that are prominent this season might have been conceived as runway ego projects, never making it to production and landing in the closets of Daphne Guinness or Anna Dello Russo. But today, there is demand – even if limited – for such showy works. For some women, the aim is to collect, not to wear.
Perhaps this is because there's an implicit acknowledgment that such garments aren't created for everyday use. "These materials are not made to withstand so much wear and tear and I think people who buy them look at them that way," Horne says.
In other words, it's a question of squaring the legacy of Lesage with the logistics of dry cleaning. Asked how to handle all those bits on the Kane dresses, Mellamphy laughs and replies, "I need to look at the care tag and get back to you."
Sarah Gadon: A star is adorned
The experiences of acting in front of a camera and posing in front of a camera can feel very different – at least to Sarah Gadon, whose latest film, Antiviral , has its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday.
"I'm not used to modelling and the static range of motion," says the Toronto-based actor, who nonetheless turned out to be a natural.
Now that Gadon is doing more fashion shoots – including one for this month's issue of Elle Canada – she has started inventing characters or narratives, she says, as the photographers click away. "It's always more fun when I can move and interact and create an idea; when I try to attach feeling, it starts to feel more comfortable."
In her films, she has been cast by the acclaimed Canadian director David Cronenberg as the wives of troubled men (first as Emily Jung in A DangerousMethod and then as the sleek, imperturbable spouse of the unravelling tycoon played by Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis) and by Cronenberg's son Brandon as a starlet in Antiviral , which takes place in a dystopic world where celebrity obsession results in the voluntary transmission of disease.
In real life, though, things are decidedly less macabre:
Gadon talks of continuing her cinema studies at the University Toronto, of hosting small dinner parties at her new apartment and of shopping at The Room.
Singling out the McQ dress from our shoot as the type of "transitional" piece she could envision in her wardrobe, the actress expresses a levelheaded love of fashion – particularly fall layering.
"The sweaters, scarves and coats – maybe it's the Canadian in me," she says. "I also love fall because it signals a return to school and to work."
For the rest of this week, though, glamour comes first.