In the post-pandemic world, men’s couture is increasingly becoming de rigueur. Undying self-expression, razor-sharp tailoring, and pure sustainability call out to clients far and wide.
For most of the fashion world, men’s couture may be considered unchartered territory. For designer Elie Saab, however, dressing men in extravagance is only normal. “We’ve always done men’s couture,” he tells Vogue Arabia. “Men from all over the world have come to us for many years seeking spectacular one-of-a-kind pieces. This is not new for us.” In the past, these endeavors from Saab were mostly hidden from the public eye. That is, until this recent fall couture season, when a string of menswear garments wedged themselves between the women’s gowns Elie Saab is synonymous with. In a monumental move for the brand, Saab and his team joined the growing list of fashion houses now exhibiting couture pieces for men on the runway. Together they signal a trend in fashion’s most sacred practice. “People are dreaming now more than ever,” Saab says. “Following lockdown, people are going through a personal revolution where they are slowly coming back to life and wanting to enjoy it fully.”
Celebrating life comes with a wardrobe that echoes that of a flamboyant prince. There is a regal feather cape dipped in reds, greens, golds, and black worn over a velvet tuxedo. There’s a relaxed, gold-embroidered robe worn over a black suit for the prince on vacation, and another dipped in burgundy embroidery for the evening. There’s even a gold elongated dressing coat donned over a gold suit for the prince unafraid to exhibit his imperial wealth. Whatever jaw-dropping statement a men’s couture client seeks, Elie Saab seems to have it covered. “My clients who come in do not shy away from embroidery or extravagance. They like to look like kings. They have big parties to attend, and events of all sorts,” he says.
Men’s couture isn’t limited to grand statements or peacocking, though Elie Saab, Fendi, and Valentino surely have showcased such in both the present and past collections. Georges Hobeika takes a softer approach to men’s couture. Co-creative director alongside his son, Jad Hobeika, the two look to natural and soft beauty for their men’s couture pieces. “We wanted to focus on simple elegance,” Jad offers. “Technically, we called our inspiration Eternal Gifts. We were inspired by water and the sun – things that have been here for millions of years.” In their collections, robes are minimal and relaxed. Embroidery on dinner jackets is light, and colors are softer and in hues of blues, light greens, and tans. However, there are still power pieces at play, such as a reflective and embroidered black robe that seems to echo the principles of water: flowing and structured at the same time.
Another appeal to men’s couture is that, well, it’s not limited to men. Both Saab and Hobeika recognize the power that women hold in men’s couture buying. “Couture is still mostly watched by women, and women often will buy it for their husbands or sons, and so on.” And, in some cases, women will buy for themselves. “I have many women who will buy some of the tuxedos or capes. It actually happens quite often,” says Saab. This flow between men’s and women’s is actually how one of fashion’s early men’s couture lines began. “Alta Sartoria has been born naturally as a consequence of Alta Moda, as a request of our female clients’ partners,” Domenico Dolce shares. “Talking to them we’ve discovered that they wanted unique and meticulous clothes as much as their wives. Also, they have developed awareness and knowledge about Alta Sartoria, which has led them to increasingly ask for more customizations and ambitious garments. Every time it’s an ever-new challenge. We never get bored.”
Tony-winning Broadway producer Jordan Roth, responsible for iconic shows such as Kinky Boots, The Book of Mormon, and Hadestown, is no stranger to couture. In fact, he’s obsessed with it. “There have been so many deeply meaningful moments with the most extraordinary designers. One that stands out is the first time I tried on my Met Gala Camp look at Iris van Herpen’s atelier,” he recalls. “They lifted it high up and I ducked underneath to get inside. When my head emerged, and I saw myself in the mirror, I burst out laughing, and then crying. Wearing the curtain and then spreading my arms to reveal the theater inside was an overwhelming revelation of the piece, of myself, of couture!” For Roth, couture in its purest form is a practice that is free from gendered labels. “We have mistakenly labeled couture as gendered. Couture is an art form. We wouldn’t say ‘women’s painting’ or ‘men’s sculpture.’ Expanding the vision to include men is a meaningful step towards unlocking the truth of couture as art.” And couture isn’t reserved for those who are obsessed. Hailing from Chile, couture client Juan Yarur simply enjoys the relationship that grows from working with a specific brand. “Listen, I don’t have a crazy social life. My life is dedicated to my kids, and I’m mostly with them. But when I need something done, I go to the maisons I’ve worked with for years because I enjoy the process. I like to add a bit of embroidery here and there, but never too flamboyant.”
While men’s couture is an emerging topic on the high-fashion runway, crafting a garment specific to the client echoes a longtime practice on Savile Row. The world-renowned street in London sees the finest of dandies who meet with the sharpest cutters and makers to craft one-of-a-kind suits. Their material is of the highest quality; the cut and fit equally so. Clients go to their shop of choice – whether it be Gieves & Hawkes, Huntsman, or Ede and Ravenscroft – and choose the make of their suit from start to finish. The makers of the garments are trained for their whole lives, and there is no shortage of skill or knowledge. Does this process sound familiar? “I think the major difference is the context behind couture and bespoke on Savile Row,” Ralph Fitzgerald Huntsman’s US cutter says. “The amount of skill that goes into both the fabrics, the experience – they’re similar. Perhaps it is just a difference in history. Both practices even share the way that the terms couture and bespoke are thrown around very loosely.”
While the aesthetics are surely different – couture being more extravagant, Savile Row bespoke more classic – their practices are nearly identical. Could it be that they share the same clientele? When Balenciaga returned to couture in the summer of July 2021, it had a secret weapon: Huntsman tailors. Hand-in-hand, couturiers and suit makers worked together to forge a new era for the legendary maison. In a similar high fashion and bespoke crossover, Marc Jacobs took his wedding fashion fantasies to Ralph Fitzgerald at Huntsman, where the master maker would craft him a suit completely unique to both parties. In the end, Jacobs donned an Aegean blue suit with pagoda shoulders. “In a way, you could say that the terms bespoke and couture are interchangeable,” Fitzgerald says. And like Saab, the tailor is reaping the silver linings of the pandemic. “I think people have been interested in extreme luxury pieces following the pandemic. At Huntsman, we’ve been pushing the boundaries and creating garments that are typically unusual: cashmere capes, coats with alligator belt clasps, and pure silk pieces are a few examples.”
Aside from the glamour, both sustainability and craftsmanship play a role in the growing interest in men’s couture, and adjacent practices. “People now, more than ever, are interested in investing in specialized techniques,” Dr Kate Strasdin, a fashion historian at Falmouth University, says. “Emma Willis is a bespoke shirt maker in London and even people who work in trades go to her for custom pieces. Thanks to social media, people are more aware of where their money is going, who it is benefiting, and how long pieces will last with the environment in mind.”
Whatever the purpose for opting into couture or bespoke – be it for the personalized experience, rich history, or fantastical designs – the appeal of creating garments special to one man is ceaseless. Through the smoke screen of influencers, celebrities, marketing techniques, et al who tell consumers what to buy, fashion is, and always has been, a vehicle for self-expression.
Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2022 issue of Vogue Man Arabia
Style: Pierre-Alexandre Fillaire
Fashion editor: Natalie Westernoff
Grooming: Mantis Leprêtre
Light/photographer assistant: Santiago Hendrix
Digital/light assistant: Lewin Berlinger
Set and coordinating assistant: Liza Kiladzé
Styling assistant: Amira Azizi
Model: Luis Borges