Cover Style Area NYC made- to-order gown (Image: Justin French)

From Area NYC to SR Studio LA and Yuima Nakazato, a new class of couturiers are breathing life into the craft

Challenging the status quo, a new class of couturiers is breathing life into the historic craft with a common mission to diversify and democratise. 

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Area NYC

Last year, fashion label Area sent a model down the runway wearing a miniature folding chair, bedazzled in crystals and strapped to her body like a purse, and the internet went mad. “It was so polarising,” says Piotrek Panszczyk, co-founder and creative director of the New York City-based indie brand that has quickly become fashion’s latest cause célèbre. Some people were outraged, “but they were also mildly entertained and felt the need to comment”, he says. The chair purse made its intended mark, though, and recently resurfaced on Instagram as part of the infamous Bernie Sanders Chair Meme.

In January, the young founders of Area—Panszczyk, who is Polish, and Beckett Fogg, his American partner—created a similarly divisive moment, this time with the introduction of their first couture collection. Or at least, it was sort of their first couture collection, as the duo’s presentation was not listed on the official calendar of shows, nor were they even in Paris, where they normally take place. Not long ago, such a move would have been dismissed as an example of an upstart’s impertinence, but fashion is currently deep in the throes of a state of disruption that has broken down barriers of entry across all of its channels of design and distribution—now including, it would seem, couture.

Many editors, in fact, welcomed Area’s fresh, audacious take on the esteemed craft, while others, not surprisingly, dismissed it as anything but. While controversy wasn’t their intention, the designers relished the conversation that they sparked. “It was important for us to expand on the idea of what couture could mean,” says Fogg, who manages the business side of Area but continues to contribute to the designs. “We wanted to show that it doesn’t have to be done in a specific place by a specific person for a specific person.”

The duo founded Area on this very idea of vagueness. They deliberately avoided using their names in the branding and wanted to reference an ambiguous geolocation, but most symbolically, they liked the ambivalent responses people have to their signature embellishment—crystal. “We naturally gravitated towards it because it can be seen as high or low, a fake diamond or super-luxurious, depending on how people interpret it,” says Fogg. “We also love the timelessness of it, and how it’s modular, like a piece of Lego that you can build on,” adds Panszczyk, who is coincidentally toying with a string of crystal beads as he speaks from Area NYC’s Canal Street studio in Manhattan.

While their label’s nondescript name makes even a Google search unlikely to produce much relevant information, you’ve likely seen their custom-made, crystal-encrusted creations on Michelle Obama and Alicia Keys. Calling those designs “couture” was the designers’ way of expanding from the off-the-rack ready-to-wear collections they started in 2014 into their own, personalised category. “We want to give our clients that ultimate trophy, like a Birkin bag or diamond necklace; to us it’s that kind of last piece of pride,” says Panszczyk. When asked whether the pandemic had reduced demand for high-octane dressing, Panszczyk shakes his head. “Actually, while the stores are saying everyone wants jersey and track pants, the things that are selling from us are these core, fantasy pieces that speak to our clients emotionally, like they’re preparing themselves for a renaissance.”

After being nominated last year for the prestigious LVMH Prize, which recognises emerging talent from around the world, the duo was approached by the governing body of couture, the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, to potentially show as a guest during the biannual, week-long event where old French houses typically parade examples of their highest craftsmanship. When the onset of the pandemic foiled their plans, however, that didn’t stop the designers from conceiving the collection anyway and presenting “calendar-adjacent”, as they called it, sort of the equivalent of off-Broadway, which certainly fits the pattern of the designers, who have never aspired to the establishment’s approval.

“We were honoured that they even acknowledged us, but we’d already started to break away from this antiquated system because we felt limited by the current framework,” says Panszczyk. Forgoing traditional seasons, Area had shifted to a see-now-buy-now model during lockdown last year. “There’s also something liberating about knowing you can do something you really want to without waiting for approval.”

And we haven’t even mentioned the clothes. For their inaugural collection, the designers wanted to go beyond the traditional definition of couture to consider how “ancient civilisations and tribes from northern China to South Africa had their own way of body adornment, informed by their values and religion,” says Panszczyk.

Some pieces of the collection—only 14 looks in total—featured tubular forms reminiscent of Mayan drawings, or perhaps swirling exoskeletons, wrapped in thousands of Swarovski crystals in an ombré pattern. In person, they are surprisingly soft to the touch. “It was such a challenge to figure out how to make the padding soft, because usually dense embroidery becomes very solid, like stone,” says Panszczyk. As a solution, hand- moulded foam was wrapped with crystals, but that left the problem of the crystals fanning out and leaving gaps along the curves. Adds Fogg: “There was so much math involved. Sometimes you can’t even know how the end product will look because of all the technical problems you have to solve.”

But the most time-consuming pieces were a trio of towering accordion dresses with pleats so precise, they look like silk-covered steps. “It didn’t help that we decided to slash these huge paniers down the middle, so structurally it’s like taking a chunk out of a building and trying to make it not fall over,” says Fogg, who grew up in Kentucky and studied architecture before earning her master’s degree in fashion at Parsons, where she and Panszczyk met as students.

Panszczyk grew up in Poland and the Netherlands, and his attitude towards craft and fashion was greatly influenced by his mother, who, without access to western fashion during the four decades when Poland was under Communist rule, had to learn to make everything for herself. “My upbringing was why I was never really afraid of the ‘authorities’ in fashion,” he says. “Working for the last eight years, I saw how political the industry can be, and how the whole world has been dancing around this one idea of beauty and success, and I thought, ‘Why? We can change that.’”

The images and video that accompanied the collection’s release also made headlines for their body-positive message, starring Dutch model Yasmin Wijnaldum and breakout plus-sized model Precious Lee. “It was important for us to showcase the collection on different bodies because couture at its core means the clothes are custom-fitted, no matter the shape of the body,” says Panszczyk. “People from different nationalities and age groups look different, and that’s a good thing.”

Area’s designs have recently flown off the racks in Asia. In China, a series of red-carpet appearances by Area-dressed celebrities have spurred mass searches on Taobao for their pieces, while in South Korea, their crystal butterfly bralette completely sold out after Lisa, of Blackpink fame, wore it in a music video. Panszczyk and Fogg have their sights set on opening offices in Asia this year, but in the meantime, they’re also working on their next couture collection—although they’re not rushing to make the fall couture season in June.

“The original haute couture that we loved by Cristobal Balenciaga, Roberto Capucci and Yves Saint Laurent really pushed the boundaries of what shape, embellishment and refinement were, and I feel now people are now stuck in a box,” says Panszczyk. “This young wave, we’re not here to think we can skip the line or call ourselves better; we just ask that they let us try, and make our own mistakes and someday we’ll get there.”

Adds Fogg: “We can love and respect something and still push it forward.”

Sr Studio La Ca

Contemporary American artist Sterling Ruby debuted his fashion line SR Studio LA in June 2019 during Pitti Uomo in Florence. While the collection drew rave reviews from critics and left fans wanting more, Ruby, who is more widely known for his multimedia artworks ranging from sculptures to ceramics, did not release another fashion collection for almost two years, until he was invited to show during Paris Couture Fashion Week in January.

“My first exposure to making was through craft, not art,” says the California-based artist. “This idea of craft is something that’s universal—it levels hierarchies of knowledge, and there can be a broader spectrum of people gravitating towards it and appreciating it for different reasons, but not necessarily needing a heavy academic background to understand it.”

The collection, like his artwork, is a celebration but also a critique of the American experience, and informed partly by Ruby’s upbringing on a farm in New Freedom, a small town in Pennsylvania. Exaggerated bonnets in his collection, called Apparitions, were inspired by his Amish or Mennonite neighbours. Paint splatter and tie-dye remain key patterns for Ruby, who applied them to silk chiffon dresses and hand-stitched denim coats. Heat-pressed images of hot rods and mechanical hearts were intended to create an almost menacing undertone. The settings seen in a video he created for the collection, a paintball course and a desolate cemetery, evoked a post-apocalyptic scene.

One of the most physically impressive pieces is a shaggy explosion of yarn that makes up a red-white-and-blue checked look. Loose pieces of yarn can also be found dangling off the accessories, a deliberate reminder that the pieces are handmade.

“I know so many different people who really can’t understand how a garment should be perceived as high culture,” Ruby says. “For me, that’s the interesting part about this, to try and figure out how fashion works as a continuation of an endeavour, not limited to categorical distinctions.”

Yuima Nakazato

Japanese designer Yuima Nakazato has been lauded for marrying technology with fashion since he launched his eponymous label in 2009, but now he’s most known for bringing his technical prowess to couture. “I strongly believe we can use technology to expand the reach of couture, which is historically reserved for a limited few, so that many people can enjoy it,” says Nakazato, who is only the second Japanese designer to be invited by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode to present on the official calendar (the first being Hanae Mori).

This season, Nakazato enlisted Lauren Wasser, a 24-year-old model with golden prosthetic legs, to be his muse and heroine. “We chose Lauren Wasser because she stands for individuality and diversity, which for me is the true nature of couture,” he says of Wasser, whose legs were amputated as a result of toxic shock syndrome. “And the way she overcame adversity in her life represents my idea of transformation and regeneration.”

Nakazato’s mesmerising, seemingly gravity-defying designs of swirling, rainbow knits are made using Brewed Protein, a new synthetic material produced by the same microbial fermentation process used to make beer. Brewed Protein contracts when it touches water, inspiring Nakazato to create a technique to control precisely how much it shrinks, which he calls “biosmocking”. This “enables us to create super- complicated 3D fabrics from a rectangular fabric without producing any waste”, says Nakazato, who graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. This concept was derived from traditional Japanese kimonos, in which a simple, rectangular shape can be manipulated without cutting.

“I think for Asian designers, haute couture isn’t ingrained in our culture as it is in the West, so it’s rather a modern concept than it is tradition,” he says. “As a result, I think I was never scared to approach the subject with a more flexible angle, as a way of thinking about the future.”

Nakazato’s innovations have included a clasp system that eliminates the need for a needle and thread, and a project with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to create fabrics that can endure extreme conditions in space. During the pandemic, Nakazato also launched Face to Face, an online made-to-order project that allows clients to ship a white T-shirt to his Tokyo atelier, where he then redesigns the shirt based on the person’s interests and personality, and returns it as a completely new garment.

“The aim is to extend the life of people’s existing clothes by attaching it to the owners’ memory of those clothes,” he says. “I believe couture is the future of fashion because it is the celebration of individuality. I imagine in the near future, made-to-measure clothes will be as common as going to the hairdresser.”

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