PARIS, France — Can couture be modern? The question surfaces regularly in Paris during Haute Couture Week. This season, more than ever, as designers engaged in a constant dialogue with history in order to progress: slicing, cutting, decomposing and recomposing shapes — the panier being a favourite — in a creative struggle to birth the new from a well-known repertoire. It did work, most of the time, but it also highlighted couture's intrinsic anachronism.
Couture is a singular moment, made of peculiar rituals. For a start, there are the clothes: jewel-like creations reserved for an exclusive coterie of women. Indeed, in the audience are not the usual fashionistas, but the five-star luxury clientele, whose names are religiously kept secret by the maisons: wealthy madames and seasoned aristocrats coming from the four corners of the world, but also, increasingly, the nouveau, and decidedly younger, big spenders arriving to Paris from both established and emerging markets, well aware that the exclusivity of couture is the ultimate expression of power. There are also movie stars and celebrities, of course, but they rarely validate a show, or generate media coverage — tabloids are not exactly haute in spirit, you know.
In a world that is increasingly digital and manufactured — and thus infinitely replicable — couture is as old school as it can possibly get: hand-made, unique. Couture is like a journey into the past, a stroll in a different time period. It suggests women surrounded by maids helping them get dressed, ladies whose only preoccupation in life might be an immaculate coif and the will to shine as the irreproachable arm candy of their affluent husbands, to whom they dedicate their whole public existence. It is all about nipped waists and whalebones, arched eyebrows and splendid jewels. Ultimately, couture does without female emancipation and is the enemy of fashion's increasing democratisation.
There is nothing democratic about couture and proudly so. It barely touches the glossies or the Internet, and, in return, is barely touched by the fever of visibility which has made fashion the religion of our time. It is a cult for the initiated and the cultivated, while mere fashion is, well, entertainment for the masses. Couture is based on values that are totally out of time. In a world that goes fast, it is slow. Extremely slow. You cannot have it right away. Buying does not happen in shops, but in ateliers or, better yet, in the mansions of clients themselves, where vendeuses reach customers to offer the best possible service. Then there are the conceptual and cultural boundaries to be considered. In a world that is increasingly open and hybridised, couture is closed and hyper-protective. (The very term haute couture is regulated by French law and membership in its governing body, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, is restricted to a handful of fashion houses). While the rest of the world embraces a visual language that is fluid and endlessly morphing, couture celebrates traditional codes, rituals and clearly defined gender divisions. In this sense, couture will never be truly modern.
Yet, in recent seasons, we’ve seen designers embrace modernisation and the couture week that closed yesterday offers further proof of this. Couturiers want to be relevant and act as such. Raf Simons has led the modernist pack since his arrival at Dior two years ago and so have Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino, whose main aim is to preserve and sustain the unique know-how of the traditional couture ateliers while creating clothes that, aesthetically, are meant for women of today. Their work is outstanding in technical finesse and grace, even when, like this season, it seems to lack coherence.
Karl Lagerfeld, too, at Chanel, keeps making the house codes lighter and younger. This means, essentially, faster lines and a stress on couture, not as occasion dressing, but as a complete wardrobe, encompassing daywear as well as incredible eveningwear and everything in between. Which is to say: couture is a service, exclusive to those who have infinite resources and prefer not to mingle with commoners.In this sense, it can be seen as modern, acknowledging that even jet-setters, today, lead hyperactive lives with very different behavioural patterns to those that came before them. Yet, with every good, there is also some bad. Although immaculately made and utterly precious, many of the pieces I saw this week — the Dior coats, for instance, or the ribbed jumpers at Valentino — looked a tad mundane on the couture catwalks, the difference compared to ready-to-wear not easy to detect with the bare eye (though if you wear or touch them, the distinction becomes blatantly apparent). These are creations that look real, maybe too real, and lack the dream element which is still couture's main raison d'être. Or is it not?
Today, some ready-to-wear pieces are as precious, and as costly, as couture, so perhaps there is no point in exploring pragmatism in a couture collection. What we need from couture is invention: fashion's fuel. Without this, the risk is homogenisation and fashion is already heading fast in that direction.
It's a complicated riddle. Modernity is generally at odds with the will to make people dream. It is grounded, fast, tangible: qualities that might led couture to evolution — just think of the work of Raf Simons and Chiuri and Piccioli — or fatal extinction. One way or another, couture should be treated as a creative laboratory for beauty, much as Giambattista Valli does, consciously oblivious of what is modern and what is not. Beautiful things do not always need to be useful. They need to nurture the eye and the soul. For the rest, there are plenty of factories out there.