Design by Samantha Sweig

On stage a figure dances — smoke surrounds her silhouette, and she becomes the negative of a silver print. Her shadow against the cloud of white is a terracotta orange, but the hues of the palette are bleary, leaving traces of her movements in the way images remain in your eyesight after staring at the sun too long. She is extravagant, effervescent, ethereal yet eternal. From the pit, a motionless crowd regards the scene in reverence. This, right here and now, is an encounter with the divine, a time in which the arts — music, dance and haute couture — align with the perfect chemical reaction of an open heart and a godless faith. Florence Welch is singing to us, and yet I can only stare at her dress. It is what I imagine Shakespeare’s Ophelia or Botticelli’s Venus would wear. I am devoted. 

It hit me, then, that so much of my experience was owed to the very nature of the fabric that wrapped Welch’s body. The first thing I did when I got home was investigate the origins of such a work of art. That bohemian, gauzy maxi dress was the creation of Gucci’s Alessandro Michele. It was reminiscent of the clothes other ’70s icons like Stevie Nicks and Joni Mitchell wore, yet I had never seen anything like it. It was dream-like in the most vital way. 

Barefoot and carefree, Welch flipped a switch in me — one that translated to my life and my own artistic expression. That night, I witnessed the power of high fashion in art: One can do without the other, but together, they become a mighty climax of grace— musical notes embellished by the flares in a dress, tailored with the same detail with which a painter exerts their brush on the canvas. This time, the medium was the body — Welch as Polyhymnia from the heights of Mantegna’s Parnassus. The muse of music before my eyes.

Now I cannot think of Welch without seeing her in my memory like an elegant, fleeting beam of light. That spark has remained with me since, and fashion has become something I greatly appreciate, especially when the artist intentionally matches an aura, an energy with a vision. Only then does a person become a persona — that is, something more than just a subject before our eyes; something to regard in the way one regards a painting on the wall. In a persona, fashion becomes a segue into one’s intentions — their inner narrative, alter-egos and psyche. 

I believe fashion has the ability to tell, in minute detail, all that cannot be put into words. It is the intermediary between the preconceived notions about a person and who they truly are. The representation of one’s true self, through skin and fabric. Haute couture is an art just as respectable — a craft just as intricate — as any other. It is fashion brought to its highest form — the tailoring of a talent to the taste of the client, by hand and by heart. Sewing to fit the movements that someone will execute on stage, studying every inch of someone’s body to allow for that motion. Embellishments as harmonies, trimmings as syncopated rhythms, flares as Welch’s vibrato.

In the era of fast fashion and fleeting trends, the timelessness of hand-made designs is evidenced. To me, no one hand-makes clothing as beautifully as Teresa Helbig, a Barcelona-born and based designer who is so much more than that. Her atelier works under a cradle-to-cradle production system, meaning that every inch of fabric is used, every material is given a purpose and every material is sourced intentionally. More importantly, every design is unique — as there will never be two of the same paintings, only the original. 

She has been dressing women in artistic industries for years — actresses like Ursula Corberó or Halle Berry, and singers like Rigoberta Bandini or Luz Casal, among many others. Her latest collection, the “Helbig Music Fest,” is inspired by some of the music icons of the last century — PJ Harvey, Janis Joplin, Debbie Harry — and each design deserves a place on stage, from this orange mini dress which I could imagine Lana del Ray wearing and that is the perfect mix of chic and metal; to this white, platinum blue and pink matching set reminiscent of Dua Lipa’s outfits; to this vanilla maxi dress that dances the fine line between Woodstock and Coachella. 

Under the slogan “A Helbig woman never goes unnoticed,” Helbig has managed to make designs that break the boundaries of trends and time. Helbig is the intersection of craft and confidence. Her designs will cause you to fall in love with the simplicity of tweed and the difficulty of embroidering it. Her pieces are works of art and her atelier is a museum. In it, a small team of mostly women work closely together throughout the creation process, from the needle that sews a dress’s backbone to the last detail on the sleeves. 

Helbig designs with hopes of empowering and does just that. Not one of her creations goes unnoticed — each is a product of hours spent curating every detail. It is about painting and repainting, about playing with angles and daring to use bold color palettes and about caring for creation itself more than clothes. In this collection, the resolution of design is to be made true on stage, in the catharsis of self-expression, through music and through fashion. 

A person on stage is the final puzzle piece in creating a work of art. It is neither opposing nor similar to performance art — think Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” — rather, when worn by someone exerting their own type of art, haute couture becomes a performance in and of itself. Alessandro Michele captured Welch’s essence and, through his designs, she finished the narrative — a sculpture in flesh and bone. Helbig, I know, could be a part of Welch’s story. 

Haute couture is an art in and of itself, but when it blends with other disciplines, its effect is intensified — it’s no longer just a piece of clothing, but a story; it is an imperative piece in the creation of an icon. Think David Bowie and his multiple stylistic alter-egos, Dolly Parton’s glittering matching sets, or more recently, Harry Styles’s jumpsuits. Live music can do without haute couture — we have seen icons like Jim Morrison and Sting rock jeans and plain T’s for decades — but with it, one is left thinking about the outfit in the same way that one reminisces on a piece that made them feel something at a gallery, or on the lines they remember from a book that made them cry, or on the song that is a memory box of a time once lived … it becomes a souvenir, forever.   

Daily Arts Writer Cecilia Duran can be reached at ccduran@umich.edu.