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Area NYC is disrupting the archaic world of Haute Couture

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Beckett Fogg and Piotrek Panszczyk debut their first ever couture collection with a glittering film starring Precious Lee and Yasmin Wijnaldum

We might have spent most of it inside thanks to yet more lockdowns, but January has turned out to be a pretty eventful month – at least when it comes to fashion. Weeks of virtual menswear shows were followed up by a classic parade of the utmost decadence as part of the SS21 Haute Couture season, which offered the old French maisons a chance to showcase their most meticulous craftsmanship. 

This season’s finale, however, looks a little different than usual. Unofficially bringing the season to a close are Beckett Fogg and Piotrek Panszczyk of AREA NYC, who debuted their first ever couture collection yesterday. “We’ve always created pieces that had this couture essence about them, but they were part of a runway show,” says Beckett. According to the pair, their AW20 collection was something of a lightbulb moment where they realised just how far they could take some of their ideas. 

In case you missed it, the offering saw strands of thousands of Swarovski crystals braided into tops and dresses that cascaded down the models’ bodies, and mundane objects Swarovski-crystalled to within an inch of their lives – chances are you might have spotted the duo’s glittering chair bag in recent days, after it was turned into a Bernie Sanders meme thanks to Diet Prada (“We loved it!” they confirm). 

With their big Haute Couture debut taking the form of a short, punchy film, one immediate difference that sets them apart from the Paris stalwarts are the different bodies on show. After casting ‘The Wonder Woman of Vogue’ Leiomy Maldonado as the face of their recently-revealed RTW 01 collection, this time around Beckett and Panszczyk enlisted Yasmin Wijnaldum and Precious Lee – the trailblazing curve model who made history on the runway at Versace’s last show.

“Couture has always been about presenting one type of body that people thought was this aspirational dream. But for us, it was really important that it was about custom fit, about the body and its differences,” says Panszczyk. This notion is also reflected in the theme of the show, which looked at creative expressions that date way past Haute Couture’s beginnings in 1858 and all back to the beginning of time. “What (the word couture) stems from is humanity, the ancient civilisations, and the first moment that we had a need for art, the need to express ourselves,” he adds.

The collection itself is primarily made up of detailed textile manipulations that become stunning sculptures. Soft crystal tubes mould around the body like exo-skeletons that sparkle with an ombré reflection, while their use of crystal crochet from AW20 makes another appearance – now via even more extreme, over-the-top shapes that are bound to be recreated in one of the upcoming seasons of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. The final line-up of accordion dresses recontextualise extreme silhouettes previously explored by the likes of Hussein Chalayan and Kansai Yamamoto. 

“What (the word couture) stems from is humanity, the ancient civilisations, and the first moment that we had a need for art, the need to express ourselves” – Piotrek Panszczyk

Also making its debut along the sculptural garments is a brand new AREA shoe – which takes the form of a stacked, vertiginous clog. Paying homage to Panszczyk’s childhood home of the Netherlands, they’re based on a cult 1970s Famolare Amsterdam clog, and demonstrate yet another evolution of the ugly-chic shoe that we seemingly still can’t get enough of. “They’re so comfortable because of the memory foam in them. They basically encase your foot,” notes Beckett, which probably isn’t the first thing to spring to mind when considering the concept of Haute Couture. 

Beyond a collection that offers a glittering dose of hope for a more glam future, today’s show also marks the beginning of a whole new era for AREA, after Fogg and Piotrek saw 2020 as an opportunity to stop and rethink the way their still very young brand works. “We saw there were a lot of flaws that everyone was complaining about in the industry – the timelines of the shows and collections, and the frequency of the things that we’re doing,” explains Panszczyk. 

With the weight of creating collections at breakneck speed and fighting against ‘big’ brands for the spotlight weighing heavily on them, the two decided to step away from the existing framework and create their own schedule: “We just weren’t able to focus on anything really – it just was deadlines, deadlines, deadlines.” In place of traditional seasons, they will drop four ready-to-wear collections per year via a see-now buy-now method, while celebrating their unique craftsmanship through avant-garde biannual Haute Couture collections that will be strictly made-to-order.

And while this collection isn’t technically part of the official couture schedule approved by the French governing body – the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode – does that even matter in 2021? As an exclusionary club that still operates with archaic societal rules that prioritise specific cultural backgrounds over others, AREA are intent on breaking down those barriers, too. “There’s not going to some secret phone number you have to know to be able to get an appointment,” says Beckett. “That’s not how it should work.” 

The work AREA presents brings together old-school craftsmanship and detailed techniques with a super modern idea of glamour. Having worked closely with their local craftsmen and women as well as an embroidery factory in India, they have expanded the meaning of couture and what this fantastical world can bring to different people – without the stuffy exclusivity. 

Instead, their opulent, magpie-like approach is rooted in the heritage of American couturiers who Beckett Fogg and Piotrek Panszczyk note as their role models – Charles James, Bill Blass, and the king of razzle dazzle himself, Bob Mackie. As Panszczyk puts it: “There are so many different connections, but we all have (Haute Couture) in our soul in a way. That gave us hope – we don’t have to be physically somewhere to achieve something. Couture happens everywhere, all over the world.”

Watch the show below.