Viktor and Rolf abandons ready-to-wear: It's the perfume that brings in the real profit

At Paris, the designers opted to focus exclusively on haute couture

Last week, it was announced that Viktor and Rolf would shutter its ready-to-wear line, forgoing its traditional Saturday slot on the Paris schedule to focus entirely on haute couture. Their decision echoes that of Jean Paul Gaultier, who drew a line under four decades of ready-to-wear with a (metaphorically) all-singing and (literally) all-dancing beauty pageant show in September.

 

“We have always used fashion to communicate,” said the designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren in a statement. “Ready-to-wear [has] started to feel creatively restricting.” There’s the need to sell, of course. And to stay within budget, and produce a certain number of garments, with a variety to them. Illustrating just that, for their spring couture show, Viktor and Rolf presented just 20 baby-doll dresses, although their exaggerated proportions and workmanship meant they probably broke the bank.

It’s the “communication” aspect that I find more interesting. Because that’s what couture is frequently seen as – an exercise in communicating the fundamentals of the brand, over and above a means to make clothes. It’s fine to talk about a boom in demand for haute couture, but as with the nominal couture boom in the late Seventies and early Eighties, it’s never going to make serious money. Turning a profit from couture is nice, but it actually isn’t necessary.

What is necessary is perfume. Is it coincidental that both Gaultier and  Viktor and Rolf have hugely successful perfume franchises? Even if they’re only gaining a dividend (Gaultier’s are produced by a Shiseido subsidiary; Viktor and Rolf’s by L’Oréal), they’re bringing in the real money.

How cynical, we smirk. Perhaps, but it isn’t unique to these designers, or to our times. Yves Saint Laurent sent out a collection in 1977 devoted to Asiatic styles to hurrah the launch of his wildly successful perfume Opium. Gabrielle Chanel’s return to haute couture in 1954 was motivated not by a need to free women from the “upholstered” styles proposed by male couturiers such as Christian Dior and Jacques Fath, as Mademoiselle claimed. It was to boost flagging sales of Chanel No 5. Communicating the Chanel essence – and hawking its eau de parfum.

But why couture, rather than ready-to-wear? After all, plenty of ready-to-wear doesn’t sell, existing purely to be consumed as visual spectacle. The difference with couture is that there are far fewer designers making it – hence, you get more attention. Plus, there’s no nose-wrinkling if the stuff doesn’t shift. It’s expected not to sell.

In short, haute couture is pure communication. All killer, no rail filler. All fantasy, no reality. Other than in highly profitable, highly flammable, liquid form.

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