The big question at this year’s Paris Fashion Week: Will the economic collapse kill haute couture? From the lavish designs sent down the runways by Valentino, Galliano, and Lagerfeld, it seems that made-to-order garments are safe…for now.
For most people, the prospect of purchasing a piece of clothing that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars sounds ridiculous, but it’s a cherished reality for a small clique of the ultra-rich. Twice a year, a select group of the wealthiest, best-dressed women in the world, along with a contingent of power editors, converge in Paris to witness the haute couture shows—the ultimate expression of a designer’s vision, one that knows no boundaries of extravagance or price. The finest pieces require hundreds of hours of hand-stitching, and the cost—let’s just say your monogrammed LV luggage better be stuffed full of cash if you want to partake.
So how is this opulent corner of the fashion world surviving given the global economic crisis? At the recent round of couture shows, which concluded last week, the question on everyone’s mind was whether the recession might ring the death knell for couture. From the collections that were unveiled, and the reactions of the assembled clients and editors, however, it seems that the couture houses are not only thriving, but responding to the current situation by embracing self-control. Designers went back to the foundational basics upon which their ateliers were built, and in the process, made the case for couture’s continued creative relevance.
“I thought it seemed excessive, but my husband said ‘You should go and you should buy something.’ Not everyone's lucky enough to have a husband like mine.”
There are only a handful of certified haute couturiers in the world, and the number is rapidly dwindling. In the past decade, many different couture houses have disappeared, including Yves St. Laurent and Emanuel Ungaro, falling victim to their designers’ retirement. Every couple of years, major fashion rags run features pondering the institution’s destiny, often predicting its imminent demise, but couture has managed to soldier on, defying the conventional wisdom that it’s out-of-date.
Hillary Alexander, fashion director of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, spoke with John Galliano after his show for the house of Christian Dior and he revealed that he was trying to channel “the soul of Christian Dior. He went into the archives and gave some of the looks from the New Look era an almost forensic examination, which was like reading a long-lost love letter.” His discoveries took shape in extravagant sculptural skirts fashioned from meters of silk, and a palette informed by the paintings of Vermeer. Given the Dutch painter’s ability to imbue ordinary domestic scenes with exquisite beauty, it served as an appropriate reference point for a collection borne out of the crisis—finding a balance between restraint and raw expression.
At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld sent out an almost entirely white collection, to the mournful, and vaguely militant strains of what sounded like a funeral march. The sharp-shouldered, structured silhouettes imparted a sense of control in the midst of economic mayhem, but the magic of couture was that despite the elaborate sequin, bead, cellophane and paper embroideries, the garments still looked light-as-air.
Jean-Paul Gaultier took a different approach, revisiting the over-the-top spirit of the '80s, a heady era when his career came of age. He sent out model Ines de la Fressange, the former Lagerfeld muse and face of France, to uproarious applause, along with a series of broad-shouldered jackets and fantastical, calligraphy-inspired confections that incorporated his signature theatrical wit.
At Valentino, after the dramatic public dismissal of designer Alessandra Facchinetti last season, Valentino’s longtime assistants Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli took the helm, sending out a series of homages to the head of the house, drawn from his vast archive. The collection took a conservative approach, looking back in time to an era when couture’s position in the fashion hierarchy was unassailable—the duo unearthed many of Valentino’s designs from the '60s and sent them back out onto the runway.
Giorgio Armani Privé’s Chinese-inspired collection adopted a survival strategy by extending a hand to an emerging market that might soon become one of couture’s mainstays, with lacquered surfaces and pagoda silhouettes.
Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, the youngest designer at the helm of a major couture house, has been slowly building his own codes for the classic brand, and his show put to rest any skepticism about his masterful ability to translate a younger, fresher vision of couture. The ecclesiastical setting of the Couvent des Cordeliers was strewn with silk petals and perfumed with rose, and the mysterious procession of veiled gowns he sent out combined an urge toward modesty with the desire to reveal oneself—a psychological tension that certainly speaks to many rich clients.
Speaking of clients, they were out in full force. Suzanne Saperstein, rumored to be couture’s biggest spender, struck a modest tone, saying, “For me it's a work of art, and my girlfriends and I have come for years. It doesn't mean I can afford it though”—hard to believe from her dazzling diamonds and daily rotation of beautiful bespoke ensembles.
Becca Cason Thrash, the Houston socialite who was famously dubbed ‘the next Lynn Wyatt’ by The New York Times, emphasized couture’s endangered cultural import, pointing out that “if people don’t come and support it, what’s going to happen? We’ve lost four or five houses in the past years, and we're going to lose more. I wasn't sure if I should come...I thought it seemed excessive, but my husband said ‘You should go and you should buy something.’ Not everyone's lucky enough to have a husband like mine!”
Glenda Bailey, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, concurred, offering a compelling economic argument for the institution’s importance: “When it comes to couture, in addition to the craftsmanship, which we are in danger of losing, we have to think of the sheer amount of jobs it sustains. People say we should be saving, but actually we should encourage the people who have the means to spend. Too many people think it's frivolous, but couture generates huge amounts of income.”
But the most bulletproof case in favor of couture, crisis be damned, came from Ivana Trump, who spoke to me from the backseat of her chauffeured Mercedes sedan, protected from the cold by a plush fur coat: “People still need to get dressed, don’t they?”
Sameer Reddy is a special correspondent for Newsweek International, to which he contributes two columns—Top Shelf, which deals with luxury, and Tendencies, a survey of trends in culture. Based in Berlin, he edits a recently launched blog about aesthetics, www.the-comment.com.