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Marine Serre: The Fashion Designer Bringing Couture To Shelves

By Guan Tan

 
MatchesFashion.com
 

An elaborate couture layered dress made from upcycled deadstock and used men's shirts sounds like an unlikely proposal. Yet, to Marine Serre, the French fashion designer who nabbed 2017 LVMH Prize winner, it is the future she has made happen. 

“For these pieces, I've used up to 20 shirts for one piece. We found them in a huge depot in France,” the 26-year-old French fashion designer Marine Serre wrote over email, explaining the makings behind her couture-like layered dresses that debuted on her Fall/ Winter ’18 runway, but have now been stretched into a capsule collection in collaboration with MatchesFashion.com and Swarovski

“I'm not going to disclose my sources, of course, but it's a special and very nice place where we go to a lot now for sourcing,” she quips cheekily.  

Serre brought these deadstock men's cotton shirts back with her and sorted them "by fabric and colour" before they were cleaned, laundered, and dyed. It's only after all these that Serre's creative process properly began. 

These abandoned garments reportedly cost two or three Euros each, but the work invested in transforming them into runway-ready dresses is double of that of usual industry conventions, where designers work with a perfectly pressed roll of new fabric. 

The upcycled dress Serre had in mind was to be true to her design language — athletic, comfortable,  befitting of the pret-a-porter runway decorum, but cut from the deadstock men's shirts. The result was what Serre calls a “hybrid garment”. It comes in the form of “an athletic tight scuba top” layered over a ruffle dress.

MatchesFashion.comA pink iteration of Marine Serre's upcycled layered dress embellished with a sleeve of Swarovski crystals.
A pink iteration of Marine Serre's upcycled layered dress embellished with a sleeve of Swarovski crystals.

It looks like a straightforward dress layered over a top, but the techniques that went into it were incredibly complex. Serre recounts draping and making a prototype and paper patterns of the dress. It was not an easy feat. “The prototype was something already, but it was the reproduction that was most challenging,” Serre continues.

The challenge in making clothes out of upcycled clothes is this — the uneven fabric pieces cut from these deadstock shirts had to match the original prototype and patterns. “The thing is not so much that the pattern-making is very difficult. Rather, it's the placement of the pattern and the cutting of the base fabric — that is the shirts — to get the ruffles right like the original prototype.” 

In layman terms, one could liken it to a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that didn't match. “Unlike a normal roll of fabric, a shirt is, of course, uneven. And to make it worse, each one is a little different,” says Serre. To solve the problem, one has to pick up a pair of scissors and cut these jigsaw pieces to fit the puzzle. 

MatchesFashion.comEvery part of the dress, including the numerous layer of ruffles were mathematically cut from deadstock men's cotton poplin shirts.
Every part of the dress, including the numerous layer of ruffles were mathematically cut from deadstock men's cotton poplin shirts.

For Serre, this problem solver came in the form of an industry expert “with over 20 years of experience” who ended up cutting and sewing “each ruffle of the dress”. Serre adds, “She individually manufactured each dress.”

Serre first released these upcycled cotton dresses alongside her other designs in her Fall/ Winter 2018 runway. She considers them her first experimentation and foray into couture. Serre has since bundled all of these couture dresses into a premium category. "We call it our Red line, [which is] all about bringing back classic savoir-faire while having a lot of pleasure and freedom in experimenting — without the commercial limitations of ready-to-wear," says Serre. Due to the relatively lower cost price of these upcycled fabrics, these couture-like dresses are priced like ready-to-wear pieces. 

To Serre, introducing couture-like pieces to her ready-to-wear runway was a natural move. “It seemed really relevant. I don't know. It just felt like natural to us, and [was] the right thing to do,” she considers.

MatchesFashion.comThe dress was paired with a balaclava (approximately S$169), exclusive to MatchesFashion.com as well.
The dress was paired with a balaclava (approximately S$169), exclusive to MatchesFashion.com as well.

The penchant for used clothes may have stemmed from her childhood, a time when she spent time sifting through clothes in vintage markets. “I never [went] to shops with new garments, it was always vintage or marketplace — in French, [it's] Fripe or Brocante — this thing you have on the streets on weekends selling collectors' stuff,” Serre told T last year in an interview after she nabbed the LVMH Prize. 

“I've always collected vintage garments. Later on, I learned how to seam and I started to re-do these pieces entirely but then changing them in all kinds of ways along the way,” Serre adds.

In the wider fashion and art industry, working with used clothes or objects is not a new notion. “There is, of course, a bit of tradition in working with pre-existing products with [Marcel] Duchamp in art and in fashion, [it started] with Margiela,” Serre lists. “However, working with vintage was never really scaled to high-end, ready-to-wear production — which is what we are trying now.”

Yet, used and unwanted deadstock clothes made in couture techniques and style? Will traditional haute couture insiders feel offended by this young and petite French designer's move? 

“I don't think so, actually, [that] anyone would consider this offensive — or at least I'd be surprised,” Serre candidly retorts. “My aim is not to go against older members at all. I am full of respect and awe. I just want to try to be as free as them and make couture like them — [which] is really about what is happening around me as well as in my brain.” 

MatchesFashion.comMarine Serre's Dream silk scarf-handle ball bag (approximately S$811) lends a pop of colour to the upcycled dresses.
Marine Serre's Dream silk scarf-handle ball bag (approximately S$811) lends a pop of colour to the upcycled dresses.

To Serre, the realm of haute couture is an institution which guards craftsmanship, which is put to use to reflect the reigning zeitgeist. “Couture and real luxury was always about a lot of care and time and savoir-faire, so we are quite fitting in this — updating it a bit, maybe.”

In a time when the issue of textile wastage has been plaguing the global industry, it seems like Serre's marriage of deadstock clothes and couture techniques is her attempt to resolve the issue by destigmatising used clothes.

Above all, in a time when publications are justifying the relevance of haute couture by rolling out stories with headlines such as “Why We Cover High Fashion” and “Haute Couture: A Premature Death?”, Serre's introduction of couture techniques to pret-a-porter is a loud objection. She protests, “[The] couture industry is never stagnant!”

View Marine Serre's collaboration with MatchesFashion.com here.