Is Haute Couture Still Relevant?

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Viktor and Rolf haute couture, spring 2015Viktor and Rolf haute couture, spring 2015

“I think there’s still a fantasy element to haute couture that makes it the pinnacle of fashion,” Susie Bubble told Vogue magazine earlier this year, capturing the transformative quality of this centuries-old tradition. “In an age when fashion is so readily available in many guises and forms,” she says, “haute couture with its petites mains, time-consuming processes, and ateliers is the diametric opposite of fast and accessible fashion.”

As with most of fashion, there are several schools of thought when it comes to haute couture. An unequivocally French craft that can be traced back to the court of Marie Antoinette, it was in fact an Englishman who opened the first official couturier in 1858. Charles Frederick Worth is also credited with establishing what is now known as the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the body that polices which houses may or may not make claim to the legally protected term ‘haute couture’. To qualify, these maisons must satisfy rigorous criteria, including producing made-to-measure clothing with multiple fittings twice per year, having an atelier in Paris and employing no less than 20 full-time staff.

But in an age where immediacy rules and choice is considered to be a basic human right, there is a great deal of debate about the relevancy of haute couture today. Some argue that it is a dusty tradition rooted in French haughtiness, while others believe it should be preserved as an art form; the ultimate expression of a designer’s strength and skill. Perhaps more significant than this, though, is what haute couture represents for fashion today and how these ideas are gradually being assimilated into ready-to-wear collections. In fact, as ready-to-wear embraces the fantastical and haute couture strays from outlandish eveningwear into the realm of the everyday, what we seem to be witnessing now is a role reversal.

In Elsa Schiaparelli’s autobiography, Shocking Life, she describes her blind and limitless courage when first starting out as a designer. Regarded as one of the long-established couturiers, Schiaparelli describes this time of her life in the third person: “She had no capital to speak of. She had no superiors. She did not have to report to anybody. The small freedom was hers.” It is this lack of freedom today — at least economically speaking — that some critics are now wary of. Cathy Horyn is one such critic who believes that haute couture may not live to see another century. She argues that this is because many people are missing the mark in terms of couture’s true value. “Pierre Bergé the former chairman of Yves Saint Laurent summed up the contemporary problem of couture when he called it ‘the opposite of business,'” she writes for The New York Times. “Even though people recognize the marketing value of an extravagant couture show — to help promote and sell less costly products like sunglasses and perfume — they find it harder and harder to grasp its real value, which is to make exquisite, one-of-a-kind clothes using all the various needle crafts.” Certainly, the use of haute couture as a powerful marketing tool remains paramount, but can we set aside the fast values of our contemporary society and pause a moment to appreciate the art form? Paola Di Trocchio describes haute couture as the ultimate expression of fashion merging with art. “It is fashion in that it is worn and presented on the body,” she explains. “But it also represents a certain level of craftsmanship. It is the specialist skills behind haute couture that really elevates the medium. The couturiers symbolise the elite of fashion.”

Whether it’s the growing visibility of haute couture collections for a mass market, or the proliferation of homogenous fashion, though, something certainly seems to have piqued a revived interest in the art of couture. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal, hints at a sort of renaissance for the industry, with new markets opening up for couturiers in China, Russia and the Middle East. These trends have resulted in increased sales for the long-established couturiers like Chanel and Valentino, as well as a significant shift in other demographic factors. According to Women’s Wear Daily, younger clients have been driving industry growth in recent years, with the average age of Dior’s couture customer falling from mid 40s to early 30s. Perhaps, then, whisperings of couture’s demise have been somewhat premature.

It appears that the success of haute couture is largely dependent upon the values of the society in which it exists. Haute couture was born out of a bourgeoisie that valued its privacy and was able to use fashion as a vehicle for establishing wealth. It seems ironic then, that we may be rediscovering new value in couture today, where matters of the private world are frequently splashed across our social feeds. Perhaps this is something we need to hold onto, though, in the midst of our hyper-connected society. We may not all be able to afford the garments we admire on the YouTube video of Chanel’s latest couture presentation, but there certainly does seem to be a re-invigorated interest in the individualism, the rarity and the fantasy of haute couture.

Then there is the growing number of designers currently mining the vault of haute couture for their ready-to-wear collections. Of course, nothing can ever really replace haute couture in scope. The level of time and skill involved alone is remarkable, with some garments taking upward of 700 hours to create and fetching price tags into the millions. ‘Les petites mains’ refers to the some 2,200 seamstresses who bring haute couture creations to life and there is an expert for every type of stitch — plumassiers for the featherwork, brodeurs for the embroidery and so on — but the question remains whether or not it still holds a place beyond the gallery walls. Anne Zazzo and Olivier Saillard believe that it does. In their seminal book on the subject, Paris Haute Couture, they concede that the position and practices of haute couture have certainly evolved over time, but maintain that the work of many contemporary couturiers reveals a strong sense of endurance. They are talking not only about the long-established couturiers like Chanel and Dior, but also those designers newer to the field, who continue to push boundaries in more ways than one.

Maison Martin Margiela is one such fashion house and has been presenting couture now since 2012. In keeping with the allure of the discipline, the appeal of Margiela lies largely in its mystery. Take Fall 2013, for example, when that Margiela trope of using masks to veil identity reemerged and models were masked with cabochon and petal embroidered balaclavas. Dripping with themes of transformation, pieces from an alternate time and place were reinvented for the catwalk — embroidered Art Nouveau curtains anyone? – giving new meaning to the notion of owning a piece of art. While the elaborate masks may be best left to the likes of Kanye (oh yes, he went there), reimagined jeans saw the designer blend the high with the low in seamless fashion.

Jean Paul Gaultier is another expert of this ‘nouvelle couture’, deftly working his hand at some of the simplest, but also the most elaborate garments in couture history. As Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria prepares for their upcoming exhibition of Gaultier’s couture work in October, the gallery’s Curator of Fashion and Textiles, Paola Di Trocchio, has got couture on her mind. Di Trocchio believes that there has been a lot of focus on haute couture recently and that this conversation has got a lot to do with the changing nature of our fashion landscape. “Now, compared to twenty or thirty years ago, there seems to be more of a divide occurring in fashion, with fast fashion at one end of the spectrum and haute couture at the other,” she says. Gone are the days where everyone had his or her own personal tailor and when the fashion shows were reserved for a very select few. As high fashion continues to move ever closer to mass media, though, many critics believe that the couturiers are under increasing pressure to simplify in order to remain viable. Olivier Saillard doesn’t see this simplification as a bad thing. “A lot of people don’t understand what haute couture is really about,” he revealed in an interview with Women’s Wear Daily. “It does not always have to be a richly embroidered evening dress. The idea is to boast savoir faire, to create something very simple sometimes made from just one fabric.”

As some couturiers continue to simplify their art though, we are also witnessing this new guard of designers dabbling in couture-like techniques for ready-to-wear. Saillard refers to this as ‘another’ couture, citing the work of designers like Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, Nicolas Ghesquière and Azzedine Alaïa. He told Dazed and Confused “They’re doing singular and complex clothes. For me, they’re people who are doing clothes that are even more haute couture than the ones that are supposedly haute couture.” Suzy Menkes tends to agree with this viewpoint, heralding the arrival of Raf Simons at Dior and Hedi Slimane back where he began in the ateliers of Yves Saint Laurent as significant in this regard.“The concept of exceptional clothes has taken on a different dimension,” she writes for T Magazine. “Couture — or at least aspects of it, has crept back into fashion almost unnoticed.”Menkes, like Saillard, believes that there are now a growing number of designers bridging the gap between couture and ready-to-wear. We’re talking about the exceptional garments seen at Balenciaga and the floor-sweeping duchess satin skirts that Raf Simons introduced to Jil Sander.“There seems to be a “sort of” couture growing among the ranks of smart designers,” she says. “It is as though playing with couture has become a rite of passage.”

Though this reinvigorated interest in couture craftsmanship is undoubtedly a positive one, it seems unlikely that ready-to-wear designers will ever truly replicate the fantasy of couture. In Paris Haute Couture, Zazzo and Saillard discuss the dualities of modern haute couture as an exclusive and somewhat mythical aura, countered by an ever-growing reach into popular consciousness. Though some ready-to-wear designers may be able to emulate the techniques of haute couture, it is this sense of fantasy that will remain integral to couture’s lasting power.

Looking back through the archives, it isn’t difficult to spot this underlying theme of fantasy. Of course, in some collections it is more obvious than in others, but between the sets, the designs and the sheer opulence of it all, this otherworldly quality is undoubtedly key to couture. Take Alexander McQueen’s debut collection for Givenchy (Spring Summer 1997), for example: inspired by Greek antiquity and featuring twisted horns and gilded busts. Or the opulent gowns in Yves Saint Laurent’s Ballet Russes collection for Autumn Winter 1976. Inspired by Léon Bakst’s 20th-Century costumes for the Ballets Russes, this collection was a celebration of ornamentation, opulence and excess; in other words, the ultimate incarnation of fantasy. John Galliano, too, is perhaps one of the most fantastical couturiers there is. Lending his madcap romanticism to Givenchy before McQueen took the reins, Galliano became the first Englishman to design haute couture in Paris since Charles Frederick Worth. Then, at the helm of Dior, Galliano continued to amplify the illusory with collections such as his twisted take on Alice in Wonderland, where Renaissance met punk rock for Autumn Winter 2006. Finally, who could forget the brilliant Kaiser? Now eighty years of age, Karl Lagerfeld began his career sketching for Balmain. Though the garments presented in his couture collections for Chanel are certainly less outlandish than some of his peers, his sets are perhaps the most awe-inspiring in the business. From reproductions of decrepit theatres, to larger-than-life incarnations of Chanel signatures — everything from perfume bottles to a Brobdingnagianjacket — Karl Lagerfeld always manages to capture our imaginations. Not least of all with his SS 13 collection, in which he conjured an amphitheater within a forest. If shipping an entire woodland wonderland into the Grand Palais is not the definitive expression of fantasy, then surely nothing is.

As with anything, the effects of technology have been fiercely felt in the fashion industry. Nowhere has this been truer than for the ancient tradition of haute couture. In our age of the ubiquitous hashtag, this heavily regulated art form has undoubtedly undergone some significant changes over recent years. But, with a new boost in financial growth for couturiers, as well as a growing number of ready-to-wear designers paying homage to this level of craftsmanship, it seems that we are now increasingly enraptured by the fantasy of couture. After all, haute couture is and will always remain the ultimate form of #fashion #escapism.

Published on February 3rd, 2015 by Catalogue staff

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Chanel haute couture, spring 2015Chanel haute couture, spring 2015
Jean Paul Gaultier haute couture, spring 2015Jean Paul Gaultier haute couture, spring 2015