The butterfly dress from Jean Paul Gautlier Haute Couture 2014, showcased at Dubai Expo 2020KASIA TRUSCOTT WITH PERMISSION FOR VARSITY

You’ll often find that the greatest garments of all time— think Princess Diana’s ‘revenge dress’ or any of Bob Mackie’s creations for Cher—have one thing in common: unparalleled attention to detail. With just the tiniest of adjustments, the art of fabric manipulation transforms mere textiles into three-dimensional works of art. Techniques such as ruching, pleating, knitting or weaving are designed to play around with fabrics to change their appearance by adding volume, adjusting shape and manipulating the way a garment drapes over the body. It’s one of the most fascinating things that makes fashion such a visually engaging phenomenon, incorporating the eye as a key player in interpreting shape, structure, colour and texture. With its immaculate display of craftsmanship, fabric manipulation will endlessly play tricks on the minds of its viewers, teasing them with the age-old question: how?

“Fabric manipulation transforms mere textiles into three-dimensional works of art”

Most recently, it was Bottega Veneta’s Fall 2022 ready-to-wear collection that caught my eye. At first glance, the show’s opening two looks seemed a little uninspiring: baggy blue jeans and a white tank top, which the menswear swapped out for a white button-up. Take one look closer, however, and you’ll actually find that both looks were made entirely out of leather. In a fascinating illusion paying homage to the brand’s signature trademark of woven leather detailing, Creative Director Matthieu Blazy printed photo-realistic details onto the leather fabrics that shaped both looks from head to toe.

It was this kind of artistic precision, manipulating leather to look so supple it became a fabric beyond itself, that reminded me of Zendaya’s custom Balmain gown worn at the Venice premier of Dune last year. The all-nude ensemble, featuring ruched detailing around the waist and neckline, was crafted using an exact model of the actress’ bust, forming a cinched silhouette so precise it left her looking like she’d been sculpted straight from marble. In the capable hands of her longtime stylist, Law Roach, the look was polished off with a sleek wet-look middle part and Bulgari high jewellery dripping from her neck, feeding into the gown’s overall sculpted illusion. It was a beautiful exhibition of atelier craftsmanship, manipulating a structured leather fabric to literally look like second skin.

“The art of fabric manipulation lies at the heart of haute couture’s whimsical appeal”

Iris van Herpen is especially known for her signature blend of technology with fashion, making extensive use of textile manipulation techniques such as 3D printing. With her hypnotic, experimental style, many of van Herpen’s designs are based on multilayered kinetic sculptures designed to move in harmony with the model on the runway. Van Herpen’s most recent Autumn/Winter 2021 collection, ‘Earthrise’, was inspired by the natural beauty of the planet and its cyclical processes, with five of the collection’s nineteen looks made entirely from recycled plastics sourced from NGO, Parley for the Ocean. Beautifully complex in merging aquatic motifs with the ethos of sustainability, the collection was a dynamic display of avant-garde craftsmanship, revolutionising the art of fabric manipulation for the 21st-century.

The ‘Earthgaze’ gown from Iris van Herpen’s A/W21 Earthrise collection

The pearlescent vision for the Aerology jumpsuit saw white draped silk interlaced with the bodice in a spiral motion, while luminescent liquid silicone was hand-casted onto the laser-cut patterning of the fabric. The Earthgaze gown, meanwhile, used thousands of pale blue gradient-dyed circles to shape the gown’s silhouette, each hand-cut and stitched in size gradients, giving rise to the angelic illusion of rippling waves.

A large part of fabric manipulation also involves playing around with patterns. Showcased at Vanity Fair’s 2022 Oscars Afterparty, Joe Jonas’ Louis Vuitton suit, designed by the late Virgil Abloh, featured a dazzling take on the classic red carpet tuxedo. Following the outline of Jonas’ body, a series of white crystal detailing across the jet-black contrast of the jacket and trousers shaped the dizzying illusion of two silhouettes against one. I can’t help but feel as though its alluring effects must have informed at least some of the inspiration behind Olivia Rodrigo’s custom Vivienne Westwood gown worn at the 2022 Grammy’s ceremony.

Ryotamurakami A/W20


Mountain View

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Two years prior, it was Japanese fashion house Ryotamurakami that took the experiment with patterns and silhouettes to the extremes as part of their Autumn/Winter 2020 collection. One gown featured the patterned outline of a pink dress and black cape, creatively woven against the shape of the garment’s overall silhouette. The sleeves extended down over the hands like gloves, woven to match the colour of the model’s skin tone and, remarkably, even included the stitched details of a red manicure.

From the futuristic to the fantastical, the art of fabric manipulation lies at the heart of haute couture’s whimsical appeal. Stripped down to its core, fabrics and textiles are fashion’s raw materials, playing a vital role in motivating the ideas behind a garment’s broader vision as a work of art. The thrill of illusion draws an audience into a perplexing but enticing state of viewing, achieved by paying the utmost attention to the delicate interactions between body and fabric. The devil is all in the details when it comes to fabric manipulation—and the more you look, the more you’ll find.