Luigi Borbone on New Haute Couture: Digital Creation, Female Transgender and Romance
Haute Couture (high-end fashion, Alta Moda), the world of ultimate luxury is reaching out to a broader audience. I’m talking to Luigi Borbone, the high-fashion catwalk gem of Rome, who says he’s writing a new story for the high-end fashion industry. His work, while faithful to the tradition of haute couture, brings up the concept of ‘wearability’ and modernism. According to him, digitalization in the process of creation doesn’t disturb its romance. Hence, is this guarded, jealous market opening for digital labour force?
Marta Nightingale-Styczen: Luigi, being a die-hard advocate of traditional haute couture, you nevertheless managed to modernise this sophisticated handicraft. Have the rigid guidelines of Haute Couture changed?
Luigi Borbone: Definitely. Regarding clients, but also the manner of displaying the collections at fashion shows is different these days. High-end fashion catwalk used to offer clothes appropriate only for princesses and red carpet. For me, the contemporary concept of haute couture also involves ‘wearability’.
M: Does it mean the most luxurious fashion design has given up on its luxury?
L: The pure luxury is about tailoring THE outfit for THE person, using luxurious textiles, meaning those made in Italy, made in Europe, and with the use of handicraft techniques. The contemporary Alta Moda keeps this traditional concept of luxury fashion, yet somehow ‘hides’ it. I mean, it’s a handcrafted, 100% tailored outfit which, nonetheless, can be worn every day, not only on the red carpet.
M: Is such a crafted compromise also possible between today’s omnipresent technology/digitalization and traditional high fashion, or is it a clash?
L: No, on the contrary, digitalization and technology are what the contemporary handicraft should be able to make use of. A wonderful thing about the new haute couture is the possibility to experiment with new fabrics, to search for them, invent them. As you could see at my atelier, we use a kind of sophisticated net with the strings locked together with Swarovski elements, which creates sort of modern-looking lace. Thus, a reunion of handicraft and technology.
M: But is there any border between going tech and traditional Alta Moda? How far can you push the limits and still be considered high fashion designer?
L: High fashion doesn’t know any limits, it’s all about creativity. What’s the point of creating any? In the case of prêt-à-porter [‘ready-to-wear’], yes, but haute couture?
M: So what about the rigid status quo which says that high fashion is a manual creation from start to finish? Is there a new definition for ‘handmade’ as well, like manual data entry counts as handicraft now?
L: (Laughing) Hmmm… The beauty of high fashion is that we still use paper for our designs. Then, the design—initially drawn on a piece of paper—undergoes multiple alterations in the very process of sewing, all done manually. There’s a difference between what images look like on paper and how they actually ‘behave’ against real-life dimensions on a mannequin. This is the path of haute couture, handmade on the level of creation and production, working with small pieces of fabric which are rearranged and combined, all based on the original form. It’s a very slow and long process.
M: Technically speaking, how big is the influence of technology and digitalization on the artistic process itself, the romantic creation? Because romance means a lot for haute couture, right?
L: The influence has been enormous. Even creation – being a romantic process – is triggered by technology. Digitalization brings you ideas much faster, when you hear something out there, watch a film. When you see something beautiful, inspirational, you take a picture of it with your smartphone or tablet. Then you surf the Internet to get more information about that particular thing. Technology is inevitable. The smart part is to know how to make use of digitalization while controlling it with the human mind, with the heart. I think we’re much more fortunate than Christian Dior making his collections seventy years ago.
M: The way you interweave the romantic and digital world seems so natural, symbiotic. But do you see anything romantic in the digitalization itself, including digital workers? After all, you usually don’t even get the chance to meet them personally, and the relationship between the ordering party and the hired seems purely digital as well.
L: What I find romantic is the fact that every digital invention is brought to life by a human being, a genius. So there’s always idealism and the romantic-human factor involved: whatever comes to our mind, comes from the heart. We tend to think of a genius as a purely intellectual quality, but it’s wrong, because every creation begins with a romantic vision. The evolution took place thanks to the interaction between the heart and the mind. Just like technology, everything is born in our unconscious mind and results from feelings and emotions. And even when somebody creates their avatar, there’s still human feeling behind. So they are two parallel worlds existing as lines that are constantly intertwining.
M: Don’t you think that digitalization totally depersonalised communication?
L: To some extent… nonetheless, it might be digitalized – audio or webcam – but it’s still us to ask and answer questions. Maybe on other continents, especially in the business environment, this depersonalization went much further, but here, in Europe, we still have this huge need for direct interaction. Maybe because we don’t take things at face value. When we work with a person, we like to know who this person really is, not only from the professional perspective.
M: Your standing seems so thought-through. How do you see your role in the fashion world among brands which gave away the true exclusiveness to appeal to the general public, e.g. Dior or Chanel?
L: When I started, I started with a dream of creating haute couture which I achieved in 2012. It was gradual and slow growth; I didn’t have any connections in the industry. But at some point, I started to believe I have a mission, a mission to create a new story inside haute couture. Of course, Dior, Chanel and many others left us with a story, but I started to believe I can write a new one, a contemporary version of haute couture. My second mission is to show the world that Rome, though not another Paris, is a leading handicraft centre. I’m not the only one, there are many others, even though I’m seen as the forerunner because I had the courage to manifest the new perspective and elevate myself to the official level. I want to show that Rome is very active regarding creativity and handicraft. The second one derives from the fact that I can see that Rome, as a city, is giving me a lot. I wouldn’t betray Rome for a dream to realise myself in Paris. The opportunities, resources, are all the same. In fact, the French come to Italy to carry out their projects.
M: Missions always come with stories…. Each of your designs is ‘backed up’ by a story. Is there some marketing behind it? For example, the bracelet with the cricket in a cage?
L: Each collection is preceded by meticulous study and myriad inspirations I pick up on the way. For instance, in the case of the cricket, I went for the theme of Orient. Then came a board where we put all the ideas, photos, phases, artists, etc. I also closed myself in a room to watch the film about it. I was chimed by the story of a cricket that locked itself in a cage to stay with the boy. It wasn’t the boy who imprisoned the cricket, but it was the cricket itself. I found it incredibly romantic, the relationship that had grown between the two, so I wanted to transform it into jewellery.
M: Was this story created for marketing purposes?
L: No, I’m not even able to think about marketing. The only way I can relate is in my search for the female icon for the new Alta Moda that could be used beyond catwalks and red carpet. The contemporary icon is a woman who works, travels, a mother, a lover. A transgender, but not in sexual terms—psychological, or social, transgender. In my opinion, a contemporary woman represents the concept of transgender everywhere and in everything. (And I repeat, I’m not referring to sex).
M: You might not like marketing, but marketing loves tradition and vintage, so I guess it should be madly in love with you as a designer… Let’s take the recent Instagram and Facebook trend of capturing vintage photos and sharing them, somehow reviving the past through digitalization. Can the new haute couture relate?
L: First of all, our work is based on vintage. Alta Moda is inevitably defined by previous creations which, throughout the history, wrote the guidelines for haute couture. But there isn’t anything more beautiful than being able to touch genuine old photographs, just like nothing compares to genuine period clothes or paintings. Photography makes you dream, but even these days, with the 4D illusion that creates the sensation of actually being right there, our senses are stimulated by live interaction. Even though the virtual can amazingly resemble the real, like the incredible hologram of Kate Moss during Alexander McQueen’s fashion show—it was a wow, but nevertheless, it was always just an illusion. Seeing Kate Moss in real life is a completely different thing— you could touch her, she is real, alive, exists.
M: Seems like images – the core marketing tool – is not Alta Moda’s favourite…
L: The same with a fashion show: even if everything is filmed and uploaded on the website, the emotions are completely different than when a person is physically present at the fashion show. Illumination, colours, textures of clothes, the particular properties of textiles, atmosphere – these are the things that can’t be rendered faithfully. The digital representation will always distort the reality. Also, all images are retouched myriad times, so maximally exaggerated, far from reality. Instead, the reality shows us defects that can actually be beautiful.
M: So after all, what is the headroom for digitalization and technology in high-end fashion?
L: ‘Yes’ to digitalization and machines, as long as they’re used for a good cause, not for distorting the reality. As you know fashion designers are being constantly accused of creating images that cause anorexia. First of all, the models we work with come mostly from Eastern Europe where slenderness belongs to natural physical characteristics, contrary to our mediterranean women whose bosoms are fuller and hips are broader. Secondly, these images are made to create the market; they’re retouched to a great extent, which is openly admitted.
M: Looks like there’s some potential for Digital Nomads after all.
L: Haute Couture requires great professionalism and experience applied over a period of time of time. However, if I need a website, application, and a given person will impress me, presents me with a satisfying project, then I don’t mind remote cooperation.
M: And in the very high fashion design…?
L: I can’t even imagine that because the process of designing a collection is like living together, it’s a real-time teamwork. We sit around the table and exchange ideas, all of us. Real-time, personalised communication is critical… It’d be tough for me to give part of my work away to a person who I don’t know anything about. The other thing is that our profession is characterised by jealousy. So even though we’re very open, at the same time, we’re very closed. And from my experience, working with other designers as well, the real charm of our profession lies in the necessity to stay with the people day by day.
M: Is it really a ‘necessity’? Or just a preference?
L: Talking my own experience, when you cooperate with other fashion houses, they always want you to be there because new ideas come unexpectedly, dynamic changes are our bread and butter. You get a call, and you need to show up straightaway. In the case of haute couture, in the case of handicraft, supervising and taking part real-time in all the phases gives you satisfaction, seeing your design being brought to life step by step. And then, a majority of our clients choose us because they like our lifestyle, our workstyle, the quality and the stories we tell on catwalks. In Europe, we pay a lot of attention to the manner in which products are made. In the West, people are more fascinated by the final image itself.
M: Do you think Digital Nomads should rather opt for big fashion houses, then?
Digitalization is commonly applied in great fashion houses, especially in the US. American brands often outsource their collections to Italy and use webcams to supervise the ongoing work. Undoubtedly, it’s a brilliant thing to do. What I want to say is that I can imagine it could work. Obviously, it’s much cheaper for an American prêt-à-porter designer to supervise the production via webcam than to travel to Italy and do it personally, because in the case of the off-the-rack fashion there is a set budget, all expenses are paramount since they get calculated into the price of clothes.
M: To sum up, an acceptable co-worker in haute couture designer would be…
L: Personally, I couldn’t entrust somebody I don’t know with even a piece of my work. I like to know what the person is like, how they reached that point of their life and career, etc. I need the human contact. It takes a lot to trust the people that you let come close to your collections, and it’s very difficult to let them go afterwards. Taking this away would turn our creation into pure business.
M: Luigi, this new perspective is simply beautiful! Truly romantic, and surprisingly harmonious, faithful to the roots, and yet fits our times correctly. Thank you very much for your precious time.
L: Thank you for yours.
Facebook: Maison Luigi Borbone
Off-the-record: While chatting after the interview, it turned out Luigi is… vegan! With a motivational story worth a share. He had to change his diet for health reasons, and so he went for the vegan option. Unfortunately, the transition is very harsh on him, and he ends up at the doctor who tells him he has to give it up. Instead, Luigi decides to consult a naturalist who advises him to give it a month more, explaining that his symptoms result from detoxification and when his body gets clean, he’ll feel a difference. And so he does. He says he’s been feeling so good and well since his symptoms went away that he’s not going to taste meat ever again.Share this: