The discipline of haute couture in Paris boasts the highest embodiment of craftsmanship in fashion. The exclusive couture houses see to it that the finest and priciest silks, wools, and chiffons are woven into elaborate fantasies for their most illustrious clientele. But far from the City of Lights, the overlooked countries of Latin America have yet to make their mark in the fashion industry. At Givenchy’s fall 2008 couture show, Riccardo Tisci took us by surprise in trading European society muses to excavate the luxury of ancient Peruvian royalty. Likewise at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, a special exhibition — “Radiance from the Rainforest: Featherwork in Ancient Peru” — eclipses neighboring European sculptures with a display of perhaps the finest featherwork in existence.
Tisci’s collection dares to tweak Paris, sending heavily blanketed, warrior-like women in tobacco browns and bone ivories down a runway of woodchips. The ideology of the Incas reflects Latin America’s humble passion for naturalism — a heavy burden for Tisci to bear when dealing with Parisian materialism. As the Incas built houses of stone and mud and hand-wove garments of cotton, feathers, alpaca, and llama, Tisci too aims for a comparable degree of excellence in arts and crafts, evident in his impeccable tailoring and precision despite such ponderous fabrics. Through playful items like fur pieces and leather gaucho boots, Tisci is able to unite the sophisticated Givenchy lady with her machismo spirit, suiting her for the rugged terrain of the Andes’ empire.
At the Met exhibit, great craftsmanship of the Incas zeroes in on featherwork from the 7th to 16th centuries. Feathers were greatly valued for their “magnificent color and silken texture.” In a selective process, less than 2% of all bird species were used. Giant tabards hang like tapestries in geometric patterns and colors that reflect macaws and parrots, not excluding the brown and whites visible in Tisci’s folkloric ponchos. At a time when royalty glorified barbarism, it’s no surprise that the clothing was large, heavy, and built as protective armor. Yet the true craftsmanship shows in the Inca’s manipulation of such a delicate and precious material. “The gloss, splendor, and sheen of this feather cloth is of such exceptional beauty that it must be seen to be appreciated,” wrote Europeans who arrived in Peru in the early 16th century. Amid the 70 pieces on display are also crowns, ceremonial headdresses, and neckpieces.
With the spotlight on Latin America, it’s natural to review today’s concept of luxury. Whereas a luxury fashion brand manifests a romantic idea with boundless imagination to an exclusive patron, it tries to recycle and thus eternalize itself. What Tisci does, despite adding signature black leather and lace of Givenchy, is throw the luxury consumer from her comfort zone and suggest that more powerful and timeless than a brand is the transfiguration upon its use. The marvelous feather garments, long before couture and capitalism, transformed Latin American Indians into kings and queens of the highest wealth and status. Latin America may be catching up to the world of luxury, but in all its rawness, there’s certainly something to be learned from the accessibility of a garment so finely built.