Bowie Wong is showing during Paris haute couture week

Or how to try to sneak into fashion's most exclusive club

via bowie wong’s twitter

Great to see the Australian press finally picking up on the Ralph & Russo story, with two stories running on Saturday in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian.

London-based duo Tamara Ralph and Michael Russo are the first Australians in the 146 year history of the Paris haute couture collections to have been invited by the organisers to show on schedule during the event, whose Spring/Summer 2014 season commenced on Sunday night with the Versace Atelier show and continues until Friday.

As Ralph & Russo is London-based, it is also considered the first British brand in a century to have been invited onto the schedule – as already widely reported by the British press. That’s not counting, obviously, British creative directors John Galliano and the late Alexander McQueen, who designed haute couture collections during their respective tenures at the long-established haute couture houses of Givenchy and Christian Dior. But in terms of brands headquartered in Britain that satisfy the rigorous selection criteria imposed by the organiser, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, Ralph & Russo is the first in almost 100 years and their induction is being treated as a big deal in the UK.

But now, surprise surprise, comes word that even before Ralph & Russo hit the runway on Thursday, another Australian designer is laying claim to being “the first Australian-based” brand to enter the hallowed haute couture arena.

Tonight in Paris (21st January), Bowie Wong will present an “haute couture” collection at the Louis Vuitton Building on the Champs Elysees.

Just to clarify – lest anyone assume there may be some direct connection here to the world’s biggest luxury brand, whose name happens to be highlighted in bold on the invitation – the Louis Vuitton Building is indeed the location of the LV flagship. But it’s a large building that is also home to a variety of other totally unrelated companies, including at least one real estate agency. Level 5, coincidentally the location of Wong’s show, is home to a company called Servcorp, that specialises in short-term and virtual office rentals.

Tonight’s “preview” is reportedly an introductory appetiser for Wong’s proposed main game: a fully-fledged runway presentation during the next Paris haute couture season, which takes place in July.

Sunday’s Sun Herald newspaper broke the story. According to reporter Amy Cooper:

“Sydney’s Bowie Wong has been confirmed as the first Australian-based designer to join fashion’s most exclusive club: Paris haute couture. Speaking to S from Paris, Wong revealed he’ll be showing his collection, Immortality, at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week in July, alongside great names such as Chanel, Dior, Valentino and Gaultier”.

Fancy that.

As far as Frockwriter is aware, the Chambre Syndicale has not even convened to discuss potential candidates for its entry level “Membres Invités” (invited members) for the July show season and in all likelihood, won’t be doing so for months. Ralph & Russo’s invitation was only confirmed in November. And yet here is Wong – or at least The Sun Herald – talking up his involvement as if it’s some kind of fait accompli. At least that was our reading of the story.

Irrefutably, Wong is already using the term “haute couture” to describe his work. Case in point, tonight’s show invitation (above).

All the best to Wong for a great show and success in Paris. He seems like a sweet guy and a hard worker.

But in the interests of due diligence, let’s just put this in context in manner that perhaps Australian publications such as The Sun Herald, which take the subject of sport far more seriously than they do fashion, may be able to digest.

If a skiing enthusiast booked accommodation in Sochi and told you they were part of the Australian team at the upcoming Winter Olympics, would you check with the organiser or do a bit of basic background research on the requirements for team selection?

Who has Wong’s upcoming haute couture show been “confirmed” by exactly? His travel agent?

Since Sunday, Frockwriter has been attempting to contact both the Chambre Syndicale and Wong – the latter via two PR email addresses on his Paris show invitation and two company email addresses on his website. No word from the Chambre Syndicale, however one of Wong’s Paris PR reps did respond overnight, referring us back to his Australian PR team, which has not responded.

Among the questions asked of Wong: what does “confirmed” mean exactly? Has he had any direct communications with the Chambre Syndicale about participation in its schedule? Is he aware that the term “haute couture” is legally protected in France by the French Ministry of Industry, just like the term “champagne”? And moreover, in light of the selection criteria, how many full-time staff members does he employ? It’s supposed to be a minimum of 15. Ralph & Russo reportedly employ 60.

You don’t need to be a fashion historian to dig up any of this background info on the industry. It is all easily available online, including via Wikipedia’s entry for haute couture, which is the number one link that pops up when you put “haute couture” into the Google search engine.

UPDATE 22/01/13 09.15: The Chambre Syndicale’s head of communications, Jimmy Pihet, responded to our initial enquiry overnight. And notes: “We never heard about this designer before your email and he didn’t visit us at the Fédération”. Frockwriter is still looking into Wong’s media accreditation (see below) and will update in due course. 

Here is a short Agence France Presse video from Wong’s presentation overnight. Note, the AFP does not use the term haute couture, but refers to Wong as a “créateur” only (designer):

According to his official bio, Wong was born in Hong Kong in 1969, the son of a Chinese Opera singer and he studied fashion design in Japan and Canada, before working professionally in the theatrical costume arena. His CV boasts show credits such as Les Misérables and Cats and tours for performers such as Paul McCartney and Madonna.

After migrating to Australia, he launched his own business in 2000, dabbling initially in streetwear and more recently, moving into evening wear and bridalwear. Frockwriter has attended a number of his Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia shows, including ‘Paper Cranes’ in 2011, which closed MBFWA that year (see below).

Some of Wong’s garments are pretty. That said, much of the workmanship to our eye – at least on the shows that we have seen first-hand, most recently in 2012 – was not great.  To be fair to Wong, this is a criticism that could easily be levelled at a number of MBFWA designers.

So it was with some surprise that we read he had suddenly graduated to the production of haute couture.

Haute couture represents the absolute pinnacle of the fashion business. The French take it extremely seriously. The fashion world also takes it seriously. There are quality standards. The level of craftsmanship is extraordinary, with the most labour-intensive garments requiring hundreds of hours of detailed handwork and embellishment. Hence haute couture prices can reach into the six figures.

There are many fashion designers who specialise in high end, made-to-measure eveningwear and bridalwear. “Couture” is the term that is most frequently bandied about to describe these sorts of collections.

But just simply grabbing the term haute couture and slapping it onto your work is presumptuous – and misleading. On paper, it’s also illegal.

In early December, when Frockwriter wrote our story about Ralph & Russo, even Ralph & Russo was still using the term “couture” on their website, only, it seems, adding the “haute” in recent weeks. And presumably with permission.

Just to further clarify here, you don’t become an official member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture overnight.

The process starts by becoming a Membre Invité. The next level is Membre Correspondant. Note that only nine names, including Christian Dior and Chanel, appear in bold on the schedule for this week’s haute couture collections. They are the only official members. The status of the remaining names is denoted by asterisk: one for Membres Correspondants, two for the newbie Membres Invités.

Wong is not an isolated case. Veronica Al Khoury of Croyden Park, NSW, also calls her work haute couture. Al Khoury dressed Margie Abbott, the wife of Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, on election night last year.

No, you are not going to be dispatched to the guillotine for misappropriating the term.

Dider Grumbach, president of the industry’s peak body, the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, which includes the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, once told me that a stern letter is about the extent of the knuckle-wrapping. Grumbach added that the organisation sends out numerous letters each week.

But Frockwriter can find what looks to be at least one public record of Wong’s dealings with the Chambre Syndicale.

Wong would appear to have accredited himself as a media representative for the haute couture collections in January last year. Judging by his Twitter feed at the time, Wong attended a number of haute couture shows that season. Same Bowie Wong? Apparently so. Wong Tweeted a screen grab of his name from the accreditation section on the Chambre Syndicale’s website on January 15th 2013. He is in fact still listed as accredited media. Amusingly, his name appears directly below that of Anna Wintour.

As a journalist who has previously been accredited by the Chambre Syndicale – covering the shows for Radio Nova in Paris and The Sydney Morning Herald – we can tell you that the selection criteria for media accreditation is also quite rigorous. And requires, among other things, a signed letter from your editorial director, on company letterhead, with the company “stamp”.

Who exactly accredited Wong to attend the Paris haute couture shows remains a mystery.

Frockwriter will give Wong the benefit of the doubt that he does actually know Lebanese couturier Elie Saab, who is referred to by The Sun Herald as Wong’s “friend and fellow couturier”. We note that Saab opened his business at the age of 18 – 32 years ago – with 15 employees. He was invited onto the haute couture schedule in 2002, graduating to a Membre Correspondant in 2006.

The numerous designers to have flocked to Paris at this time, hoping to bask in the glory of the haute couture, include French Moroccan It girl Zahia Dehar, who designs a ‘couture’ lingerie label, but is better known as the former underage escort involved in a  2010 tabloid scandal with three French football players.

Perth’s Jamie Lee Major hopes to take her couture line to the Paris shows as soon as she can secure funding. Having enjoyed a blast of global publicity in early 2013 after dressing Kimbra for The Grammys, Major attempted to crowdfund a Paris haute couture week show last year through Pozible. Having only secured $11,000 of her $75,000 target, the project was sidelined.

Anyone can book a ticket to Paris and show during haute couture week. It’s a big city. No problem.

But it doesn’t make you Chanel or Christian Dior. And if that’s your dream, then showing a little humility and respect for the institution that helped launch those names would be a good start on the road to becoming “Fashion’s new immortal”, as The Sun Herald has called Bowie.


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