The spring/summer 2011 haute couture season opens in Paris today, providing an opportunity for fashion's most accomplished artisans to show off their skills.
Under the creative direction of the likes of Karl Lagerfeld (Chanel), John Galliano (Dior), and Jean-Paul Gaultier, they fit, hand-stitch, embroider and over-embroider garments that take days and even weeks to realise. No more than a few of each model will ever be produced and even the more simple pieces regularly cost upwards of £10,000. It is not uncommon for more elaborate confections to weigh in at 10 times that amount.
For years, speculation has been rife that this, fashion's most anachronistic loss-leader, cannot possibly survive. And yet haute couture prevails, providing a wardrobe for the world's most sartorially discerning and wealthy women, serving as a laboratory of ideas to some of fashion's most fêted names and lifting the spirits of mere mortals, who watch in wonderment all the while.
Yves Saint Laurent: Spring/Summer 2002
When Yves Saint Laurent stepped down from his ready-to-wear label at the end of the 1990s, his long-term friend and business partner Pierre Bergé announced that haute couture was dead. In fact, while the ready-to-wear and beauty arm of the company was sold to the Gucci Group (the parent company is Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, PPR) in 1999, Bergé held on to Yves Saint Laurent haute couture and Saint Laurent's swansong collection for this, the jewel in the house's crown, didn't come until 2002. Held at the Pompidou Centre in the presence of France's great and good, it was an entirely moving, retrospective affair, which closed with Catherine Deneuve, the house's muse since Saint Laurent dressed her for Luis Buñuel's 1967 film classic Belle de Jour, serenading the designer. "Ma plus histoire d'amour, c'est vous," she sang, dressed in iconic Le Smoking, as perhaps the greatest couturier of the latter part of the 20th century came on to the catwalk for the last time.
Viktor & Rolf: Spring/Summer 2000
Although never invited to show on the official haute couture schedule, the Dutch design pairing Viktor & Rolf was responsible for some of haute couture's most brilliantly innovative moments as the 20th century came to a close. Bells, their first haute couture collection of the new millennium and, in fact, their last – from there they moved in a more obviously commercial direction focusing on ready-to-wear – followed the famous Russian Doll/Babushka and was equally extraordinary. Models emerged in a cloud of dry ice, wearing designs covered entirely in tinkling bells – the clue, then, is in the name.
Valentino: Autumn/Winter 2007
The Roman couturier Valentino Garavani retired three years ago and this – his last haute couture collection – was occasion for much shedding of tears and gnashing of immaculately veneered teeth as the world's best-dressed ladies who lunch bade farewell to their favourite designer. While, in recent years, the emphasis for haute couture has been firmly on evening and red-carpet dressing, always guaranteed to set the flashbulbs popping, Valentino's daywear – the immaculately cut shift dress and swing coat beloved of Jacqueline Kennedy, say, or an equally smart skirt suit – was second to none: as discreet as it was sartorially discerning.
Christian Lacroix: Spring/Summer 2003
It is often said that in the 1980s, the Southern-France born Christian Lacroix was responsible for saving haute couture from abject obscurity, such was the rainbow-coloured audacity of his designs that were, indeed, a sight for sore eyes. One of fashion's great colourists and a man as culturally sophisticated as he was unafraid of the most exuberant overload of feathers, furs, frills and more, it was not uncommon for this couturier to reduce his audience to tears, such was the loveliness of his designs. Suffice it to say that Lacroix made women look variously like exotic birds, flowers and even butterflies. But sadly, while the haute couture arm thrived, successive owners failed to turn the business side of things around and commercial success eluded Lacroix. In 2009, then, the by-that-point venerable fashion institution was forced to close its doors.
Chanel: Autumn/Winter 2007
The last remaining traditionally trained couturier and, to more than a few fashion followers, the most accomplished, Karl Lagerfeld continues to work his magic for the house of Chanel. His haute couture collections in particular are as refined as they are lovely. From the little black dress and the requisite end section of spellbindingly lovely gowns to the classic bouclé wool cardigan jacket, cut to fit madam's every curve, this serves not only as a brilliant marketing tool for the famous French brand but also continues to sell to grand ladies the world over. On this occasion, a venue open to the elements dictated that elegant, be-suited men with (Chanel?) umbrellas were on hand to protect them from the driving rain.
Jean-Paul Gaultier: Spring/Summer 2001
Traditionally the wedding dress ends the haute couture presentation, safe in the knowledge that if this most moneyed of customers tied the knot many years ago, her daughter might still be searching for a little quelque chose to wear for her big day. Leave it to Jean-Paul Gaultier to flout this time-honoured fashion tradition by sending Jade Parfitt out in hers complete with naked newborn baby in place of bouquet. Gaultier – who launched his couture line in 1997 – was long tipped as the natural successor to Yves Saint Laurent, such was the ultra-elegant, if somewhat maverick, character of his quintessentially Gallic designs.
Dior: Autumn/Winter 2007
Shown at the Orangerie at Versailles – a monumentally upscale venue even given couture's rarefied standards – for this, the house's 60th anniversary collection, John Galliano, Dior couturier since 1996, dressed the world's most famous models using Grand Master paintings and iconic fashion photography as his principal reference. Gisele Bündchen in black "bar" suit and Raquel Zimmerman in white New Look gown spoke of the work of Irving Penn, he said. Then came the linear sketches of Jean Cocteau, watery impressionism, Degas' ballerinas, rococo frills and furbelows and the full drama of Stella Tennant and Linda Evangelista in 17th-century Spanish regalia. Billed as "the greatest show on earth" across the globe, it was a creative tour de force par excellence, proof, if ever any were needed, that this is fashion's finest fantasist.
Givenchy: Spring/Summer 2000
When Alexander McQueen was appointed creative director of Givenchy in October 1996 – and John Galliano moved from Givenchy to Christian Dior – it was said that these two comparatively young, British-educated designers were charged with the onerous task of dragging probably the world's most anachronistic craft form into the 21st century. In fact, McQueen remained at Givenchy for only one year following this show – he was there for just over four in total – making no secret of the fact that, while he had only the greatest respect for the petites mains who staffed this atelier, the corporate powers behind them were, to his mind, seriously lacking. Still, the designer never regretted his time there, producing some of his most memorable creations for the house, and safe in the knowledge that learning from such skilled crafts-people was a privilege.