Friday, May 30, 2008

Dodie and Friends: A Look at Couture’s San Francisco Club

The world of the couture client maybe a small one, yet there are a number of major cities (in the unlikeliest places around the world) that can claim to be home to several of these rarified species. Houston can boast a large number, as can Caracas, Beirut, Mexico City, Rio, and Bandar Seri Begwan (the capital of Brunei). Chicago, despite all the “big shoulder” euphemisms, has in fact been home to a steady stream of couture customers who continue to attend the shows today. Some of these women were Haute Couture’s first clients, such as Mrs. Cyrus H. McCormick, Mrs. Potter Palmer and Mrs. Augustus Newland Eddy, who kept a diary in which she chronicled her fittings at the Houses of Worth and Pingat.

In Couture’s early day’s, during the 1860’s and 70’s, such clients didn’t amass their extraordinary wardrobes by attending two shows annually on a prescribed date. In fact there was no such thing as a Spring or Fall season. Instead couture purchases became a part of the frequent six month “grand tours” they would take to Europe. Upon reaching Paris their first order of business was to make an appointment at the reigning houses of the day, where seated in an elegant salon they would make their selections of fabrics and trims. All subsequent required fittings were done during their “visit” to Paris, after which they would leave to other parts of Europe to continue on with their holidays. This gave the couture houses a staggering 4-6 months to complete orders for garments, which were often picked up by their clients, carefully wrapped and boxed, on their way to the steam ship. It’s a reflection of how times have changed especially for today’s clients who travel by private jet and frequently demand a faster turnaround; complaining that three weeks is simply unacceptable.

It is a reminder that couture as an industry has evolved over centuries and that it will continue to do so. What hasn’t changed is a standard of refinement and the notion that whatever such women purchased from these houses would eventually produce a trickle down effect on what their contemporaries would be wearing in their own hometowns.

Like Chicago, San Francisco boasts a number of prominent couture clients, and not surprisingly many of them are familiar with Dodie Rosenkrans, either as friends or members of the same social circles. It is also more than likely the case that some of these clients are familiar with their counterparts in other cities or countries, as many of the events they attend tend to be international in scope. For Couture houses such information is indispensable so as to avoid the embarrassing situation of a New York socialite and Saudi Princess showing up at an event in Rome dressed in the same frock.

In addition to Rosekrans, the handful of local San Francisco notables who wear haute couture includes Ann Getty, Denise Hale, Tatiana Sorokko, Dede Wilsey, Danielle Steel, Christine Suppes, and Sako Fisher. They represent the privileged few who make the bi-annual trip to Paris, during January and July, and who have experienced the process of being measured up to some 35 times, all the way down to their fingertips. Not to mention standing still during the three required fittings all seasoned clients must succumb too.

"The big fiction about haute couture," says Wilsey, "is that it's only made for you. It isn't. They might make five of them. It's really ready-to-wear at higher prices." Still, she says, "the fabrics are spectacular, the sewing and the details are amazing; they are really beautiful things." Wilsey heads the Couture Circle for the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, a group of about 25 donors who love textiles and costumes and "come together to raise significant money" for fashion exhibitions.

When asked how she stores most of her couture purchases, Wilsey confesses that her gowns "are so jammed together, they don't need hangers to stay up."

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

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