A Couture Stage Beyond Paris: Destiny, Dream or Delusion?

As fashion’s centre of gravity moves steadily south and east, driven by the changing global distribution of both wealth and fashion creativity, Paris’ monopoly on the dazzling couture trade is being challenged by a handful of new overseas events with their own ideas about couture.

Chinese couturier Guo Pei at Asian Couture Week in Singapore, October 2013 | Source: Asian Couture Week

PARIS, France — If ever there was a city that could live up to the splendour of a couture gown, this is it. There are few other places in the world where these lavish, magical and often cumbersome fashion confections — handmade garments with prices that can soar into six figures — can literally blend into the gilded background. But far more important than its ability to frame and flatter couture with its fairytale vistas is the city’s pedigree. For centuries, through thick and thin, Paris has been the laboratory where couture is crafted; the stage where it is flaunted; the fort where it is protected; and the bazaar where it is traded. Surely then, Paris is all that couture needs. Or is it?

“Of course it’s understandable for any couturier to aspire to show in Paris,” says Frank Cintamani, chairman of FIDé Fashion Weeks and founder of the Asian Couture Federation, who has been gradually attracting couturiers from across the Far East to an Asian couture week event in Singapore for the past two years. “However, much of my efforts have been focused on establishing equally credible platforms… I don’t believe that recognition or business development is uniquely achievable by presenting solely in Paris.”

“To suggest that any one city has the monopoly on couture is clearly nonsensical.”

Judging purely by the names on show at his last October event at Singapore’s jaw-dropping Marina Bay Sands complex, Cintamani may have identified a gap in the market. In their home countries, many of the 10 Asian designers who participated are household names renowned for their collections of elaborate made-to-measure evening wear, one-of-a-kind formal wear, luxury bridal wear and delicately handcrafted accoutrements.

China’s Guo Pei, Japan’s Yumi Katsura and Lie Sang Bong from South Korea may be familiar to some fashion insiders in the West, but their legendary status in their home markets has simply not been matched abroad. But that doesn’t mean their domestic appeal can’t translate to a valuable new clientele in nearby Asian countries through a regional couture showcase. For however globalised fashion has become, the fact remains that certain motifs, embellishments or colour palettes simply don’t resonate as well in Paris as they do in closer markets with similar tastes.

At least three of the Asians who showed in Singapore — Sebastian Gunawan, Michael Cinco and Vatit Itthi — can count as clients some of the wealthiest socialites, businesswomen, actresses and political figures in their respective home markets of Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. And demand for their couture designs has already begun to spill over into neighbouring countries.

If an Asian couture hub can gather enough serious couture clients — and inspire first-time buyers who may not yet be travelling to Paris — then Cintamani could potentially be looking at a viable business model. Assuming, of course, that the event is held at the right time and in the right environment. After all, couturiers can only cater to a limited number of clients in their home countries before becoming overexposed, so some of these designers will always be ready for wider international expansion.

What’s more, the mega-couturiers in Paris who are effectively their competitors can only cater to a limited number of clients each season. The only real question is whether the talent pool of Asian couturiers is big enough. According to Cintamani as well as several style leaders in Asian high society, there are plenty of names — both emerging and older — with enough prestige and skill to beef up a regional couture event in the future.

“Asian clients are very relationship-driven and many Asian couture designers are very sensitive to ensure that they provide the personal touch. They’re deferential to any cultural or specific needs their clients may have,” says Cintamani, suggesting that some of the precious face time spent with a designer is lost when larger couture houses from Paris are compelled to fly their staff around the world to reach a client for fittings. “Close proximity certainly has its benefits,” he adds.

Another couture event that trades on intimacy and under-the-radar names is Altaroma, the biannual shows of alta moda (haute couture in Italian) that take place in Rome shortly after the Paris couture shows. “The peculiarity of our fashion week is that it can offer visibility but with one-to-one service and the possibility to develop a designer relationship so that the degree of personalisation reaches its highest levels,” says Silvia Venturini Fendi, who as president of the city-wide expo oversees small Italian heritage couture houses like Gattinoni and Sarli as well as a number of initiatives that help match young designers with some of Rome’s ancient su misura (bespoke) ateliers.

In India, the unique selling point of PCJ Delhi Couture Week — which launched just a few years ago — is even more apparent. Many of the occasions where Indian women wear their finest, such as weddings, call for traditional attire. Indeed, for many of the wealthiest of Indian women, dressing to the nines often means wearing a style of clothing that’s not typically offered by Western couture houses.

For India’s top designers — like Manish Malhotra, Sabyasachi, Varn Bahl and Satya Paul — joining a couture week to showcase their work with the finest fabrics and most intricate embellishments is therefore a natural opportunity. Such designers have long had teams dedicated to making formal cocktail saris, opulent bridal trousseau items and deluxe renditions of the shalwar kameez, kurta combos and other traditional garments from the Indian subcontinent. Some also include Western ranges in their couture collections which fit very snugly into many a cosmopolitan wardrobe. But that hasn’t changed the perception in Paris that India’s couturiers are still a world apart.

“India’s couture week, well, in a way it’s a good sign that things are becoming more international, but it is still very local,” says Didier Grumbach, chairman of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. “They have a different concept of what couture is. It’s also very classic and not as exciting as what we show here in Paris. As for what they show in Singapore, that’s something else. It’s not haute couture, it’s a kind of ready-to-wear. It’s well done; clever; it has its position. But it is not really couture,” he asserts.

Use of the term haute couture is protected by French law and has been regulated by affiliates of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture for nearly 150 years. Among many other stringent criteria set by the governing body, one condition that designers must meet in order to enjoy full membership and use the term haute couture when trading is an atelier located in Paris.

“Every industry has its standards,” says fashion and luxury veteran Serge Carreira, who lectures at Paris’ prestigious Sciences Po institute. “The requirements of the Chambre Syndicale safeguard quality and genuineness. Just as you can’t have champagne without wines from Champagne, you can’t have haute couture without an atelier in Paris.”

Hence the grandes maisons of Chanel, Dior, Givenchy and younger Paris-based houses like Bouchra Jarrar and Alexis Mabille are all fully-fledged members and therefore considered haute couture. On the other hand, megabrands based outside of France but which show couture collections there like Giorgio Armani, Valentino and Atelier Versace are given the status of “correspondent members.” And although the Chambre Syndicale has welcomed younger international names who push the boundaries of couture, such as Rad Hourani and Iris van Herpen, they are only considered “guest members,” and therefore, not technically creators of haute couture.

To the uninitiated, this may sound like a debate about semantics or idiosyncratic leftovers from a centuries-old system. But some insiders interpret the Chambre Syndicale’s geographic criteria as a thinly veiled contention that the petites mains (artisans) working in a Paris atelier are of an inherently higher quality than other couture artisans around the world. This matters because, over time, it can be seen as a mechanism for inflating the value of French couture wares over non-French ones based purely on a technicality.

“I don’t think anyone who sees the stunning collections of say a Guo Pei, Michael Cinco or a Sebastian Gunawan can be in any doubt of the level of skill that goes into creating their couture pieces,” says Cintamani. “I believe many [others too around the world] are capable of creating couture on par with anything that might be found in Paris. Without doubt, Paris has built an enviable reputation for couture and clearly has a tremendous pool of talent to support it. But to suggest that any one city has the monopoly on couture talent [or skills] is clearly nonsensical.”

This may be the case, suggests Carreira, but what continues to make Paris rise to the top of the couture world today is not just the iconic status of a handful of French artisan workshops like Lesage embroideries, Lemarié feather specialists or Maison Michel milliners. Nor is it necessarily the technical prowess or the long legacy of France’s petites mains.

“Other countries do have amazing costume craftsmanship traditions,” says Carreira. “There are refined and luxury embroideries in India, Russia and China. And Switzerland and Brazil have traditions of hand-made lace. These techniques are all rare and precious. But what makes the difference is the cluster of them in Paris,” he continues, making a comparison with Silicon Valley for technology and New York or London for financial services.

It’s no surprise that Fendi takes exception to this, despite the fact that the Paris couture week has cast a very long shadow over Rome’s shows for decades. Nevertheless, since her instalment as president of Altaroma a few years ago, the event has gradually begun to gain momentum thanks in part to programmes like Artisanal Intelligence and Limited/Unlimited which hone in on preserving couture craftsmanship for demi-couture markets and experimental research projects that Fendi calls “neocouture.”

“Rome still represents the skill of hands that create unique objects which stand for what the market really requires. Our manual ability has made Rome — and Italy as a whole — sought after throughout the world to create marvellous objects. We have an immense cultural heritage made up of ancient crafts and artisanal techniques here too,” she says.

One need only look to the success of Dolce & Gabbana’s own discreet Alta Moda experiment. Foregoing any established couture week or hub, the collection is nonetheless said to sell out within hours of the show’s finalé.

Many other international couturiers have also made waves in recent years without the benefit of a couture-specific event — or a luxury expo in their home country around which they can rally. Once Elie Saab established himself with key clients, the right celebrities and within the couture establishment, a Lebanese invasion took the industry by storm via both Europe and Hollywood. Zuhair Murad, Georges Chakra and Rabih Kayrouz have since become major players after bowing in Paris while the likes of Abed Mahfouz and Tony Ward turned to shows in Rome. With ateliers in Beirut, their success seems to confirm that the quality demanded by top couture clients can be achieved in cities beyond Paris.

Having thriving businesses back in Lebanon long before they expanded abroad, they beg the question whether Beirut might one day become a veritable couture hub for the lucrative Middle Eastern couture market. Like their counterparts in India, Arab couturiers with an organised event in Beirut or Dubai might be better poised to tap into a region with a remarkably different costume heritage as well as very particular cultural mores and a unique perspective on the client-designer rapport.

None of the new events or their organisers come even remotely close to challenging Paris’ still undisputed position as the global capital of couture. But what most do seem confident about is that with the changing distribution of global wealth and creativity comes space for a few other centres of excellence for fashion’s most distinguished art form.