Couture goes out of fashion

Women who spend their fortunes on frocks and their free time at fittings are a dying breed. So what does this mean for the great fashion houses of Paris? Susannah Frankel reports
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As some of the world's most wealthy women flew into Paris for the opening of the haute-couture collections yesterday, there was speculation as to how much longer this most archaic of craftforms can survive. How much longer will the fashion houses find buyers willing to pay thousands for bespoke dresses, meticulously made by a small army of craftspeople in France, with the most oppulent of finishes?

As some of the world's most wealthy women flew into Paris for the opening of the haute-couture collections yesterday, there was speculation as to how much longer this most archaic of craftforms can survive. How much longer will the fashion houses find buyers willing to pay thousands for bespoke dresses, meticulously made by a small army of craftspeople in France, with the most oppulent of finishes?

True, anyone well versed in the workings of the fashion industry will know that this is something of a seasonal concern and one that stretches back over more than 50 years. But ever since Yves Saint Laurent's partner Pierre Bergé announced at the end of the Nineties that the couture would die when his friend stepped down, the debate has gone into overdrive.

In May this year, the speculation increased. Two of couture's most eminent names - Versace and Ungaro - dropped off a schedule that has already lost Thierry Mugler, Louis Feraud, Lanvin, Nina Ricci and, of course, Saint Laurent himself in the past two years. Add to this the fact that Givenchy will not be showing this week either - until the powers that be at the house have found a replacement for Julien Macdonald it will arrange appointments with selected clients behind closed doors - and the number of internationally recognised names remaining is no more than a handful.

And so the schedule, which formerly stretched over five days - admittedly strategically thought-out to include gaps long enough to enable the wealthy buyers to have their hair blow-dried and fit in a long, if invariably light, lunch in between shows - has shrunk back to a mere three. It's hardly worth the effort, some might say.

"If the house decides to not make couture collections any more, I regret it, of course," M Ungaro, 71, and among the world's last great couturiers, told American fashion-trade paper Women's Wear Daily when his label's decision not to show was first announced. "But it's the law of the métier. I'm not nostalgic. I'm not sad. But we have to live faster and we are reflecting on a new way to do things. The modern way of living does not allow us to make a show, present the prototypes, order the fabrics, wait for the delivery and then have clients come for three fittings."

Instead, the house he founded aims to create a new hybrid line between haute couture and the less exclusive ready-to-wear which it will deliver at speed to clients right across the world.

Unsurprisingly, there are those who disagree with this viewpoint. It is, after all, no secret that Ungaro - and indeed Versace - has faced considerable financial difficulties over the past year or two following a worldwide recession sparked off by the attack on the World Trade Center in New York and further aggravated by the war in Iraq. The decision of both not to show is clearly at least in part a cost-cutting exercise - a couture show costs in the region of $3m to produce.

The fashion megabrands, however - in particular the mighty Christian Dior and Chanel - insist that there are still more than enough women willing and able to part with tens of thousands of pounds for a single garment, so long as it is hand-beaded and embroidered by the world's most accomplished craftspeople and tailored to suit the client's every idiosyncratic curve. In fact, according to both companies, although there are thought to be no more than around 2,000 couture clients left in the world, business is booming.

Anyone wishing to invest in a Christian Dior haute-couture outfit will face a wait of three to four months and be required to pay around £65,000 for a wedding dress. Prices for a more simple day suit, for example, are thought to be in the region of £17,000. Houses are notoriously unwilling to disclose the precise cost of a garment. Their clients' would find the release of any such information indiscreet to the point of offensive. Part of the justification for such high prices - the cost of labour and materials aside - is the fact that only a handful of any model will ever be made and exclusivity is therefore assured. Whichever way you choose to look at it, to most people, these figures are ludicrously inflated.

Despite this, and even though many of the world's most well-dressed women are happy to shop on the high street in this day and age, haute-couture is still alive and kicking if Dior designer John Galliano's front row yesterday was anything to go by. Oprah Winfrey was just one of many monied potential customers to attend alongside no less than 800 members of the international press.

British-born Galliano was brought in to revitalise a flagging couture climate in the mid-Nineties. With Alexander McQueen, then at Givenchy, and Jean-Paul Gaultier who opened his couture atelier in 1997, Galliano was charged with taking the craft forward into the 21st century. Certainly, in his hands, its function has changed immeasurably. While formerly collections were shown in intimate salons filled with rows of tiny gilt chairs and to an audience of no more than a few hundred, Galliano introduced the notion of the haute-couture show as stadium blockbuster, showing to as many as 2,000 people at one time and driving home the message that although couture is ultimately designed to cater only to the privileged few it is also the most effective of all marketing tools.

Yesterday, once again, the skirts of his dresses were so overblown they threatened to take the front row with them as they went past. Models were helped off the catwalk by as many as four besuited Dior attendants at a time: their clothes so tight-fitting and their shoes so high they would never have made it on their own. The extravagant and often extreme nature of such designs notwithstanding, sales right across the house and including the haute couture continue to rise, up 8 per cent to $162.2m in the first quarter of this year. Galliano's message is clear. At Christian Dior you'll find the biggest, brightest, boldest, dresses in the world and it is the haute couture that best exemplifies the fact.

"The impact [of couture] is huge on people worldwide," Dior president Sidney Toledano said last week. "It's our difference in the face of competition. I am convinced that couture is giving us an edge. It creates the magic of the brand." The company recently broadcast scenes from couture shows on massive television screens in Hong Kong to promote a new store there, China being the object of every global brand's attention just now. The show unveiled in Paris yesterday, meanwhile, is due to be shown again in Tokyo in September to celebrate the launch of another Dior flagship there.

Chanel, with Dior the most powerful French brand of all and which shows later today, is equally committed to haute couture - so much so that it is currently buying up some of the craftform's most respected ateliers - or workshops - including master embroiderer Lesage and couture shoe-maker Massaro. Chanel president Francoise Montenay has been quick to point out that they were unlikely to have done so only to shut them down a couple of years later.

"Chanel has a real clientele and that is and was the first reason for couture to exist," that label's designer Karl Lagerfeld told WWD. "It was created for women and their lives - privileged lives." Mr Lagerfeld's haute-couture designs have also been seen on more than their fair share of red carpets in recent years, most famously worn by Nicole Kidman - now the new face of Chanel's best-selling fragrance No 5. In fact, it was the impossibly lithe Ms Kidman who started the vogue for contemporary movie stars to wear haute couture as opposed to ready-to-wear at the Oscars when she first stepped out in Dior haute couture seven years ago.

Over at Valentino, which showed yesterday evening, and where the house's founder rose to fame dressing the likes of the young Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Onassis, they know the value of celebrity endorsement only too well. Giancarlo Giammetti, Valentino's business partner, said: "We can really justify our luxury positioning because of couture." He pointed out that when Julia Roberts wore vintage Valentino to the Oscars in 2002, interest in the brand increased significantly. "That's an example of how one dress can make a really important impact," Giametti said. "The return from celebrities wearing your clothes is huge."

Valentino is now in his Seventies and has no obvious successor - another reason to wonder what the future of this most elitist of craftforms might be. With this in mind, it's small wonder that France's most famous fashion name, Jean-Paul Gaultier, is being paraded as being at the forefront of contemporary haute couture. French-born (which in Paris counts considerably in his favour) and trained in the traditional manner under the greats including Pierre Cardin, to those in the know, it is Gaultier, if anyone, who is Yves Saint Laurent's natural heir. It is for this reason that he is honoured with the haute couture's closing slot. His show takes place at lunchtime on Thursday.

Gaultier, famously a man who speaks his mind in an increasingly opaque world, said last month: "Economically [haute couture] is a disaster. It's the purest form of what I do, but there are so few clients, because they are all getting old and dying, no? So I'm glad to be part of the decadence of it, because it's finishing. It's the end."

ANATOMY OF A COUTURE DRESS

By Susie Rushton

So just what does the pampered couture customer get for a five-digit price tag? More than a posh frock. A dress such as the one above, designed by Karl Lagerfeld (below) at Chanel for this summer's couture collection, will require between 200 and 250 hours of work. Forget production lines: a single craftsperson will hand-sew the garment from start to finish.

And if there's call for extra embellishment, Chanel call upon the specialist workshops such as Lesage, where embroidery artworks are stitched on to couture gowns. This can add another 1,000 hours to the job.

Francoise Montenay, president of Chanel, said last year: "Haute couture is the licence to use everything, the most expensive materials or the most complicated fabrics that you can only cut in a certain way."

Clients can of course expect a perfect fit. The standard dress sizes used in ready-to-wear fashion become irrelevant when a frock is adjusted to the millimetre.

The garment will be personalised in a minimum of three appointments, each held at one of the grand salons in Paris, which alter the original design in order to flatter Madame's figure. Couture acts like plastic surgery, concealing sloping shoulders and a less-than-slender waist.

A client won't spot anybody else wearing her dress, either. Rarely are more than four copies of a design created worldwide. And should she ever need to have her costly dress repaired or adjusted, it will be returned to the same craftsperson who created it.

The Manhattan society ladies who regularly buy haute-couture know they can order as much or as little extra decoration as they wish. More ostrich feathers, Madame? Beads, embroidery, sequins? This is where the prices, always astronomical but strictly confidential, really begin to rocket.

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