Several years ago the famously cranky Pierre Berge proclaimed that haute couture would die after the retirement of Yves Saint Laurent. Instead it flourished with the additions of John Galliano at Dior and Alexander McQueen, then at Givenchy. Couture, like other industries seems to go through cycles, ups and downs that inevitably bring changes to the current system.
In January Valentino will present his final couture collection in Paris. But for all the talk of a diminishing schedule and the inevitable demise of haute couture, young and new talent is still emerging each season. Givenchy, for example, is now presided over by the young designer Riccardo Tisci, who in a relatively short period of time has established a new aesthetic for the house that is attracting a modern clientele in tune with his mournfully romantic gothic confections. According to Tisci, “When I arrived we had five customers. Now we have 29.” Furthermore the number of young couture clients seems to be growing as Tisci points out, “I was in Cannes last year for the film festival and I saw this Russian girl, very beautiful, 23 years old. It was amazing to see her in my dress — a green dress from the last show, with the shoes and the bag and everything. It’s like the Arabic countries. Some of the princes have, like, 10 daughters, and they all dress in couture. It’s funny, they all come.”
While some houses have closed, others are keen to join the couture ranks. The latest couture collections shown in Paris last July witnessed the debut of two new couture houses on the official calendar. There is Anne Valerie Hash (who in the past presented her ready-to-wear collection during couture week) and Stéphane Roland, who after years of successfully designing for Jean Louis Scherrer decided to set up his own house, attracting both an established and newer clientele. Giorgio Armani is also a more recent inductee. Having made his money in the ready-to-wear revolution of the 1970s, the Italian designer introduced Giorgio Armani Privé at the Paris shows as one of 10 guest fashion houses on the couture schedule, which includes the American Ralph Rucci and the Lebanese designer Elie Saab.
There are currently ten designers qualified to show their made-to-measure collections in Paris in the haute couture show series, and countless other designer who show outside the schedule. Though you wouldn’t know this based on the scant coverage given to them in fashion publications and online, where the Big 5 (Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Lacroix, and Gaultier) receive the most coverage, thus leaving people with the impression that the couture has dwindled to a handful of designers.
Names like Adeline Andre, Frank Sorbier, Carven and Dominique Sirop don't mean much beyond Europe and to those in the know, but they all have growing customer lists for their meticulously constructed outfits. Furthermore, discovering new couture ateliers that are under the radar has also become a competitive sport amongst some couture customers. These include the couturiers Maurizio Galante, Richard René and Stéphane Mahéas amongst others.
Then there is the elusive Belgian designer Martin Margiela, whose Maison Martin Margiela line has had a subtly more subversive effect on the couture establishment. For this understated house, nothing as unseemly as models strutting down a catwalk is required. The company's most expensive line - prices range from a relatively affordable $4,000 to $14,000 for limited edition garments - has been presented to small groups of clients and journalists in a salon as modest and unassuming as the clothes are innovative. Stripped of ostentation and the flouting of elitist values, his entirely hand-crafted and exclusive clothing appears to reflect the contemporary lives of a new generation of couture customers.
Margiela, for all his anti-establishment rhetoric, serves to illustrate that there will always be the creative talent and clients for couture. But its future ultimately lies in the hands of the treasured "petites mains," the artisans who labor in workshops doing the elaborate handwork that transforms a designer's sketches into reality. Although it is not known how many artisans still work in France's haute couture industry, what is certain is that their numbers are dwindling. Especially diminished are the "fournisseurs," the artisans who work in outside workshops like Lesage, which specializes in the craft of embroidery and Lemarié, the “plumassier,” which provides the couture industry with feathers and ornamental flowers.
Yet many believe these skills are still central to French Fashion and to view these craftsmen as quaint anachronisms would be a mistake. According to Valerie Steele, the chief curator of the Museum of FIT, "Fashion isn't necessarily about concept but about craftsmanship. You need the people to make the best ribbon, the best lace, the best hats. This is essential to keeping French fashion prestigious and creative."
To guarantee the future of at least some artisans, Chanel has bought six of the oldest workshops that no longer have heirs to run them. Having all of this expertise centralized in Paris allows designers to realize their creative dreams in ways unparalleled anywhere else in the world. "It's like a laboratory," said Lars Nilsson, the former designer for Nina Ricci in Paris, who was recently appointed as creative director at Gianfranco Ferré. "It's very Paris and quite unique because you have the connections and you can use two to three skills, like Lesage and Lemarié."
In the end haute couture maybe fashion at its most frivolous and excessive, but to many of its loyal clients it is also reminder that fashion-beyond the bottom line, the commercialism, and the designer handbags is still capable of conjuring up fantasy and mesmerizing others with its beauty and innovation. Here-in lies the secret behind haute couture’s large guilt doors, and the hope of many a couture customer from Riyadh to Sao Paulo is that those tiny hands will continue to spin luxurious dreams out of lace and tulle for many years to come.
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