All status and no style

The craftsmanship may be superb but what's the point if couture clothes are so ugly that no one in their right mind would want to wear them? By Tamsin Blanchard. Photographs by Sheridan Morley
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Some people collect vintage cars, storing them up in their garages where they are polished and nurtured, and taken out for only an occasional spin around the country lanes. Others collect property - a mansion here, an apartment there, and a chateau on the banks of the Loire. Some people have so much money that they don't know what to do with it. And a handful of women, a select few who acknowledge each other with a kiss blown into thin air or a regal wave of the hand when they meet twice a year at the shows in Paris, collect haute couture frocks and suits.

There are times, sitting in those spindly gilt chairs that are the required seating for the most wealthy and bony of bottoms, when you are struck by the sheer obscenity of a world that has little to do with style and good design and everything to do with money, vanity, power and status.

Forget the 17th-century panniered monstrosity that might be working its way down the catwalk on some skeletal model's frame. Look instead along the front row, at the skeletal frames of some of the clients, few of them a day younger than 60 and each with heavily applied theatrical make-up, jutting collagen lips and interchangeable back-combed and teased hair. And then look to the models on the catwalk, with their narrow frames, their long, cellulite-free legs, their youthful skin, their silky, coiffured hair and their perfect features.

The two have little in common apart from youth: one has it and the other lusts after it.

But the real problem with haute couture is not the price of a dress (pounds 10,000 buys you either a supermodel for the day or a hand-stitched, made-to-measure, one-off jacket that will last a lifetime) or even the pursuit of youth. The problem is the taste by-pass that plagues so many of the collections. Wealth and luxury seem to have become synonymous with vulgarity and a total disregard for elegance or refinement.

The art and craft of couture per se is, however, one to be supported and maintained at all costs. The fine-fabric weavers and the embroiderers of Paris, who have at their fingertips the skill to create a slip of lace so delicate that it is only replicated by spiders at work on their webs, or a jacket that can give a woman great stance and stature even if she has a dowager's hump, are among the few remaining craftspeople in the world who keep the art of perfection alive.

The greatest couturiers are never satisfied. He (and there are no women at the helm of the couture houses in Paris) will spend his life in search of the impossible - the brilliant slope of the shoulders, the perfect line, the magic of haute couture. But there is no point applying the most labour-intensive techniques if the garment itself is so ugly that nobody in their right mind would want to wear it.

The best thing that has happened to haute couture in recent years is the appointment of John Galliano at Givenchy. It may take him a few more seasons, though, to find a balance between pure fantasy, which he does so well and which delights all who see it, and wearable clothes that women who can afford it are chomping at the bit to buy.

His collection for this autumn/winter offered few real clothes, some strange combinations of fake fur and lace, and some barely decent lacy slips, and lacked the overblown princess ballgowns Galliano included last season. But he has brought his own aesthetic to the couture, an eye that is aware of the history of costume and the technical possibilities of couture but that is still open enough to modern-day reality to give the clothes a reason for existing.

The second-best thing that could happen to haute couture was the announcement that Gianfranco Ferre - a man whose taste levels rarely peak above poor - has designed his last collection for Dior. Whoever takes his place will give the next season a new momentum and a much-needed shake-up.

Good taste does exist at haute couture. Yves Saint Laurent makes clothes that have a loyal following, and for good reason. His collection for autumn/winter '96 includes simple wool dresses, a single-button, chocolate-brown trouser- suit worn by Claudia Schiffer, who chose to model exclusively for YSL, the signature smoking suit, and evening wear such as a plain black velvet column with swathes of chiffon caught at the hip and billowing over one shoulder. The only lapse into bad taste was the liberal use of fox and mink for borders and trims.

Karl Lagerfeld's collection for Chanel was pared down to what he has dubbed the "Endless Suit", figure-hugging, calf-length boucle jackets, and narrow Nehru jackets for day, all worn over footless tights or cigarette pants that might not be what the woman who wants to wear a short skirt with her jacket has in mind. The footless tights and boned unitards in shiny Lycra were worn as foundation garments (to give shape to the less- than-perfect body), which at least presented a solution as to what to wear under a sheer lacy dress.

Best of all, Lagerfeld showed that there is an alternative to fur: layers and layers of ruffled net in browns and blacks, ruched tightly together to give an impression of fur, but with the modernity and lightness of nylon. The collection was devoid of the usual gilt double-C buttons that are all-important to the women who need reassurance of their status in life. But the long, elongated silhouette was flattering and unfussy. And the workmanship - the razor-sharp tailoring and Chinese embroideries - is worthy of being shown off and worn.

Gianni Versace, who sits on the fence between ready-to-wear and haute couture, showed that he has a finger on the pulse with his collection of slinky evening dresses that take their styling - the graphic ticks and stripes that contour the dresses - from contemporary sportswear.

Many would argue that this is not real couture: where is the beading, the crinoline skirt, the historical costume drama? The workmanship might not be up to that of Valentino or Lacroix, and Versace is not usually known for his sense of fine taste. In this collection there were some aberrations of evening dresses in the sort of fake fur that is usually found on the seat covers of old Ford Cortinas. But Versace showed that for couture to stay alive, it is necessary to keep abreast of the times and to make clothes that are slick and worthy of the woman who will still be alive by the year 2000.