The greatest show on earth: Why haute couture is thriving

All over the Western world, the talk is of doom and gloom. But in a fashionable quarter of Paris, haute couture week is in full swing. Susannah Frankel celebrates an unlikely triumph

At this worrying time in the economic cycle, with the West teetering on the brink of a double-dip recession and millions facing up to cutbacks and job losses, does anyone really need a floor-sweeping gown that looks like a tulip, took more than 500 person-hours (and 270 metres of fabric) to make, and is priced at tens of thousands of pounds? Are the women of this world truly yearning for an equally exorbitant tweed skirt suit that some might describe (to the untrained eye, only whisper it) as "Miss Marple dowdy" – except that it's scattered with what looks suspiciously like stardust and trimmed with fine fur? And when these women wear it, will it be strictly necessary for their escort to be dressed in a bespoke tuxedo, his face covered entirely by an elaborate facsimile of the head of a lion?

The answer to these questions – and to many more like them – is, of course: No, no and no again. But as the autumn/winter 2010 haute couture season draws to a close in Paris today, such pragmatic worries and mundane concerns are unlikely to be high on the agenda.

Haute couture has its detractors; it always has done. There's not much that's even remotely politically correct about this, the most unashamedly anachronistic event in the fashion calendar. It's proudly elitist: there are, it is said, only between 200 and 2,000 couture customers in the world, depending on who you believe. Either way, that's not many. It's flagrantly expensive: even the simplest garment costs upward of £5,000 – an eye-catching sum in the current financial climate. And as for the rarity of the materials, exotic skins, plumage, dyes and more, flown in from all around the world, are hardly environmentally friendly.

But despite all the arguments that make the twice yearly haute couture season – which takes place in the French capital each January and July – appear as outmoded as Angel Delight, it continues to thrive and is as closely guarded and carefully cherished by fashion industry insiders today as it ever was.

Here's how that happened. Long before designer ready-to-wear clothing was introduced to the world in the mid-20th century – and before the current emperor of the British high street, Sir Philip Green, was even a twinkle in his mother's eye – the haute couture season was where fashion's most gifted names (the revered likes of Paul Poiret, Cristobal Balenciaga, Coco Chanel and Christian Dior) offered up their wares. Then as now, perfectly tailored and entirely handmade daywear, cocktail dresses and evening gowns produced by some of the world's most accomplished crafts people were the order of the day here – and it's still the case that only the most exclusive fabrics are used. Tweed from Scotland, wool from England, silk from France ... Garments are fitted to an individual client's shape in mirrored salons and then sent off to workshops across Paris to be embroidered, beaded, feathered and over- embroidered by specialists in their field, many of whom trained under the discerning eyes of their mothers and grandmothers – or fathers and grandfathers. No more than 10 examples of any particular design are ever made – to ensure that madame is not dressed in an outfit like her friend's at the next well-heeled soirée – a fashion faux pas of almighty proportions.

Meaning literally "high sewing", the noble craft of haute couture can be traced back to the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette but was only formalised in Paris by an English-born couturier, Charles Worth, who opened his fashion house in 1858 and was quick to realise that success relied on the most stringent quality control. He founded the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne to regulate the by-then burgeoning number of houses. Each member was required to apply for admission annually and to conform to a set of rules – governing the number of people employed and designs produced seasonally – which remain little changed to this day.

There were thousands involved in the dress- making industry at that time and their jobs needed protecting. And of course, it wasn't then possible for any copycat upstart to attend a presentation with a digital camera and come up with a budget interpretation almost before the original had found its way into a princess's wardrobe. Couturiers only sold their patterns on to reputable department stores – and even then, lucky

recipients were forced to follow strict protocol: they could only display designs long after the main event had been sold, and they were never allowed to use a couturier's name – to ensure an invitation to the next show arrived six months down the line.

In the Second World War, the Third Reich spent considerable time and effort attempting to transfer the haute couture to Berlin but failed. "It is in Paris or nowhere," the then president of the Chambre Syndicale, Lucien Lelong, grandly proclaimed – and, amazingly perhaps, he got his way. When fabric rationing struck, not long after, the couturiers simply showed their collections on dolls, a third of the size of the women who might eventually buy them, to curb any unnecessary expense.

In 1964, with the ready-to-wear industry gaining ground, Queen magazine was the first of many to announce the "death of couture" with fictional obituaries of Balenciaga and Hubert de Givenchy. Brigitte Bardot commented that couture was "for grannies". Almost 30 years later, Pierre Berge, long-term business partner of Yves Saint Laurent, claimed that haute couture would die when that house's namesake stepped down. But he did so in 2002 and haute couture continued along its gilded path. During the last global recession, with the collapse of the so-called petrodollar, the harbingers of doom went into overdrive. But although the super-wealthy chose to stay home, the collections travelled to them – and still they bought, albeit in a more modest manner.

In 2010, with the luxury goods industry teetering on the edge of free fall, it may come as a surprise to learn that haute couture is enjoying something of a moment in the sun. Earlier this week, Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel, told Women's Wear Daily: "We have new clients from Europe and the Middle East," reporting an increase of "between 20 and 30 per cent" in units and revenue for Karl Lagerfeld's summer collection, shown at the beginning of this year. Sidney Toledano, Dior president and chief executive officer described sales of John Galliano's last collection for that house as among the best since he arrived there in 1996. "We received so many orders, we are not sure we can deliver them," he said. "The demand is here. The number of clients has increased." Veronique Gautier, of Jean Paul Gaultier, also claimed a "spectacular recovery" in couture, given the severity of the 2009 downturn. "All the orders proved that clients are once again enthusiastic," she argued.

There are those who might suggest, and with good reason, that such fashion insiders would say that. But the truth is that even if these extravagant designs failed ever to be produced off the runway, their marketing potential is still worth more than its weight in gold. Designers will always argue that haute couture is a laboratory of ideas, that the technical innovation and expertise that goes into the making of a collection where budgetary concerns are anathema allows fashion to move forward. And that's true. On a more pedestrian level, the colours used in an haute couture collection – or even the flowers referenced – go on to inform next season's best-selling lipstick, say, or fragrance.

On the red carpet, too, couture wields its power – especially since 1997, when Nicole Kidman stepped out on Oscar night in a peacock-green Dior haute couture gown from John Galliano's debut collection. That one dress alone upped the ante – and the actress was even reported to be paid $2m for the privilege of wearing such finery. By 2003, she had dropped Dior in favour of Chanel, with whom she struck an unprecedented $7m deal. All sides appeared happy with such an apparently other-worldly state of affairs – and, given that any label worth its credentials now makes special, one-off pieces for Hollywood's big names, one can only assume that all involved still are.

Of all the challenges to which haute couture has been forced to rise, perhaps the most significant is the fact that there are now only a handful of names left on the official schedule, with Dior and Chanel (presided over by John Galliano) as the most high-profile by far. This has come about not least because many of the legendary couturiers of yesteryear have either died or retired. Not to be deterred, the Chambre Syndicale has, once again, sprung into action, creating a fine jewellery day at the end of the season where clients and press can find impossibly precious baubles to wear and/or photograph with their new outfits. Designer pre-collections – more accessible lines than the main ones shown on the catwalk – are also available for scrutiny in Paris throughout the week.

Over and above all this, though, haute couture survives because, against all the odds, there is still a place for it. For all those who argue that the prices of the garments are distasteful, there are many who know that the "petites mains" – the men and women in their uniforms of white lab coats who staff the ateliers – are well treated and earn a respectable wage, something that is far from always the case where "fast fashion" is concerned. And as for the money thrown at the shows themselves... Even Galliano's comparatively restrained presentation – such things, as always, are relative – staged on Monday in the gardens of the Rodin Museum must have set Dior back many hundreds of thousands of euros. But as part of a huge annual marketing spend, that remains a drop in the ocean.

Most importantly, though, while the vast majority of women will doubtless pass on the opportunity to dress like a flower – or indeed to step out with a partner who is half man, half lion – there is surely still a place for such unadulterated fashion whimsy, if only in their dreams.

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