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 Light, 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 the MET, special exhibition Radiance from the Rainforest: Featherwork in Ancient Peru eclipses its neighboring European Sculptures with a display of perhaps the finest featherwork in existence.
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 is 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 current 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 did, 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 of their time. Latin America has a lot of catching up to the world of luxury to do, but in all its rawness there is certainly something to be learned from the accessibility of a garment so finely built.