PARIS, France — Couture! This magic word was all but forgotten 30-odd years ago, except in the most exalted and privileged of social circles. Since its high point in the late 1940s and 1950s, couture clients had shrivelled away just as the lifestyles the couturiers once clothed had withered as well. Fashion had taken its lead from the arts, generally, and jumped on the democratic bus called youth and freedom. Even Yves Saint Laurent had rubbished couture — although he later changed his mind. Indeed, haute couture, developed in the Belle Époque, had come to be seen as little more than a gilded coach from the past, with magnificently caparisoned white horses, but nothing inside and nowhere to go.
In New York, Milan and even Paris there was a new simplicity that everyone understood and virtually all loved. The seminal work of designers like Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein; Giorgio Armani and Gianfranco Ferre was absolutely as classic and forward-looking as the architecture of Philip Johnson and the furniture of Ray and Charles Eames. The great design statements of the late 20th century were being made and the poule de luxe richness of couture, in the hands of Jean Louis Scherrer and even Yves Saint Laurent, looked strangely out of place and — worst of all fashion crimes — out of touch with the lives and attitudes of most women to such an extent that they hardly noticed the couture shows any more than the media did.
Not everyone agreed, of course. Many felt that the barbarians had arrived with a rag-bag of cheap modernist tricks that had nothing to do with high fashion at all. They were wrong and the youth market grew stronger every season.
But new markets, especially in Asia and the Middle East, began to develop and they craved the traditional excess of Parisian haute couture. Suddenly, or so it seemed, young fashion journalists and stylists who hardly knew how to pronounce couture, let alone understand what it meant, started taking it seriously as a very nice little earner for traditional French fashion houses.
And so it is today; that is, if we accept the tale that couture actually makes money from clothes rather than ancillary offerings like accessories and beauty products. On the topic of couture sales, fashion houses remain coy, as is their right. But, during a cold and snowy Couture Week in Paris, it is hard to feel romantic and even harder to sweep aside the economic situation, which makes me — and, I am sure, others — wonder if we really have reached an ’Emperor’s New Clothes’ situation where figures are falsified and lies are told.
Bluntly, why are the world’s top publications here? Is it just for the lucrative beauty advertising that is now the plasma drip feed that keeps them alive? Or does couture have anything to say to the modern woman?
If we were to contemplate a root-and-branch reorganisation of the international fashion scene, would we drop couture entirely? Or leave it as a self-indulgent and privileged reward for Paris in return for leading and preserving high fashion since the 18th century, often against formidable odds? Or, perhaps we would entirely re-examine the system of separate fashion ‘city states’ that we currently have, each known for its individual and more or less unique fashion profile. After all, today, the creation of fashion is totally international, no matter where a label is based. The great ateliers of haute couture, as with ready-to-wear, are staffed by young talents from across the globe, whether or not the label on the garment says it’s French, Italian, British, American or any other nationality.
These thoughts spring from the interesting news that John Galliano is to join Oscar de la Renta in New York for a short while. Where could this lead? Well, Oscar, as we all know, designs clothes to the highest levels of taste and craftsmanship to such an extent that they are virtually couture in all but name. John is a genius with couture. Ipso facto, we could be about to see the first bona fide couture house in New York since the days of Norman Norrell and Geoffrey Beene.
And why should others not follow, especially in emerging markets? We are told that Asia, and especially China, has a longing for couture. Why shouldn’t it sponsor its own couture houses with talents from Paris — initially at least? And I do not mean the established names in Paris couture, most of whom are already active in the Chinese market. I’m thinking of small, independent enterprises using young international design talents who have learned at the feet of the great couturiers.
Am I being disloyal to Paris? I hope not. And that is not what I wish to do. It deserves more than to be tossed aside. If it works hard enough for it, Paris can retain its supremacy just as Italian opera did in the 19th century when France and Germany began to develop their own high-class product. Bizet and Strauss, not to mention Wagner, had a benchmark to reach (and beat) and, by attempting to do so, enhanced opera without destroying the grandeur of the Italian version.
We all know that creativity comes from many sources, but we tend to forget that one of the strongest catalysts for new approaches is discontent with what is currently available — the divine discontent that makes a creator think: ‘This must change if it is to be part of the modern world and I can change it.’ Whether he is a Matisse or a Stravinsky, a genius creator seeks to alter our perceptions because he knows that his viewpoint has validity for us all.
It is this that has been lost in current day couture. An endogamous group of people, sated by the sense of their own importance — and fashion is the silliest and snobbiest of all the arts, let’s not forget — have stopped thinking radically and have become complacent, which is the worst thing that can happen to creativity anywhere.
But creativity still exists in the young people working in the ateliers as designers, cutters and all the other functions needed to create haute couture. Far from being lost in translation as couture expands to other cities and a new generation of fashion talents, the skills, knowledge and inspiration that real haute couture demands could be gloriously re-invented, so that it again becomes one of fashion’s true creative forces, something couture has not been for many decades. So, let’s hope a small spark is ignited by Mr Galliano and Mr de la Renta that causes a conflagration that saves what is otherwise increasingly looking like fashion’s greatest lost cause.
Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion.