Unlike (ready to wear) fashion week, which is a wild 10 day relay race, as store buyers, press, movie stars, celebrities, and anyone associated with fashion professionally, dash from one venue to the next to see as many as 7 or 8 major fashion shows a day, in 4 cities (New York, Paris, London, Milan), repeating the wild week again and again, until everyone is exhausted and has seen the wares of every ready to wear designer. Unlike ready to wear, Haute Couture fashion shows happen only in Paris, and whereas once upon a time, a dozen or so years ago, and for many years before that, the Haute Couture shows were the Big event, now Ready to Wear is where everyone wants to go and be seen. I guess I’m dating myself when I say that the Haute Couture shows used to be absolutely knock out, and attracted the most elegant women in the world. The front row at the fashion show was every socialite you’d ever heard of, important dignitaries and movie stars, and presidents’ wives, along with well known royals, and the women who attended the shows actually wore haute couture in their daily lives. The shows were beautiful, dignified, the clothes were spectacular and it was a rarefied scene and atmosphere that took your breath away if you loved beautiful clothes. But like it or not, the world has changed. My daughters and I were reminiscing about those shows a few days ago, since I started taking my 5 daughters to them when they were very young, like 7 or 8 years old. And the shows were dazzling then, for them, and for me. I’ve always loved fashion, and the haute couture shows were every woman and young girl’s dream. All of Paris buzzed with the excitement, and the women who attended them (by invitation only) were stunningly elegant. But that world no longer exists.
For those who haven’t read about my talking about Haute Couture, what defines haute couture from ready to wear, is that every single stitch is hand made. There is not one machine made stitch on an haute couture garment. The seamstresses who worked on them had to be apprentices in the workrooms for twelve years before they were allowed to touch the clothes. The way it works is that there are two haute couture shows a year by the designer, in January (to show summer clothes) and in July (to show winter wear). The designer would put together about 70 designs, complete outfits, a sample of each one is made by hand, and usually famous models wear the samples down the runway in a beautiful show, so everyone can admire the clothes. Appointments are made afterwards for clients to try on the samples, and if they like them, the client will order a dress or outfit, and it will be handmade to her precise measurements. She will then have three fittings, sometimes more (the first one in a sample of the garment made in muslin, not the actual fabric), and about three months after the process began, the haute couture outfit or dress she ordered is delivered to the client. That process is still true today, and hasn’t changed. Haute Couture clothes were always expensive, but not the way they are now. A dress or outfit cost around $10,000 not that long ago, a spectacular evening gown $20,000. A wedding gown 50 or $100,000. Today those same clothes can easily be 75 or $100,000 for a wool dress, $150,000 for a suit, up to $300,000 for an evening gown, and $700,000 for an elaborate wedding dress. At those prices, there are only a handful of women in the world who can afford them. And not only have the Haute Couture clients changed, but so has the world. I went to two of those shows in the last two days, as I do twice a year, and have for most of my life, as an admirer of fashion (I went to Parsons School of Design and studied fashion design, and three of my daughters work in fashion, so it’s a family passion), and there were no Presidents’ wives at the shows I attended, only one major movie star, no royals, and the famously well dressed women are only a memory now. I occasionally see well known movie stars at those shows (Jennifer Lawrence at Dior yesterday), and have seen Gwyneth Paltrow, Cameron Diaz, and Kirsten Dunst, and Rihanna in recent years, but on the whole people go now for the spectacle, and many to be seen, and very, very, very few are going to buy haute couture. The haute couture client of today is a very different breed. And the world we live in a very different place. Money is tight, jobs are scarce and the economy strained in many countries, the entire world wears jeans and sneakers, some even to work, exercise clothes are considered okay in every public place. Luxury is often frowned on (though secretly envied), men rarely wear ties now, it’s considered fashionable not to shave, and most people have nowhere to wear the fabulous creations of Haute Couture. And all but 3 of the once numerous haute couture designers still produce haute couture collections, which are labor intensive to make and out in the stratosphere in price. Many of the clothes one sees on the runway are then put in the designer’s museum, and never made for any clients. Sadly, haute couture has become an exquisite beautiful, absolutely spectacular dinosaur from another age. A few people still buy it, but most people’s everyday lives, even those with money, just don’t lend themselves to those fabulous creations anymore. And there are sometimes simpler clothes in the collections too, but always at an astronomical price, due to the fabric, or embroidery, or the remarkable labor and expertise that goes into them. I go to look, and am in awe of the workmanship and the creativity every time.
The remaining old guard Haute Couture Designers in Paris now are Chanel (designed by brilliant German designer Karl Lagerfeld, who is truly a genius), Dior (designed by Raf Simmons, a Belgian designer who has designed the collection for two years after John Galliano retired after his 10 year stint with Dior), and Jean Paul Gauthier. There are several young, lesser known designers of haute couture, but Dior and Chanel are among the greats of fashion history. Some flavor of the original style of each house is maintained, but the designs are new and modern now, and unlike the designs of the past, made for women who could afford them, they are now designed for very, very young women, whose wardrobes are being bought by older wealthy men. The big clients now are Russian and Chinese. I heard Russian spoken everywhere around me at the Chanel show. The big money at the Haute Couture shows is no longer French or European, it is predominantly Russian and Chinese, with a few Americans from Texas, New York and LA. But the elegant middle aged or older woman will find very little there that she can wear, even if she can afford it. The designers are focusing on very, very young clients, in their early 20’s, who are brought to the shows by their very generous men, who are looking to dress them and show them off. In most cases, a woman over 40 would look silly in the clothes now and is out of luck if she’s hoping to buy.
The Dior Show was held at the Rodin Museum on the rue de Varenne (where I lived when I was in my teens). It’s a beautiful museum, and Dior puts up a fabulous tent in the garden. And every inch of the tent’s walls was covered with white orchids that were absolutely stunning. Everything else in the tent was silver and white. And the clothes were very beautiful. There were a few things I could have worn, some simple coats, and slacks, but for the most part the designs, and the clients were very young. There were a number of Asian movie stars I didn’t recognize, and the women in the audience, and even some of the men, seemed determined to outdo each other and were snagging attention and catching the eye in wild outfits, eccentric hats, space age shoes that looked impossible to walk in, and every possible flight of fancy in fashion. The audience was startling more than fashionable, people were looking to shock, and the old Guard had totally vanished. It was a beautiful show, and the look of the audience reminded me that the old days are long gone. These were fierce fashionistas on parade, many more interested in showing off their own style than admiring the clothes that were being shown.
Chanel is always impressively elegant, and here the Russian clients dominated. The show was held at the Grand Palais and I can honestly say that I have never seen so many beautiful young (VERY young!!!) women in my life, almost all with much older men. I’d say the average age of the women there was about 22, with flawless bodies, exquisite faces, perfect teeth, warm, friendly smiles, wearing clothes specially made for them, or from recent haute couture collections. The fashionistas were plentiful here too, one spectacularly beautiful girl wearing a tiny mini skirt, with a full length dyed black alligator skin running down her back, from her neck to her knees, with the sneakers that were part of the last haute couture collection in January. The ladies at Chanel were not as daring and eccentric as those at Dior, but they were visibly style setters in the more recent trends. Almost every woman had either a Hermes or a Chanel bag on her arm, every woman I saw was wearing huge diamonds, many of the young Russian women knew each other. Many wore tiny, chic hats, perched at sexy angles, their faces exquisite beneath them, and their outfits exhibited every recent fashion trend. They weren’t officially chic or elegant, in the old style sense of the couture client, they were wearing the symbols of their ability to buy couture, and the extravagance and devotion of their men, but they were so beautiful and so striking that what they wore almost didn’t matter. The clothes at Chanel were beautiful, but I couldn’t see myself in any of the outfits on the runway, and it’s nice to be able to dream and imagine yourself in at least some of the creations. Haute Couture today appears to be for very, very young girls, accompanied by very generous men. I suppose one could say that most of the women there were trophies for their men. The female clients in the audience really weren’t about elegance, but damn they were beautiful. And I have to admit, after the show, I felt suddenly old and a little sad. I missed the old days when I could fall in love with the clothes and imagine myself in them. But there was very little in the show that I could wear. I felt kind of left out. The haute couture client today is apparently very, very young. But then again, I had my turn when I was younger….now it’s their turn to discover the world of haute couture, and they look like they’re excited to be there, and having fun.
Things change, collections are different every season, and next time there might be lots of things I can dream about wearing and wish I could have. But this time, it was a collection for very young women, and they were as pretty to look at as the clothes.
And whatever the styles for that season, I always, always enjoy seeing the clothes…if you love fashion, it’s sooooo much fun!!! And a tradition worth honoring as long as it lasts. love, danielle