Blurring the line between hand and machine

A stunning fashion exhibition at the MET in New York lays bare the thousands of meticulous details that go into the art of making clothes


Haute couture from the House of Dior; and a prêt dress (right) by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen
Haute couture from the House of Dior; and a prêt dress (right) by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen

If you have ever wondered why luxury brand dresses cost an arm and a leg—while barely covering either—this beautiful exhibition, Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology (running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York till mid-August), will make the penny drop. Your jaw too, for the line-up of dresses is heartachingly lovely.

The exhibition makes you pause and reflect on, and in many cases marvel at, what goes into the making of an exquisite garment. It makes you see the trees—the thousands of meticulous details—instead of seeing the forest, as we are accustomed to doing. It is a high fashion tutorial, if you will, laying bare the complex techniques and assorted crafts—think delicate lace, intricate embroidery, playful feathers, fine pleating, dainty flowers and more—that have been employed for centuries in Western dressmaking. And then it fast-forwards to today, when computer modelling and 3D printing, laser-cutting and ultrasonic welding are part of a fashion designer’s toolkit, and makes you ponder on the role of manus (hand) and machina (machine) in the process of creation. Is one better than the other? Why do we seemingly value handcrafted over machine-made?

And then it messes with your mind, wilfully blurring the line between the two. The introductory garment is a good example—a wedding dress, designed by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel 2014-15 Autumn/Winter haute couture, with a train that goes on forever and forever. While the dress is simple, even nun-like in its full-sleeved, moulded lines, the train is buzzing with frantic activity—Lagerfeld’s hand-drawn patterns were digitally manipulated to give a pixelated effect, it was hand-painted in metallic gold, rhinestones were heat-pressed on to the fabric and, finally, thousands of pearls and gemstones were hand-embroidered. It is a visual wow, a product as much of the digital revolution as of age-old artisanal effort.

The evolutionary process from hand to machine is fascinating to watch, especially when it takes a futuristic turn in the hands of ingenious designers. Take pleating, the process of putting tiny symmetric folds into a garment. You see a 1932 Mariano Fortuny hand-pleated evening dress in blue silk charmeuse, which elegantly cascades down the body. The next dress has a surprisingly similar effect, but it is machine-pleated, a 1986 Mary McFadden, named after the lady who patented the “Marii” pleating process on polyester. Issey Miyake takes the machine-pleating into a whimsical direction, with the utterly delightful 1994 Flying Saucer dress, colourful tiers of pleats unfolding accordion-like.

You think this can’t be bettered, until you see Iris van Herpen’s 3D printed white polyamide 2010 haute couture concoction, and you gasp. The pleats are there, fabric-less as they might be, but they move in elongated sea-shell shapes, with the central column pleated pretty much like human vertebrae. It is stunning. It also takes the notion of clothing to another realm—if Apple were to make a dress, it would be like this. And a diva from some future version of Star Wars would find it perfect for an inter-galactic date. But hey, aren’t we all inching that way?

There are other pretty frocks that talk to the inter-galactic diva in you. One of my favourites is the ethereal golden “Kaikoku” Floating Dress by Hussein Chalayan, prêt-à-porter Autumn/Winter 2011–12—it is made from cast fibreglass, gold-painted and then embroidered with 50 pollens—think of them as two-petal flowers made from pearled paper and Swarovski crystals.

How do you put on a fibreglass dress? You don’t. It has a door that opens—think car door—and you walk into it, remembering, of course, to close the door behind you. Moving is not a problem as the dress is on wheels that you operate by remote control. The embroidery moves too—each of the pollens is spring-loaded and they all fly off and swirl around the wearer. “It was intended as a poetic gesture,” writes Chalayan. “The dress is meant to symbolize new beginnings.”

While Chalayan’s flowers are futuristic and mobile, there are plenty of stunning examples of dresses that utilize traditional flower-making skills. Yves Saint Laurent’s 1999 wedding ensemble is basically three strategically placed wreaths—of lush handmade pink roses and green leaves made by Maison Lemarié, which has been around since 1880—one wreath frames the bride’s head, the next covers the bustline, the third functions as an extremely tiny skirt. The train is somewhat more substantial, machine-sewn pink silk gazar. To finish it off, there are a few roses wrapped around the right ankle. Needless to say, you would need a perfect figure and boundless courage to wear this garden-of-Eden-esque ensemble on your wedding day.

One of the thought-provoking man-machine face-offs pops up in the featherwork section—two dresses in similar colour, both very striking, both fully covered in feathers, one by Yves Saint Laurent, 1969-70 Autumn/Winter haute couture, the other by Iris van Herpen, 2013-14 haute couture. The Saint Laurent dress is bedecked with natural bird-of-paradise feathers, but only when you come close do you realize that Van Herpen has used strips of laser-cut silicone to mimic feathers. Both are stunning.

At which point you realize it is not handmade or machine-made that matters—or natural or synthetic materials—but the creativity and courage of the designer. Beyond manus and machina, it is the mind that makes the dress.

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

Also Read: Radha’s previous Lounge columns

More From Livemint