Tuesday, December 25, 2007

High Art?

The big question buzzing around haute couture, apart from the one addressing its immanent demise, is why do women, from the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and, now more than ever, Asia and Russia, choose to invest their resources in such extravagant and delicate goods?

Each January and July, regular front row customers such as Princess Firyal of Jordan or Bethy Lagardere, the Brazilian wife of one of France's business tycoons, descend on Paris to perch on rows of tiny gilt-edged chairs in the haute atmosphere of the couture shows. With notebooks in hand, they scrutinize the work of the handful of couturiers still in existence - Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Christian Lacroix, Jean-Paul Gaultier, John Galliano for Christian Dior - modeled by women the age of their daughters and, more often than not, grand-daughters. Occasionally, when they witness a particularly lavish embroidery snaking down the back of a dress or a frothy sleeve of layered chiffon, they break out into ooh’s and ahhh’s, while others applaud.

When they have made their selections they visit the Paris salons where these pieces are conceived and order them, attending at least three fittings with women clad in little white coats; purses of pins hanging round their necks at the ready to adjust garments until they hang just right. Depending on the complexity of the item, the client will have to wait six to twelve weeks before they receive it. It is also not uncommon for customers to send their private jets to pick up the finished clothing, or for a fitter and vendeuse to hop on a plane, fly to New York or Jeddah for a fitting and fly back again to complete the garment. Even to clients accustomed to personal chefs and bodyguards, there's a thrill to being looked after by a couture house. Big customers are often sent flowers and invited to private dinners.

In todays fast paced world, haute couture seems to trade in the luxury of time. Its loyal clients aren’t necessarily after the latest fashions so much as the rarest and most exclusive. For a garment to even be considered “haute couture” it must be completely handmade in Paris to a client’s exact measurements. Not only are all the fabrics and embellishments of the highest quality, but the individuals who spend hundreds of hours assembling these pieces are some of the most skilled in the world. Master tailors, seamstresses, embroiders, lace makers and other craftspeople with years of experience under their belts, all residing in Paris. The end result are garments that are as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside, and in some cases are so meticulously constructed that they are able to stand up on their own after an individual has stepped out of them. Ralph Rucci, the only American couturier presently invited to show in Paris, has often said that without those Paris workshops he would be handicapped, as he depends on their skills to realize his technically challenging and beautifully crafted designs.

“Collecting,” is the word most clients use when speaking of their haute couture purchases, a term one associates more with the world of art than fashion. But that is exactly the way many of these women view haute couture. In a sense they are patrons of an art form that would otherwise die if not for their loyalty to it. Furthermore each client seems to exhibit a particular obsession with the craft. Daphne Guinness is able to tell which house a garment came from based on its construction, Susan Gutfreund is drawn to innovations in fabric design, while Bethy Lagardere is obsessed with Gaultier’s pantsuits ever since his first couture show in January 1997. Becca Cason Thrash is considered a minor collector; she owns roughly a dozen pieces which she has worn time and again. "You amortize couture," she says. "You buy a piece and you wear it in Houston, then you wear it again in New York, then London, then Paris…you put it away for a couple of years and when you pull it out, it looks all brand new again." To offset the cost of some of these purchases, American and European clients will often donate their older pieces to museums and cultural institutions, thus writing off a portion of the cost as a tax deduction.

There are also a number of customers from the Middle East who rank amongst haute couture’s serious collectors, treating their purchases like works of art. At Valentino's most recent Paris couture show the guest list read like a who's who of the Arabian Peninsula: Princess Al Anoud Al Khalifa, Princess Sara bin Mohamed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia and Princess Firyal of Jordan, amongst many others. But there have been few occasions when a prominent Arab customer has been willing to talk about her passion for haute couture, as was the case with Princess Haifa Al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia who is a regular client at Gaultier.

Over the years Al-Faisal has been a customer at many of the great Parisian couture houses. She has also been privy to the ateliers of some of couture’s most famous designers, having seen a dress take shape from a basic muslin to the final opulent garment lined in silk. Although she declines to acknowledge which designers' work currently catches her eye, she nevertheless mentioned that "Saint Laurent used to be my favorite," before he retired. As a customer, she often sees Arab influences on the couture runway. "You can see it very well when you know what you're looking for," she says. "Not just me, but my friends, my family."

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

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