Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Designer in Focus: Malan Breton Takes the Stage

In London, one of Malan Breton's romantic confections that combines cascading Belle Epoque tulle skirts with leather panels and a silk, tailored jacket. Cover picture and all photographs for DAM by Georgie Manion
Malan Breton is a multi-tasking fashion designer with an eclectic career encompassing acting, singing, directing and modelling ~ he even appeared in the first Zoolander film. We take a look at his most recent fashion show in London, before Covid-19 struck, and his new musical single that has just been released. Story by Jeanne-Marie Cilento. Reporting and photography by Georgie Manion 

Designer Malan Breton in London
at the finale of the AW20 show
AT the close of his atmospheric autumn/winter 2020 show at London Fashion Week earlier this year, Malan Breton's protean talents were on display. The designer previewed his new music single Something Stupid, a soulful rendition of the Frank Sinatra classic that has recently been released.

The song has a soaring string arrangement that enhances the chorus lyrics that Breton says have a touching note of truth, when feelings are revealed too soon: "And then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like I love you." The designer sang the song with Tokyo-born/New York-based musician Juri Jinnai of the Japanese art band, Emergency Tiara.

Breton's multifaceted career began as a ballet dancer in Taipei before he went to New York to work as a model and actor. He started out in the fashion industry as a stylist, working with Kylie Minogue, Celine Dion and Linda Evangelista before becoming a fashion designer and also trying his hand at directing films. The designer says he loves Hollywood musicals and when he designs clothes he imagines different characters wearing his creations in a movie.

In America, Breton is well-known because of his television career, with appearances on Project Runway, America's Next Top Model and The Malan Show ~ a six-part series following his work as an independent designer ~ and as a fashion commentator on programmes including NBC’s The Today Show and CBS' This Morning. Breton won Best Short Documentary award at the New York City International Film Festival (NYCIFF) for his directorial debut on the biographical fashion film, ​Malan Breton - A Journey to Taiwan​.

Malan Breton started out in the fashion industry as a stylist, working with Kylie Minogue, Celine Dion and Linda Evangelista 

Pink ruffled tulle gown with tailored
leather jacket in London
Breton was born in Taiwan and grew up there, but  it was his relocation to New York in the Nineties that launched his career. He modelled at New York Fashion Week after being scouted for the Versus Versace show in 1996 and also worked as a dancer with Missy Elliot, Paula Abdul and Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs. The designer later honed his signature fine tailoring with bespoke menswear, working with Savile Row's Turnbull & Asser. He launched his own label in 2005.

Today, Malan Breton has dressed a long list of clients from Lorde, Ariana Grande and Scarlett Johansson to Michael Bublé, Daniel Craig and the Prince of Wales, as well as designing costumes for stage and screen. Now he lives and works between New York and London, based on Fifth Avenue and in Marylebone.

He has strengthened his ties to Britain with his appointment by the Parliamentary Society for Arts, Fashion and Sports as a fashion and arts ambassador in 2019. Breton was also invited by the Parliamentary Society to present a collection of fashion at the 84th birthday celebration of HRH Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent in London last November.

After Malan Breton created his independent womenswear fashion label, Breton went on to design menswear collections and branched out to accessories, fragrances, cosmetics and bridalwear, stocked in both department stores and boutiques. Breton has also expanded his reach by forming design partnerships with companies and institutions ranging from Lalique, the Smithsonian Museum and the New York City Ballet to Pepsi, Nintendo and MTV.

Breton was born in Taiwan and grew up there, but it was his relocation to New York in the Nineties that launched his career

Breton's gown inspired by the Firebird
Breton's most recent collection, shown in London before the outbreak of Covid-19, embodies his glamourous and romantic aesthetic with tulle ball gowns worn with leather jackets and shimmering sequined dresses with crystal fringing. Called the Rise of the Phoenix, the collection was shown under the soaring beams of St Georges Church in Holborn, enhancing the collection's sense of atmospheric romanticism.

Breton says the theme of the show was inspired by Diaghilev's Firebird ballet and represents rebirth and metamorphosis. The original ballet of The Firebird was first performed in 1910 by Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris, with innovative costumes by designer Léon Bakst. The production was a collaboration between Diaghilev, composer Igor Stravinsky and choreographer Michel Fokine. The scenario, by Alexandre Benois, amalgamated Russian fairytales to bring together the magical Firebird with the wicked magician Kostchei.

Breton's collection was presented in three segments following the sequence of the Firebird ballet, with voluminous tulle and faux furs at the start, followed by gowns glimmering with Swarovski crystals and shimmering fabrics like the embers of a fire. Brilliant red silks contrasted with black brocades, fuschia feathers and silvery sheaths and gave a sense of wearable theatricality.

The theme of Breton's latest fashion show was inspired by Diaghilev's Firebird ballet and represents rebirth and metamorphosis

Shimmering and sleek, silver gown with long
 fringes that move with every step
The designer brings his experience in theatre and television to his fashion shows, creating dramatic and creative performances that often include dancers and singers. At his New York City fashion shows he has had performers from the The Royal Ballet, NYC Ballet, the Chelsea Symphony and the Juilliard School on his runway.

This season in London, all you could hear, sitting in the darkness of St Georges Church, was the soft clicking of steps. The anticipation of the audience grew as the sounds of rustling dresses came closer and finally the first model appeared on the catwalk as the crowd seemed to draw breath as one.

The collection's has a mix of extravagant gowns and sleek suits in vivid colours from pretty pinks to bold reds and the signature Breton blue. The pieces showed Breton’s technical ability as a tailor and his capacity to create diverse silhouettes that combine the artistic ethos of couture with ready-to-wear.

The power suits and flowing gowns were counterpoints to each other. The inclusion of some menswear pieces such as jackets with wide, curving lapels in suede combined with pin-stripes made a strong contrast to the fluidity of the evening wear. A long, beaded silvery gown, with one shoulder bare, moved gracefully as the model walked and the long fringes shimmied out with each footstep. The sleek fall of the dress and its simplicity made it one of the standout pieces in the AW20 show.

The designer brings his experience as a performer to his dramatic fashion shows that often include dancers and singers

Blue, checked trouser suit with a half-caped coat
with satin waist coat 
Another highlight of the collection was a brilliant blue, checked trouser suit with a half-caped coat matching a satin waistcoat and wide-legged pants that could almost have been a long skirt. This looked both contemporary and retro at the same time, like what a female Sherlock Holmes would wear today.

Another trouser suit was created from an eye-catching combination of gleaming, grey satin silk finished with pink suede piping, and faux fur lapels and cuffs. Breton's designs straddle the theatrical and the wearable which has made his creations sought after for sauntering the red carpet.

Breton says that sustainability has been at the heart of his brand since his first collection. This season, he integrated upcycled fabrics and paillettes made of recycled plastics into his designs. He uses these materials to encourage sustainability in the fashion industry. He believes by repurposing materials he is also giving a new life to what would have been scraps and turning them into something beautiful.

Despite his packed diary, or perhaps because of it, Breton is very well organised and plans his fashion collections several seasons in advance. The upcoming shows will build on his sustainable fashion vision, and further explore the use of recycled materials and natural ways of colouring fabrics.

Tap photographs to see fullscreen highlights of Malan Breton's AW20 show in London

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Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Guo Pei's Himalayan Odyssey in Paris

Couturier Guo Pei takes her bow in Paris at the finale of her spectacular SS20 show. Cover picture backstage and all photography by Elli Ioannou for DAM
As the July haute couture shows in Paris are cancelled due to Covid-19, we interview couturier Guo Pei and take an exclusive look backstage at one of the highlights of the Spring/Summer 2020 season: her snowy show inspired by the Himalayas. In the past five years, the designer has had a meteoric rise on the international stage that began with Rihanna's Met Ball gown and has included major museum exhibitions plus a documentary film. Story by Jeanne-Marie Cilento. Photographs by Elli Ioannou 

Richly embroidered in gold, Buddhist Thangkas
depicted on one of Guo Pei's
creations in Paris.
IN PERSON, Guo Pei is engaging and lively, her long, black hair swinging and emotions flitting across her expressive face as she talks about her work in a soft and melodious Mandarin. She exudes determination yet melds this with fey and dreamy descriptions of her designs as poetry.

Guo Pei's sculptural gowns, undulating shoes and towering headdresses represent her struggle to express her ideas through the medium of fashion. She is not willing to allow limitations of textiles, techniques or the human body stop her from bringing her creative vision to life.

"Haute couture is my favourite form of fashion," Guo Pei explains. "It is not made for commercial gain, but more for a kind of inner quest, a satisfaction of our spiritual being. It is not like building a brand and making commercial designs.

"I think the pursuit of humankind gradually evolves from the practical to the spiritual realm. When people talk about haute couture, it’s not about the form but a kind of inner spirit. This passion comes from being able to manifest yourself, to express yourself. "

Her most recent show, the Spring/Summer 2020 Himalaya collection, was held on a cold Parisian evening in late January at the Palais de Tokyo. Guo Pei created a snowy ambience amid the phalanx of tall columns lining the contemporary space. The couturier showed 22 looks that explored her ideas about the influence of the primitive on civilization.

Guo Pei's sculptural gowns, undulating shoes and towering headdresses represent her struggle to express her ideas through the medium of fashion

The design of the show captured the snowy beauty
and austerity of the Himalayas
Although, the collection was inspired by the Himalayas, the designer has never been there and saw it as a symbolic place full of mystery to explore in her imagination. "I like how the height of the Himalayas, the connection to the sky, the peaks all seem to overlook the world," she explains.

"And I like the whiteness; a holy white that fuses mountain pinnacles to the sky; the white snowflakes floating lightly, the white mountain peaks standing steep and lonely. A brilliant white that is so pure it is like the soul and spirit. "

Guo Pei was drawn to the sacred designs on traditional Thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist depictions of  deities and mandalas) which she had embroidered onto antique fabrics, including the buddhas of the three realms and the mysteries of the circles of life, all richly evoked in gold on brocade and embellished with gemstones.

"I am inspired by the steepness, solitude and the icy cold of the Himalayas," says Guo Pei. "They are like a gloriously divine image for me. For thousands of years, the place has symbolized the road to truth, the residence of the gods, the temple of the soul. I like the sense of stillness and purity. "

"I like the white snowflakes floating lightly, white peaks standing steep and lonely. A brilliant white that is so pure it is like the soul and spirit."

The Snow Lotus in all its glory,
created from chiffon, feathers and organza.
Artisans working at Guo Pei's ateliers in Beijing embroidered the vivid religious patterns from Thangkas with both gold and silver threads. Using her in-depth knowledge of colors and fabrics, Guo Pei integrated the embroidery and fabric to show her interpretation of Tibetan art.

Also the layered, flowing silhouettes of the collection are inspired by traditional Tibetan designs including voluminous sleeves and dropped waists that reflect the freedom of movement of the nomads living at the foot of the Himalayas. Brilliant green and gold embroidered capes provided a dramatic contrast to the all-white feathered skirts and shoes.

"The Snow Lotus stands above the icy ground and is an important motif in this collection," Guo Pei says. "Growing far above the snowline, this rare breed of flower remains uncontaminated and for me represents the untainted soul.

"For the collection, I used feathers, chiffon and organza to create the graceful, translucent texture of snow lotuses. The gowns' necklines, cuffs and skirts mirror the elegant outline of this exquisite flower." Guo Pei used crystals and pearls layered in clusters to create the flower's stamen. Pleating and weaving techniques by artisans were used to create snow in different states: melted, powder soft or crystallized into ice.

One of the standout features of the Himalaya collection is the use of antique gold brocades from China and Japanese Obi fabrics. Guo Pei decided to use the reverse side of these textiles, creating contrasting intertwined yarns as a metaphor for different civilizations and cultures.

"The Snow Lotus stands tall above the icy ground and is an important motif in this collection"

Silk kimono obis were sewn together on their
reverse side, symbolizing the convergence
of different cultures.
Hundreds of antique Japanese kimono belts were cut into small pieces and put together to create abstract patterns in different colors and textures. "Sewing together the various fabrics symbolizes the convergence of different civilizations and cultures, weaving into each other like history through the centuries," says Guo Pei.

Guo Pei has a love for antique textiles, which she collects and often reworks in her collections. She sourced rare obi fabrics from Japan: "We transformed hundreds of silk kimono belts by cutting them into squares and reassembling them on their reverse side, exposing the yarn in an amazing, beautifully nuanced fringed texture."

Guo Pei started her career when fashion was at its very infancy in China but worked her way to the heart of European couture as the first Chinese designer to be invited to become a guest member of Paris' Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.

The dramatic, yellow caped concoction that Rihanna wore to New York's Met ball in 2015 brought her to the attention of the world, beyond the rarefied circle of high fashion. Guo Pei's work stands out each season in Paris as her collections are all imbued with a poetic vision that is inspired by ideas, aesthetics, philosophy and history.  "If we can turn designing clothes into a representation of our times, of abundant emotions and of love, so that they become a spiritual sustenance, I think that is really the ultimate pursuit," she says.

There is a superlative intricacy to her designs and a virtuosity that even exceeds the expectations of Parisian haute couture. While big brands are making their couture collections more wearable, Guo Pei's are all about creating a sense of mystery beyond the mundane concerns of quotidian life or ready-to-wear fashion. 

"Sewing together antique fabrics symbolizes the convergence of different civilizations and cultures, weaving into each other like history through the centuries" 

An evocative and tactile gown
capturing the fluffy iciness of snow.
Guo Pei started her career as the only designer making high fashion clothes in China when it was against Communist ideology and yet now she has a large atelier in Beijing with teams of artisans who do the extraordinary hand work her gowns demand, some taking years to finish.

Her creations are brought to life directly from her imagination and she can allow her collections to take flights of fancy knowing that the skills of her team can bring them to fruition She sees her couture designs in terms of artworks rather than utilitarian pieces to wear.

"I think when creating art, in order to put your love and emotion into your work, you really need to have a devoted attitude," the designer says. "So I really hope my work can influence people, can influence this world. The recognition I have today, I think it is more importantly due to my work.

"In society now, a lot of designers and artists work on their personal branding and deliberately market themselves, but I think all of this must be founded on your work. To be honest, I myself am not very good at networking, and personally I feel that I’m not very good at facing society in those terms.

"A designer or an artist can maintain their influence for a long time based on their work, not based on their personal branding. I enjoy focusing on my creations and they carry with them genuine emotion, love and something that is very real, and I believe people are attracted to these qualities."

"Art is not a means of pursuing self-interests, it is about sharing, about disseminating a kind of influence amongst human beings"

Guo Pei' Buddhist 3D motifs were created
with the extraordinary virtuosity of
the embroiderers in her ateliers.
The artisanal work and skill that goes into the gowns are unusual even in the world of couture, some of the sequinning can take months to complete. Guo Pei's palette of glistening colours often includes deep blues, electric reds and shimmering silver and gold ~ the colour she believes represents the soul. 

Guo Pei was born in Beijing and studied fashion there, graduating in 1986. Three years later, she had become a senior designer at one of city's independently owned clothing companies, leaving in 1997 to set up her own fashion brand with her husband, textile magnate Jack Tsao.

Guo Pei's designs are always influenced by designs from the ancient Chinese imperial court and many luxurious pieces in her collection are made using valuable silks.

"Haute couture sits at the tip of the pyramid and faces a very limited audience ~ it is more about leaving behind certain memories for the world, whereas ready-to-wear will ultimately enter into our everyday lives," says the designer.

"But I don’t really want to make the kind of very industrialised fashion that people often have to wear these days. I hope that every single item I create, regardless of whether it is haute couture or ready-to-wear, will accompany you for a long time in your life, instead of being discarded along with the passage of time.

"Perhaps many people would consider everything I have done so far as having reached a certain level of success, but to me it is only just a beginning," Guo Pei says. "What’s important is that the future is built on your foundations. I think my last 30 years have helped me build a very solid foundation, but I am only just standing on the starting line today. So I believe there will still be another 30 years for me going forward, and I hope my work will really become accepted by more and more people. If one day, my work could be remembered like that of Dior or Chanel, I think it would be a life very well lived."

Highlights of Guo Pei's SS20 collection in Paris plus exclusive pictures backstage 

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