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Featured Designer Interview Featured Designer Interview
In this, one of a series of designer interviews, Jutta Holtkamp answers questions about couture in general, the school she runs, and also the use of fish leather. The pictured creation shows a Sea Leather and Cotton twill 12-panel Bakerboy Cap.

Ecole Holt Couture - School of Sewing and Design

How would you describe Couture to differentiate it from "non-Couture"?
Couture is literally from the French word for 'dressmaking, sewing' or from the Latin "to sew tailor-made". In our world at Ecole Holt Couture, couture means made start to finish, using high quality fabrics, employing skillful hand sewing techniques, original drafted patterns, made to measure and to fit, with special attention paid to finish and detail inside and out, for one client according to their style and requirements. Anything else is non-couture.

Couture is an art as much as a craft and sits at a level of hand made quality that cannot even be reproduced by another maker. Much like a hand-crafted musical instrument such as a Stradivarius, it has its own unique and identifying characteristics which cannot be cloned.

These days Couture and Bespoke are terms used so loosely that they've lost their meaning to describe high end fashion in ready-made clothing, home furnishings, luxury automobiles, and even in food. Further confusion is in clothing that is already wholly or partially manufactured, then assembled like modular blocks and further adjusted to fit a buying customer at the point of sale used to represent couture or bespoke.

Does Couture hold a higher interest in Europe today than in North America?
Couture has a deep history in Europe which is understood and appreciated much better there than it is in North America. We in North America have acquired somewhat of a second-hand understanding of true couture, being so far removed from fashion centres in Paris, London, and Milan.

North America began to develop its own couture design industry with the early growth of the film industry in Hollywood. Costume designers of the day had enormous budgets to work with, and the exposure to the public through film had an enormous impact on fashion design.

The level of skill required to create couture was reliant on emigrants from Europe and not as consistent or exacting as was expected in Europe.

Later during post WWII years North America was prospering, but European countries and the couture fashion houses were really struggling to stay afloat, suffering severe wartime shortages. European couture recovered by creating seasonal collections and selling them to licensees abroad to boost their own prosperity. The exposure to couture and high-end design certainly benefited North Americans during this time. However North American couture fashion evolved into a genre of its own, leaning towards more casual and easily wearable designs.

Today the appeal and love of couture has grown exponentially across the globe, and China is now one of the largest and fastest growing consumers of couture in the world.

Reproductions and knock offs are available from everywhere. You may get the look, but not the fit nor the quality, things that can never be replaced by online shopping. And people are beginning to recognize that.

That gap is where couture thrives today. Consumers are once again beginning to value the concept of quality, integrity, sustainability and practicality in supporting local skills crafts people, as well as supporting ethical and environmentally sound practices.

Have there been icons in the fashion industry that have been an influence, or any fashion houses?
Definitely. Designers who have had an influence on the core of EHC's curriculum that come to mind are mainly from the years 1900 up to 2000, who have influenced fashion that we still wear today. Those icon garments have been designed and reincarnated slightly differently every 10 years or so. We call them the classics.

A couple of such classics for instance are the Little Black Dress and the Chanel Jacket. Ever since their introduction in the early 1920's onward they have been a part of a lady's wardrobe in some way. Karl Lagerfeld (died on February 19, 2019), since the mid 1980's to now, has pushed the envelope on how couture fashion is worn in everyday life, that it is OK to mix it up with casual wear. Of course, we've always believed great clothes should be accessible not only to the wealthy or famous.

But other designers who were influencers in the second half of the 20th century such as Americans Roy Halston and Calvin Klein, and Canadian Alfred Sung and Indigenous designer D'Arcy Moses all highly creative and talented, were fashion influencers but not nearly as impactful as the earlier designers.

Towards the end of the 20th century even famous designers had less influence on design, and they reacted more to the market rather than dictators of good style.

Have there been changes in technologies over time that have affected the making of Couture?
Manufacturing methods and production lines, and overseas production, have reduced the overall cost of making garments to the extent that most of the skilled dressmakers, tailors and couturiers were made redundant. The ones who survived in business are now gone through attrition, with few left to teach and guide the new generation of specialists in couture.

There is a resurgence of interest in true couture and that is one of the main motivators for Ecole Holt Couture's existence. To transfer knowledge of traditional couture and tailoring methods in a meaningful relevant way to the 21 st century couturiers, tailors and dressmakers before it is lost completely.

Are there newer materials that are used in Couture, rather than the traditional materials?
Couture incorporates all types of materials, traditional and new. A great deal of experimentation happens at the couture level with new fibres and technologies. Not everything is successful. We like to use what we know works well and concentrate on those. Natural fibres and materials, such as cotton, linen, hemp, wool, silk, leathers and fur, pearls and glass beads, wooden, shell and bone buttons etc. have a very long history and we know how they act and react over time with wear and cleaning, and exposure to light and weather etc. They are the most comfortable to wear as well, because they breathe, don't hold odors, and are generally more lightweight than synthetics. We also know what happens to natural fibres at the very end of their life cycle, they will decompose right back into the earth with little negative impact.

We do use synthetic materials that we call high performance for outdoor and sporting wear that will outperform the natural fibre version. They don't have the longevity, however, lose their lustre and wear out quickly, and feel uncomfortable against the skin, but sometimes the client must accept those limitations. Nylon, vinyl finish surfaces or Teflon finishes on rain gear will break down in a few years. Synthetic microfibre and blends with elastane are designed to be soft and comfortable close to the skin and wick away perspiration. However, they hold odors that never entirely disappear with washing and do wear out quickly. It is quite well known now too, that synthetic materials have an irreversible negative impact on the environment. So whenever possible we try to use the natural fibre alternative.

Do you have any favorite colors or color combinations?
My favourite colors and combinations are constantly evolving, and I fall in love with colours that suit the project or client even if I personally cannot wear them.

Do you make western wear, especially for the Calgary Stampede?
We make all genre of clothing, including western wear which necessarily needs to be practical as well as aesthetically appropriate. Riding jackets and trousers, whether equestrian or western style, need to be extremely well fitted, roomy and comfortable all at the same time for function.

Elfriede, the Founder was commissioned from 1964 to 1973 to create the Calgary Stampede Queen and Princesses outfits. They received two identical sets of suits so that when one set was being cleaned, they had the second to perform in. She also made outfits for Calgary Stampede guests of honour during those years, one of whom was the Duchess of Kent of England.

Fabrics for the Stampede royals' outfits in those days were luxurious and of high quality. Many of the alumni still own their suits today or have donated them to the Stampede archives.

Are wedding gowns the most popular item for making? What other items are among the top?
Couture wedding gowns are certainly popular and what many will spend a small fortune on, especially for a garment that is only worn once! These gowns may be held onto for many years being passed onto daughters and grand daughters.

Other garments are business suits and overcoats. These are worn quite a lot, cleaned frequently, and need to stand up to wear without losing their good looks. You could say that these are investment pieces that men and women see the value of investing in.

Evening gowns are the other item that are popular, even though they may not be worn very often, they are often handed on in the consignment clothing market and vintage clothing markets.

What have been some of the longer lasting projects or re-creations that you have undertaken, in terms of person-hours?
Evening wear and wedding gowns without question take up most of the labour time to create, normally they are highly elaborate or detailed. However, what most people don't realize is that to create perfect simplicity takes almost as much time to achieve.

Suits and overcoats, men's and ladies, also consume many hours to create because of all the inside construction work needed. No one will ever see or appreciate the work required on the inside, but it will become apparent over time, years, how well these garments stand up to time and wear and still look great and function well.

Has the school modeled itself on other curriculum standards, if there are similar institutions elsewhere?
We are not aware of another institution that offers similar training, small class sizes, or with the same objective. EHC's curriculum is completely original and based on the Founder's own European training and her 60 plus years of professional experience. It took her over a decade to set down in writing, and through sketches, her accumulated knowledge and experience. Then arranging it in a way that is teachable, understandable and relevant to couture and tailoring, not just to sewing and dressmaking.

The teaching strategy is combining theory with practical application and experience in sequential progression. We begin with simple foundation techniques and projects advancing to more complex concepts techniques and projects each term. We believe that showing someone how to achieve something is much more effective than telling them and once they've got it, they can begin problem solving or have gained the confidence to experiment knowing they have the tools necessary to make what they've created in their imagination. Everything we do and how we think in couture has purpose and meaning.

Those interested in enrolling shouldn't be intimidated by a lack of previous experience, and those with previous experience shouldn't become offended by the difference in approach or methods we teach. We teach all the necessary skills from the ground up, and the methods and techniques are tried and tested to achieve the standard of quality expected of a professional couturier or tailor.

The students bring their talent and invest their efforts, we provide them the environment, the training and offer them the mentorship.

Has the school attracted international students beyond Canada?
Every week we receive inquires about how to enrol in EHC from outside Canada. As it stands currently, we are only accepting students with Canadian citizenship or who have permanent residency.

EHC has been operating for ten years and we've only skimmed the surface so to speak as it relates to satisfying the demand nationally for this training. If we were to accept international students, right now we would not have the resources to adequately provide students with the level and quality of instruction or the staffing required to maintain the standards we've set at EHC.

We are however, looking into ways to expand the delivery of our programs without losing the integrity of what has been established.

Where does fish leather stand on the spectrum of Couture materials?
Fish leather stands as one of the more unique and outstanding materials that we expect in couture for several reasons. It already has an inherently decorative finish. Although it is a traditional leather used for practical as well as aesthetic reasons in other cultures, it is not as commonly used in couture in Canada, as other animal hide leathers are.

We are always looking for something a little different and it is very appealing in appearance. We love that sea leather is environmentally friendly and comes from a product that would otherwise just be wasted. Surprisingly, it is very strong and there is no concern of the fish leather deteriorating quickly, and when it finally does, it will decompose back to nature. It is lovely to work with in its flexibility and lack of odor. It ticks many boxes.

From your use of fish leather in the past, is there a preference for the glazed or suede finish?
Great question - there really is no overall preference. Each finish has its own charm and beauty and the finish chosen would very much depend on the project. The glazed finishes are highly effective for accessory items for their durability in purses and belts. The sueded finish is much softer in appearance and flexible which works better for apparel that is constantly moving or creasing.



Previously Featured Designers:

VENIA, Los Angeles
Michael Wright, shoe designer
Julia Poteat, Parsons School

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