Le Smoking

FASHION: Yves Saint Laurent has been making his signature Smoking suit for 30 years. But what makes a woman's tuxedo worth pounds 10,000? Tamsin Blanchard goes behind the scenes in Paris. Photographs by Gavin Bond
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The Independent Culture
The price of an haute couture frock is as closely guarded a secret as the contents of Fort Knox. The couture houses are too discreet to mention money and couture clients in the same breath, if at all. And the clients wave away the mention of French francs as an irrelevance. When faced with a Rolls-Royce, you do not ask the owner how much it cost.

If you are not part of the club (only those whose yearly clothing budgets reach six figures need apply), there is no need for you to know the price of a couture jacket or a dress: you will never be able to afford it anyway. Betty Catroux, the lifetime fan and friend of Yves Saint Laurent, is a member of the club. Twice a year, she takes her spindly gilt chair on the front row alongside Paloma Picasso - wearing her signature bright red lipstick, courtesy of her own cosmetics line - Catherine Deneuve with her high cheekbones and dark YSL sunglasses, Sao Schlumberger, the Portuguese socialite and patron saint of couture houses including the new Givenchy and Lacroix, and Nan Kempner, a fellow YSL fanatic flown over from New York for a bit of serious shopping.

Betty Catroux does not need another Le Smoking, estimated price pounds 8,000- 10,000 to add to her collection. But then she did not need the first one she bought 30 years ago. But as sure as eggs, she will pick a little something out from the catwalk. Money is not an issue. To even mention it in these refined circles is a vulgarity. "Each time I hope for one more suit. It makes me so happy. Saint Laurent is unique," she tells me as she throws another kiss into the air, just before Deneuve makes her entrance to the excited jostle of photographers. And that, if your money grows on trees, is as good a reason as any.

To understand something about the making of a couture outfit is to understand the added zeros on the price. Hand- made haute couture is only a distant cousin of mass-manufactured ready-to-wear. While both are shown on the catwalk (couture in July and January and ready-to-wear in October and March), the two should never be confused. A pattern for a ready-to- wear suit might be drafted by computer and the fabric bought by the roll from a mill and cut by laser. Everything at haute couture is done by the most skilled of hands. There is only one sewing machine at the workrooms of Yves Saint Laurent, used occasionally to run a row of basting stitches along a length of fabric. Everything else, from the tailoring of a jacket to the construction of the most fantastical evening gown or the sewing on of sparkly hundreds and thousands, is done by hand.

Each pattern for every Yves Saint Laurent collection will be made from scratch, drafted by Monsieur Jean-Pierre, the head of the atelier who has been at Saint Laurent's side since the designer's days at Dior. Jean-Pierre has over 30 years of experience. He joined Dior at the age of 15 and accompanied Saint Laurent when he opened his own House in 1962. The quality control at the couture fabric houses would not allow the slightest kink in the weft or the tiniest weakness of thread to pass through. For a cocktail dress, a piece of lace might be hand-made over a period of several months.

Every collection begins with the ideas that Saint Laurent sketches in pencil on sheets of A4 paper. For the collection at the beginning of July, the sketches were finished in June. These are passed onto Jean-Pierre whose job it is to interpret the drawing and give it dimension and volume.

In 1966, Jean-Pierre brought to life the first YSL tuxedo, made famous in the photographs of Helmut Newton. "He loves this fabric," the elegant tailor tells me, fingering the black grain de poudre that has been used for every tuxedo that celebrates 30 years this autumn. "Every year, we make a different interpretation of the tuxedo suit, but always with this fabric. Women can travel in it." Saint Laurent has a great respect for women, and so he should; without them, he would be out of business. At every stage of the making of a suit, a house model tries it on to show Saint Laurent how the garment works in action. The suit must work on the body, allowing freedom of movement, otherwise it is altered until it does.

The toile is cut and measured on a Stockman dummy which has been customised with a little bit of padding here and there to the ideal shape of the YSL woman. A half-jacket is stitched together as a work of art in itself. Once the line of the jacket is found, both sides are made and it is tried on. Saint Laurent casts his eye over it to make sure the slope of the shoulders is as he drew it, or the width of the lapels is as he imagined. When the Smoking jacket and floor- length skirt is tried on by one of the house models, who arrives for her fitting dressed only in a pair of sheer tights, an elegant pair of high heels and a white lab coat over the top, Jean-Pierre surveys the cut. "Saint Laurent is crazy about the shoulders - he has a very strong stroke in his drawings. The angle in his drawing has to be the same as the angle on the finished jacket." The angle is indeed extraordinary. It slopes down and then peaks slightly at the edge, like it has been drawn with a stroke of a brush.

Saint Laurent and Jean-Pierre have been working together for 35 years, so long, that there is a mutual understanding between them, a kind of symbiosis. Still, Jean-Pierre worries until Saint Laurent signals that he is happy. "The first fitting is always difficult. Monsieur Saint Laurent is looking for perfection. He is never satisfied," says Jean-Pierre. Usually, the alterations are minute, but it is the fine details that make haute couture. After the toile has been approved, Saint Laurent will choose the fabric.

Jean-Pierre estimates that the Smoking suit might, at most, sell to 10 different clients which is a lot in couture terms. Many of the outfits on the catwalk will be hard-pressed to sell at all. Some of the more theatrical gowns will be made for the show alone, to demonstrate the technical expertise of the house and give the audience and the readers of next morning's newspapers something to gasp at. In the past, the role of haute couture was as the laboratory of innovative ideas, some of which would trickle down to ready- to-wear the following season. Today, many couture houses are about selling perfume, not clothes. Their purpose is to get the house's name in the papers. But Saint Laurent is one of the few that makes haute couture clothes designed to sell and be worn: there are enough loyal YSL addicts like Betty Catroux who have lived with Yves through his military looks, his naval style, the Russian collection, the Mondrians and the feminine transparent blouses worn underneath masculine tuxedos that were once so daring.

With the perfected toile, Jean-Pierre and his team - including Charles, a young British apprentice who left St Martin's 18 months ago and has learned more in the ateliers of Paris than he ever could at college - will set to work on the paper pattern.

"His passion for the couture reminds me of when I was starting out," says Jean-Pierre of the latest eager addition to the tailoring room. And it is young apprentices like Charles who will keep the tradition of haute couture alive. "Being here is like a dream," he says. "It's amazing."

The paper pattern will be drafted and measured and refined again and again until the jigsaw fits precisely. Then the fabric is cut and the real work begins, with the tailoring, the manipulation of the fabric with steaming and pressing to make it fit. The shape and fit of the jacket or the skirt is pressed into the fabric. A couturier works with the grain of the fabric, using the bias to create form. This sensibility to the fabric is a key to the art of the couture. "It's magic," says Jean-Pierre.

Next door, a team of women - seamstresses, cutters, and more magicians - are working away under the watchful eye of Georgette, at the soft, fluid side of the collection, the evening dresses, the fit and flare skirts, the ball gowns and the little cocktail numbers. They are busy preparing a pink ball gown to show to Saint Laurent. On the stand is a voluminous Scarlett O'Hara skirt being worked on by two pairs of hands. There are 15 metres of finest taffeta in the underskirt alone. For the overskirt, there will be eight metres of faille de soie. It is the last dress to be made, and has to be ready the day before the show. Today is Saturday, and the show is only four days away. It will take more than 100 hours to make the whole dress - a week, working day and night. A dress like this will be worn only once and will be sold only to one client (if at all).

The customers of couture mix in the same circles and it is important that the vendeuses don't allow two women to make their grand entrances wearing the same dress. Money buys not only the best craftsmanship and experience, a little of the history of Yves Saint Laurent and the couturier's personal touch - it buys exclusivity.

After the show, most of the orders are made with the chief vendeuse, Helene de Ludinghausen. The actual fittings will not start until September with a maximum of three per outfit. It is then that the real work begins. For every order, a new toile will be made, a new pattern and a new look. When Betty Catroux arrives for her fitting, the slightest change in her body shape will be allowed for. The latest addition to her collection will, like all the others, follow and hold the contours of her body precisely. It will be made for her and her alone, a very personal exchange between one woman and Yves Saint Laurent. Offer Mme Catroux a Rolls-Royce, and she would prefer a couple of suits from the master any day