Accessible, pragmatic, youthful, profitable. These terms have never belonged to the vernacular of the haute couture, the 88-year-old practice that marries Paris’s top creative fashion talent with its most skillful seamstresses, craftsmen and furriers for a price tag that starts at $12,000 and climbs steeply once the embroiderers are called in.
But a gaggle of new names have joined the Paris couturiers’ ranks — seven in 18 months — and there’s a revolution afoot. While none of the newcomers are quite pushing beading while-u-wait, most are trying shortcuts to slash prices and trim the order-to-delivery waiting period from the standard six or eight weeks to something under a month.
“I’m very happy that there are new faces,” says Yves Saint Laurent. When pressed on whether it was a problem that not all of them meet the old standards for couture, he smiled. “That’s what young people are supposed to do, break the rules and do things in a new way. It’s normal.”
“I think exactly as he does,” says Pierre Berge, his business partner. Berge’s most memorable proclamation in recent years has been that couture would die after Saint Laurent, but he seems to be lightening up of late. “I am against the rules and I have nothing against these young people changing things. I am absolutely convinced that this couture that we have known will die and that other forms will grow up in its place.”
At Versace, Donatella Versace plans to select 15 looks from her first couture collection and produce two models of each to be sold at the company’s boutiques worldwide. “Delivery will be 20 days later,” she explains. “That’s the only way to do couture now. You have to give the service. We started this last season and it worked well.”
Mix those notions with a more relaxed approach to receiving clients, and some would say you’ve knocked everything that was ever “haute” out of the couture. Most of the houses, or at least the groups who back them, prize the publicity they receive from the money-losing business of couture more than the clients who buy it. In fact, the media’s growing interest in the once arcane event — ABC will air a two-hour special on this week’s shows on Thursday — has helped attract all the new blood. While the newcomers are certainly not shying away from the cameras, many do not yet have licenses for fragrances or sunglasses and for them, recruiting younger clients is important.
Victoria White O’Gara, a tall, slender, very attractive Californian is in her mid-30s and just the kind of woman they’re looking for. She was front row at Versace on Saturday, her first couture show ever, but she’s been a client for several years and the word is she spends a fortune on fashion.
“I’ve just always loved clothes,” says White O’Gara. She’s also interested in Jean Paul Gaultier and Dior this season, but agrees that when it comes to attaining couture client status, her peers still face a few obstacles. “Women need parties to wear these things to. In California, it looks out of place to be dressed like this,” she says, motioning to her blue-green beaded Atelier Versace gown from January. “The big problem is money. You’ve got to have a rich husband or boyfriend to buy.”
The new convenience couture, whether it be a couture jacket mixed with a machine-made skirt or dresses done in advance and fitted locally, would therefore seem to make sense, but it’s kicking up a controversy. Talk of cutting corners inevitably leads to worries about whether labor-intensive couture in any form can withstand the heavy government payroll taxes in France. If the couture dies, the thinking goes, centuries worth of French savoir-faire will be lost and so will France’s fashion hegemony. After weathering an unsuccessful attempt by Hitler to pack all the couturiers off to Berlin in 1940 and the explosion of designer ready-to-wear in 1967 — when the number of houses shriveled overnight from 37 to 19 — can couture accommodate convenience? Surprisingly, it’s not a predictable old guard versus new guard debate.
“There is nothing convenient about couture,” says Givenchy’s 29-year-old Alexander McQueen, whose provocative designs have sent some of the house’s old clients running scared. McQueen has just been working on a bustier in sterling silver fabric which, like many of his imaginative creations, is best cleaned by hand with a Q-tip. “The princesses, the elite that buy couture, they don’t want convenience,” he says. “They know that couture is the most luxurious thing one can have in clothing.”
But if the client is queen, and the queen is in a hurry and doesn’t care if an inner seam was stitched by hand, shouldn’t a house do her bidding? McQueen looks annoyed. “That is just disrespectful to the people who do couture. Couture is about workmanship and the customers have got to have respect for the craftsmen,” he says. “You can’t just send things and say `do it’ as if they were shop assistants taking orders; they are the most fantastic artisans of their kind. In couture, it takes two to tango.”
No one speaks more reverently about French craftsmen than Christian Lacroix, whose name is synonymous with elaborate fashion. But he says he’s on the fence when it comes to convenience. “I’m not against Couture Lite — mentalities have to evolve,” he says.”Convenience couture, even if I don’t practice it, makes some sense. A pant is a pant. When the jacket is very elaborate, you need a simple skirt. It could be made elsewhere. We have to find new recipes if we want the couture to be alive for the next millennium.”
Lacroix recalls a recent fitting for his friend, the French singer Mireille Mathieu. “She, like everyone, pays, because I’ve always said we were too young to give anything away. I can’t remember the price of the simple skirt, but we did it by hand to go with the embroidered jacket. With the same money I would have preferred that she had a skirt made by machine and two embroidered dresses.”
Purists don’t share his view. “Even a simple skirt should be beautifully done. If it’s a suit, it has to be the same hand doing the whole thing,” insists Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld. “Couture should be one piece. Otherwise it’s expensive ready-to-wear and it already exists.” In fact, Lagerfeld says that couture-like elements have existed for years at rtw’s most rarefied levels. “I don’t see the difference between what they’re doing and what Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons are doing. For me, what they [Yamamoto and Comme designer Rei Kawakubo] do is real couture. And I know because I have photographed Yohji’s work.” And the gray area between couture and rtw is expanding fast. There are rumblings among even the high volume rtw companies about doing made-to-measure. Miuccia Prada has designed dresses for Sigourney Weaver, Julianne Moore and Winona Ryder for special events. Although a spokeswoman for the house denied that Prada has actually made any made-to-measure dresses for its less famous clients, some customers reportedly have been told it might be possible in the future. Prada declined to comment.
“Let’s not talk about couture, let’s talk about fashion,” urges Lagerfeld. “Some of the prestigious names were couture but they were about hideous dresses that had nothing to do with fashion and this was bad publicity for French fashion. You tell me Prada is doing semi-couture or whatever they will call it, and it’s interesting because it is fashion and people will want it,” he says.
At Valentino, Giancarlo Giammetti says he’s unsure what to do when the designer retires. “I don’t have the answer yet. I’m not so blind and egocentric as to say the couture will die when Valentino is gone,” he says thoughtfully. “I can imagine that a good group of designers could carry on with a new couture — six of the same dress made only for you. Of course they would be made by hand, but they would gain speed by getting rid of all the fittings. It’s all about the planning.”
At Dior, John Galliano’s extravagant presentations have been essential to reviving couture. “My team at Dior, we’ve made couture very fashionable to women,” Galliano says. “I think the whole idea of service — the opposite of those faceless stores — is the way to go for the 21st century.” He says the new interest in couture and all its derivatives simply indicates that women are finally catching up with the services available to men for decades. “Men like having a shirt made and it really doesn’t cost that much more. Women should have more possibilities.”
Dior is controlled by Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which includes Lacroix and Givenchy as well as Louis Vuitton, Celine, Kenzo and Galliano, all of which do rtw but not couture. Asked about whether some of those brands might one day offer made-to-measure, Arnault says: “Why not? What’s important is creativity, not whether it’s couture or rtw or something in-between.” Adds Daniel Piette, the president of the LVMH fashion division: “The question of made-to-measure is one that is under debate in our houses. One could imagine that one day some of these brands might offer such a service.”
Made-to-measure by Prada would probably be more streamlined than the traditional couture fittings, but Lagerfeld thinks the women who can pay might miss the ordering process that can fill an afternoon and the follow-up fittings — usually there are at least two. “Couture is for women who come for the package deal — having the fittings, being pampered, receiving their dress in a special packaging that is more beautiful than the ready-to-wear.
“OK, maybe the whole thing is a little chichi, a little demode, but they adore it,” Lagerfeld continues. “For them it’s an achievement that they can buy couture. Couture is not for women who have to get a dress.”
Ocimar Versolato, a Brazilian who recently got backing from a Brazilian industrial group Pessoa de Queiroz, launched his couture business with a show on the Place Vendome on Saturday. His cocktail dresses start at $3,000 and evening can run to $20,000 and though Versolato is a believer in handmade, he says what’s archaic is the traditional process of working up toiles, the cotton canvas versions of each couture garment that are fitted and tinkered with before the real fabric is cut. “In the past, the fabric was expensive and the labor was relatively inexpensive,” he says, sitting in his sleek marble salon. “Today it’s just the opposite. For many pieces — but never the mousseline which must be worked out on a stiff fabric — I prefer to cut directly on the fabric, even if we waste some.”
Jean Paul Gaultier president Donald Potard says his house, which presented its fourth couture collection on Sunday, tried shortcuts, but they didn’t work out. “In the beginning we thought some of it could be done by machine, but from the first season we realized that the result was not the same, the hand was not the same and we abandoned that approach and we went to something that was more traditional, more qualitative.” He’s says he’s delighted with how it’s going: The house is spending $2 million to produce and show couture each year, but he figures that, press and TV combined, the house has raked in $40 million in publicity. Plus, he says the couture has raised Gaultier’s profile and even boosted his growing company’s credit line at the banks. Still, the house wants to keep its prices lower than those at the more established houses — Gaultier couture suits start at $10,000 compared to $18,000 for those at Lacroix, so Potard moved to Plan B and focused on controlling costs. “We think about the price as we go,” he says, suggesting that at Chanel and Dior there are no price constraints.
One of the complaints that the established houses make against the newcomers is that they reap the publicity of their couturier status but dodge the rules laid out in a 1945 Ministry of Industry decree controlling the number of full-time hands a house must have on staff and the minimum number of models that must be presented each season. Asked about the “rules,” new Chambre Syndicale president Didier Grumbach takes a deep breath to explain and then stops: “They’re inoperative so why even bother. If a new house started with those rules today they would be dead immediately.”
Lacroix’s business partner Jean-Jacques Picart has been dining out on a tale of a wedding dress for a bride from the provincial city of Nancy that’s hanging in the atelier. “It’s shiny, it’s got metallic pieces and they said she was going for something `futurist.”‘ Picart recounts. Wondering aloud why the bride hadn’t gone to Mugler, he was told that in fact she started there. “They didn’t want to do it because it was a girl from Nancy and it cost too much money to hire the hands, so they sent her here,” Picart says. His point is that Lacroix and LVMH are subsidizing couture.
“That’s ridiculous,” says Grumbach, who recently stepped down as president of Mugler to take the Chambre post. “These houses have a few dozen women buying regularly. There are thousands of women who can buy a couture dress for one occasion and a young house can’t serve the mall. When Mr. Ungaro started out they were four in the workroom and he did the deliveries himself and he was forced to send clients away too.”
The new couturiers may be skimping on workers, but they’re exploring innovative ways to tackle the couture. Thierry Mugler, for example, has been working with computer graphics companies to simulate not only a woman’s body, but the movement of different kinds of fabric on-screen.
And any discussion of cost issues inevitably turns to embroidery. “Mr. Lessage does fantastic work but his bills are enough to give you a heart attack,” says Potard. He speaks from experience: Lessage’s studio was behind the show-stopping beaded tartan skirts and also microbeaded tapestry patchwork jackets at Gaultier’s show on Sunday and Francois Lessage was front-row. Lessage is the best-known of a group of French embroiderers and his handiwork this season also will turn up at Dior and at Chanel, but don’t look for his work in Oscar de La Renta’s collection for Balmain. De la Renta, the only American among the 24 couturiers showing in Paris, sold enough dresses last season, according to Balmain executives, to place him, along with YSL and Chanel, among the bestselling couturiers. In addition to his designs and his insight into exactly what kind of clothes his wealthy clientele needs — he and his wife Annette spend time with many of them — part of his formula was to knock down the price by sending out to India for embroidery. “If I do an embroidered dress I would love to be able to sell it.” de la Renta says. “If the embroidery alone costs $40,000, I will not,” he explains in the vast, white salon at Balmain. “I do work a lot with India, but let me tell you, the Paris embroidery houses do too.”
Nothing illustrates the way the couture is changing better then to linger in the salons of one of the established houses then stop by Josephus Thimister’s cramped two-room workroom-salon-cabine in the Marais. At Lacroix there’s a spacious reception room with thick carpets and specially commissioned sofas and chairs. There are armfuls of fresh flowers and assistants offer coffee in the service Lacroix designed for Christofle. But at Thimister’s, some 15 pattern cutters and seamstresses jockey for space on makeshift work tables and a noisy Singer whirs in the background. The model changes behind a closet door and then sidesteps litter on the floor — discarded patterns, plastic wrapping — to begin the fitting.
Almost all the assistants appear to be under 40 and the scene is reminiscent of the night before the school play. “Some of them volunteer at night. They want to have a couture experience,” says Thimister. The former Balenciaga designer consults for a large Belgium clothing manufacturer to help scrape together the more than $300,000 needed to put on the couture show. “Some people have a nice car, we have a couture collection,” Thimister says.
His poetic presentation on Monday had the the audience rifling the program notes to decipher the fabrics — black paper leather, wax-colored latex and sometimes the canvas the other couturiers use as their toile. Many pieces are priced around $6,000. At a fitting, he tugged at an unfinished black silk crepe skirt on a hanger. “Often we think this is more beautiful than the final dress,” he says. “It’s all about the inside work, putting little strips of organza in. Honestly, I think it is more beautiful like this than if it is finished on the outside.”
For many in the establishment, the biggest threat is not the newcomers, but the so-called couturieres de dimanche, the skilled French seamstresses who knock off name designers. “We have to find clues to be competitive with these couturieres,” says Lacroix. “I hate bourgeois weddings, these horse races with all the little hats. And I’d prefer to see the magazines filled with things from Monsieur Sirop and Mr. Thimester, who have some ideas, than these little couturieres.”
No wonder the houses, established and new couture alike, are doing their best to recruit new customers. Several have taken on young people to do public relations. Versace is even thinking of inviting a young group in New York to come to the boutique for a special couture show. And Valentino invites “young friends” in post-season to buy up the leftover couture pieces at rock-bottom prices. But it won’t be easy, says Valentino’s Giammetti. “If you are used to the Gap, then it will be hard to adjust to couture prices.”