couture, couture

I was fairly excited when I realised it was haute couture week in Paris, which is curious I suppose, for why would couture be relevant to the average person like me? (In other words, the type lacking the spare $150,000 or so to buy oneself a ravishing ballgown for some fete in Monaco).

I suppose I just like the idea that's rarified and incredibly exclusive and jaw-droppingly expensive and romantically reminiscent of the days where women with the means simply had to drop in twice a year to order a couple of fabulous dresses to fill up those huge-ass ballrooms of theirs. Plus a couple of superbly-made suits to spend their days in.

In other words, I love the grand gesture, the idea of gilded salons, stern vendeuses, tea at the Ritz, dresses that take months to complete and are meant to be looked at, with no concern for practicality. It's decadent and self-indulgent.

The word "couture" holds a lot of magic for me, automatically conjuring up the idea of fantasy dresses, avant-garde design, and incredible artistry and craftsmanship. Even though in reality haute couture isn't necessarily where new ideas are coming from anymore (ready-to-wear's Nicolas Ghesquiere and Miuccia Prada are two names that inspire the same awe as couturier Cristobal Balenciaga's did in his heydays), there's something timeless and yet envelope-pushing about haute couture that keeps it compelling.
Or maybe it's just nostalgia.
Anyway, I was reading the fashion pages of various publications, one thing became evident - this was clearly Hollywood-bashing week.

Hollywood made its presence felt during couture week, with Cate Blanchett, Katie Holmes, and Rachel McAdams popping in at Armani Prive, and Rachel Zoe showing up at Chanel - all probably with an eye on Oscar night.
Personally, I don't know why they bother, since typically the looks chosen are never the awe-inspiring creations such as this at Dior -
We're more likely to see far less imaginative. As Jess Cartner-Morley wrote in The Guardian:

"In all likelihood, come Oscar night we will be treated to another saccharine parade of inoffensive, almost identical long, slim gowns in a rainbow of shades from very pale gold to slightly darker gold and perhaps, if anyone's feeling really, really daring, slightly pinky gold. Yawn."

I don't like to generalise, but it certainly does seem to be that way these days. Everyone has the same good taste, and it's boring. Genuine glamour is missing - every red carpet appearance by a starlet feels like a military exercise, rather than an exercise of self-expression.
Cathy Horyn of The New York Times was rather defensive, almost ranting, of the significance of haute couture, and extremely disdainful of what she clearly feels is the "masses'" idea of what haute couture is:
"Since the most effective Hollywood stylists are probably to be found behind the scenes, Rachel Zoe’s presence in the front row at the Chanel haute couture show could only mean that she wanted people to see her. Putting aside the mental block that forms at the mention of the words Hollywood stylist, Rachel Zoe was giving herself a special role.

This seems a good place to say that she is promoting a false assumption, namely that the couture collections are tailor-made for the red carpet. Actually, the couture collections are tailor-made for about 500 people in the world who have the means or the connections to get an $80,000 dress, and the rest is just ballyhoo to sell the cheaper commercial stuff.

But the red carpet is really a concession to middle American tastes; if you stopped to analyze it long enough, if you added up the number of ruched or beaded dresses trucking down the carpet, you wouldn’t have Paris or even Hollywood. You’d have the suburbs of Detroit on a good night. And that’s not a put-down to Detroit; it’s a statement that many affluent people nowadays have access to stylish clothes.

Haute couture is a different game. Not only do you need piles of money, but you have to able to project yourself into a candy-pink pencil suit with what looks like a Japanese origami bird coming off the back.

Of course, a stylist can ask to have the bird removed (not wishing to solicit comparisons to Bjork’s famous dead swan outfit), and a house will do that, since the purpose of couture is to suit the client. But the stylist, by reason of self-interest and limited vision, will never be able to duplicate the experience of the couture show. That’s why couture stands apart more and more from the red carpet. It is, in fact, everything that the red carpet is not. It is strange, difficult, emotionally affecting and accessible to relatively few."

Her implicit snobbery not withstanding (not that she is entirely wrong, but still), Ms Horyn has a point. The whole wonder of couture lies in the entire presentation - these are not normal runway shows, and certainly not meant to appeal to the general public. Which means that the red carpet, which is designed to appeal to the general public, is not quite the place to spot the best of couture, such as this creation by Jean Paul Gaultier -
Or this wonder of East-meets-West by John Galliano for Dior -
Or this burst of exuberance by Christian Lacroix -
Even these, which I think are very red carpet-worthy, may be too exciting for Hollywood -
Christian Dior Haute Couture
Chanel Haute Couture
Chanel Haute Couture

Christian Lacroix Haute Couture
Christian Lacroix Haute Couture
Christian Lacroix Haute Couture
To quote Ms Cartner-Morley again:
"Incredible stuff - but if any actress has the guts to wear that in front of the critical eyes of middle America next month, I'll eat my hat along with my popcorn."
Which is a shame I guess, for why should such flights of fancy be seen only by the few? But we cannot we cannot force others to accept what they cannot. Taste is after all, subjective. Let the Instyle crowd have their way.
Why then, is couture still important? I don't know about the actual commercial worth of couture, but I do know that revenue generated by mass-produced ready-to-wear will almost certainly exceed that of revenue generated by couture.

So I don't think couture is necessarily the most profitable thing for a designer to be doing, unless you are a designer sitting on a brand generating huge revenues, or you are pleasing the very-moneyed Gulf crowd.

As for all the talk that couture generates valuable buzz and advertising and publicity, I am a little skeptical. As an occupant of an income group that can only ever hope to acquire couture if they sold their flat, I can safely say that the whisper of critical acclaim for Chanel show never really reaches the ears of most of us. (In other words, we are more likely to have heard of Juicy Couture.)
No doubt there exists a market and financial reason for couture, however limited it is (I doubt a conglomerate like LVMH continues to fund Dior couture for old times' sake). But I think by and large, couture exists because people want to preserve the art and fantasy. In other words, it's almost like public service. Or so I like to think it is.

Because there's nothing quite like it, is there? No amount of avant-garde fashion by Martin Margiela and Yohji Yamamoto or Comme Des Garcons et al could replace the kind of lavish, Old World charm that is couture. As an inhabitant of a modern world, I am charmed and fascinated by ritual and tradition, and maybe that's why season after season, I continue to follow couture the way a child looks forward to Christmas and Santa Claus.
Except that haute couture - expensive and out of my reach as it is - is at least real.


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