There’s a dewy magic in the air around Vivian Liu, as she bustles around, illuminated by the afternoon light filtered through perfumed leaves and branches stretching out to cordially kiss the sun.
A dash of preserved ferns here, a row of carefully-lined bleached hemp seeds there, a range of delightfully dynamic structure blossom from the bones of Liu’s invention. Most notably was, the queen of my heart, her creation for Dîner en Blanc last week - an intensive birth of floral-specific techniques to recreate some of the characteristics of the world’s finest couture.
With a team of 2-3 people per day, over the duration of two weeks, the work tenderly came together under the hands and supervision of Vivian. Tasked to work around the theme of “Paris”, she seized the opportunity to pay a loving tribute to one of her favourite designers, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and the world of fashion which has been an obsession since childhood.
Vivian recounted hours spent pouring over precious copies of ELLE magazine she would save up for, locking bold 80’s inspired shapes and colours into her memory. This of course included the inventive Jean-Paul Gaultier, peerless in the late ’80s in his production of edgy glamour executed with flawless French Haute Couture craftsmanship colliding with social comment on dramatic runways. People came to shows with a devoted hungry anticipation, for something new and exciting. A New York Times article quoted Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus recollecting “The theatre and the drama always made those Gaultier shows. I liked the show where there were bales of hay everywhere. And the models came out with hay in their hair. And as they were traversing through all of it, the dust from the hay was kicking up and we were all getting a little weepy, and not because the fashion was so moving but because our eyes were filled with dust from the straw. It was one of those moments”.
It is with a twined reverend devotion to invention, theatrics and the creative arts Vivian frequently employs overlooked materials such as hay and bamboo veneers in her increasingly flamboyant pursuit of the unique. Specifically in her Dîner en Blanc piece, the masterful ability to create flow is immediately obvious; a daring hierarchy of forms scaffolded with an unusual structure for a modern abstract effect. There is beauty and a sense of airiness which Vivian credits her previous life as a graphic designer. Laughing, she said you never quite know what you learnt the moment you leave design school, but it's only little by little overtime, every exhibit, book, every experience trains our eyes and hands to look for compositions of colour, form, patterns. It is experience that will tell you how to follow rules and when to break them. The only rule in the Arbutus Florist Vivian keeps to religiously is that nothing must ever remain the same - there must always be a push to be innovative, to keep the torch of life-long learning ablaze at all costs.
Extracting inspiration from different periods of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s legacy, one of the central foci of the Dîner en Blanc piece was a dozen delicately decorative Haworthia or Zebra Cacti locking arms in a crescendo point to bio-mimic the iconic cone bra Madonna unveiled during 1990 Blond Ambition tour.
To pay proper homage to the Gaultier’s controversial combination of the 50s bullet bras and ‘80s underwear-as-outerwear street style, Vivian studied the shape and the effects of the construction closely. As with any Haute Couture constructed by expert hand from start to finish with time-consuming, hand-executed techniques, the time of Vivian and her team are pinned, glued studded all over the ribbing of the corset. For example, between each row of white, fuzzy preserved grass are rows of hemp seeds, selected for their uniform sized and precisely hand-cut at an angle, to create a flow to point at the middle panel of preserved white flowers, frozen in time.
Cindy Bruna walks the runway during the Jean-Paul Gaultier Spring Summer 2019 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on January 23, 2019 in Paris, France. (Source: Getty Images Europe)
Firmly part of the Madonna counterculture legacy, the conical bra corset enjoys a wild touch of modern extravagance with a full, blooming skirt Vivian designed with the Jean-Paul Gaultier Haute Couture Spring-Summer 2019 in mind. In particular she had her sights set on the free flowing, bouncing periwinkle frock with an impossibly long train. Floating straight out of a mid-summer night’s dream in particular. A little classy, a little nostalgic, and a little edgy.
One of the technical victories of this skirt is the almost anti-gravitational, free-spirited, dancing appearance thanks to Vivian’s brilliant interlocking bamboo structure - light enough to transport, without the usual heaviness that accompanies floral pieces (because of gravitational limitations, florists typically opt for spherical or “lumpy” shapes supported by foam, which just would fall short of Gaultier’s famed gusto for dramatic and flowing). Together with the extravagant mixed layers of off-white flowers emulating light bouncing through layers of chiffon, the result is an impossibly light, bouncy, airy shape.
Finally, to top off the whole shebang is the delicate floral halo, made from painstakingly arranged leaf skeletons, ferns and another round of preserved grasses arranged onto a handcrafted frame. As with any ensemble, choice accessories really work to punctuate the story. Being so thin, the headdress allows light to penetrate both ways creating a luminescent effect. Getting it flat and thin without warping is quite a feat. Vivian estimated this piece alone took 20 hours to construct.
Jean-Paul Gaultier, now 67 is an inspiration in so many ways. With his extraordinary commitment to showmanship and strong emphasizes having fun with couture I’d like to imagine he would be flattered Vivian’s loving tribute.