Happy Days, it has just been “Haute Couture Week” in Paris, the fashion shows of Haute Couture shows, by only a handful now of famous designers. There are 2 kinds of fashion weeks now in Paris. Haute Couture and Ready to Wear. “In the old days”, 10 or 20 years ago, the only people involved in Ready to Wear shows were in the fashion business, magazine editors, fashion press, and mostly store buyers who went to those shows to select what they would buy for the following seasons for the stores they represented. Those in the audience came from around the world. And it’s really more like fashion “month” in ready to wear, since there is a full week or longer of those shows in New York, London, Paris and Milan, each week in a different city. “Regular people” who just like to see clothes didn’t used to go to the Ready to Wear shows, and they weren’t a glamourous event. The shows were attended by hard working, serious store buyers trying to make the right choices for their stores for the next season. And both Ready to Wear and Haute Couture shows happen twice a year. The Couture in late January and early July, the ready to wear in February/March and late Sept/early October. And the audience for the Haute Couture shows were the Elite, famous actresses, the wives of Presidents and heads of State, the Crowned Heads of certain countries, and women with a great deal (!!!!) of money to spend on their wardrobes. The audience for Haute Couture was as exciting as the clothes and famous models on the runway. Now, in today’s world, the importance of both kinds of fashion has changed. Today, haute couture is for only a tiny few. Haute Couture only happens in Paris. It is the fine art of exquisite clothes, where every single stitch must be made by hand. Nothing is mass produced or made by machine. You see the clothes on the runway, go to the fashion house that made them to try on the samples if you can squeeze into them (in a size 2), or see models show them to you again, order them, and many months later, the clothes arrive, after hundreds of hours of hand sewing, embroidery, where every tiny bead and sequin is sewn on by expert hands. Few women still wear those kinds of clothes today, ‘need’ them for their wardrobes or can afford them. And they barely make sense for the lives most women lead today, where women work, everyone dresses more simply and even the best dressed women spend a lot of time in jeans and running shoes. (A typical Haute Couture outfit 30 years ago, not so long ago, was a dress or suit, with matching hat, coat, and even sometimes matching shoes and handbag in the same fabric). Today, there are only a few houses left who do haute couture, the most illustrious of which are Chanel and Dior, and a few designers who are newer to the scene. It’s barely a three day event (whereas the Ready to Wear Fashion week lasts for 8 jam packed days, of as many as 8 shows a day. For Haute Couture there are one or two significant shows to see a day, although in years past there were 4 and 5 shows to see per day). And the women in the audience at Couture used to be as elegant as the models on the runway.
Today, although seats aren’t easy to get, almost everyone interested in fashion goes to the Ready to Wear shows, fashion editors, bloggers, minor and major movie stars from nearly every country around the world, people who love fashion, and others who just want to be seen (in some pretty wild outfits!!!). Hundreds of members of the press scream the names of stars as they get out of their cars, it is a MAJOR event. And like a once beautiful dowager from another era, Haute Couture is slowly, designer by designer, fading away, and only really followed by a select few. I love fashion, and living in Europe for a lot of my life, I have gone to the Haute Couture shows since I was in my teens. And going to them was always a HUGE deal. You have to be invited, the beautiful invitations arrive a few days before and I sat in the audience, in awe of everything I saw. I had a grandmother who loved fashion too, I used to do designs as a little girl, went to Parsons School of Design to study fashion design when I went to college (at NYU, they had a combined program), and have followed fashion closely all my life, often just as a pleasure to see, not necessarily to buy. And when my own daughters were small, I took all 5 of them to the Haute Couture shows, which fascinated them. They knew they were seeing something very special, and it was a rare privilege for them to be allowed to be there. In all my years of attending the shows, I have only seen a handful of children there, maybe only one or two in addition to my own. And they sat rapt by everything they saw. (The shows are always in spectacular locations, with some incredible stage sets to set the mood for each show). So my girls caught the bug from me, and 3 of them work in fashion, and are part of the chosen few who decide what we’ll wear next season. It’s fascinating to be around them, and listen to them talk to each other and their designer friends. And since my girls were in love with fashion at an early age, as were some of their friends, some of the big young designers today grew up in my house, hanging out with my girls. One of them, Alexander Wang, a wonderful wonderful person, used to cut up some of my girls’ clothes and ‘redesign’ them. I would find them (at 15, 16, 17) wielding a scissor over one of their dresses and I’d have a fit and scream at them all about what they were doing—-little did I know he’d be a huge and very important designer one day!!! (He designs for his own brand, and Balenciaga in Paris, and one of my daughters is the design consultant with him.). The whole group of young designers is all in their late 20’s now, and what incredible talent they have!! It’s a hard working business with lots of stress, and long hours, as they produce 4 collections a year.
When I was very young and newly married (I got married at 17), the audience at Haute Couture was, as I said, the Elite of the world. I’d sit in my place in the front row, agog at who I was seeing. And there were rows of women who were well known, on best dressed lists, and the important and very elegant buyers of Haute Couture from all the big designers. They were usually from aristocratic or even royal families, married to important men, and they would select a whole new wardrobe every season. (The clothes cost only a fraction them of what they cost now. Even a suit, and certainly an evening gown are in the six figures now. A wedding gown can cost half a million dollars or even a million. They weren’t nearly as expensive then, although haute couture has never been cheap. But upper end ready to wear now costs what haute couture did then. Now haute couture is out in the stratosphere.) Those rows of elegant women are almost forgotten names now. Bunny Mellon, Deeda Blair, Nan Kempner, were the goddesses of high fashion 20 years ago. They have been replaced by a wide assortment of people, most of whom you and I wouldn’t recognize by face or name. I saw the wives of some French ex-presidents yesterday, but the big rock stars and movie stars from around the world go to ready to wear, not Couture (although many famous actresses borrow haute couture gowns to wear to the Academy Awards. The big houses will lend clothes for special events if it gets press for them. It’s good advertising for the house and the designer). The women who attend the haute couture shows now are mostly foreign, not French or American. Very wealthy women from Middle Eastern countries, some Asian, many Russian. The world economy is reflected at the Haute Couture shows as well. What countries have big money and can afford clothes at those prices? Very few countries have an economy that can support spending that kind of money today. There are probably only a handful of women around the world who still buy haute couture, and can afford to. The Haute Couture shows are mostly a PR and press event for the house now, and are probably a money loss for them in terms of what they’ll actually sell. The sets for the shows are fabulous and cost a fortune, and the samples on the runway (previously there would be about 75 ‘looks’ and outfits. Now closer to half that amount. It’s just too expensive to make those clothes, even as samples). At the ready to wear shows what you see on the runway will be mass produced, at Haute Couture, if ordered, each garment is made stitch by stitch by hand. the detail on the clothes is incredible as well as the design, beautiful embroideries, beading, it truly is a lost art, and a joy to behold (very special or iconic pieces are always put in the fashion house’s private museum of their most exceptional clothes. Every important dress house has its own museum, with their archives, Balenciaga, Chanel, St. Laurent, Givenchy, Dior). And in the audience are not only women who might buy them, but now there are people in the audience who would never have been there before, press in the audience as well as the press section (of many hundred photographers), bloggers, and people who are friends of the house, or associated with them in some way, or just managed to wangle an invitation, and many of them wearing sweatshirts, running shoes and jeans. Most people who attend like to show off with what they wear, but a lot of people now go in crazy outfits, or even sloppy clothes (I do miss the days when everyone looked gorgeous and it was fun to see what they were wearing. There are still some pretty clothes in the audience from the regular couture buyers, but not nearly as many).
The demographic has changed at the Haute Couture shows too. The clothes designers made in the past for Haute Couture were definitely for grown ups, and the women who bought them were a few in their 30’s, the occasionally very lucky young daughter, but mostly women in their 40’s 50’s and 60’s who spent big money on clothes (and had the jewels and lifestyle to go with them). But what one saw on the runway was a very sophisticated, glamourous, ‘adult’ look. Cute was never a word I would have associated with Haute Couture. Today what you see on the runway is mostly for young women in their very early 20’s. Even my daughters in their mid to late 20’s would look silly in most of the clothes, and there is almost nothing I could wear. Last year, Chanel’s haute couture spring show was ALL very short shorts, worn with tennis shoes in fun fabrics and colors (orange and gold, pink and silver, and others). I can’t imagine a single grown up woman wearing the short shorts I saw last year, nor would they want to spend a fortune on them. Most of the women buying and wearing haute couture now are the very, very young women who are the mistresses and wives of much older men, 40 years older than they are. The men can afford them, and dress their very young companions in haute couture, to show them off like beautiful dolls. And the clothes on the runway reflect that, the clothes you see for the most part can only be worn by the very, very young. And for the most part, the women who used to wear high fashion, and can even afford it, have been forgotten and left in the dust. Haute Couture is now for very young women, and the older men who buy it for them. That, and the high prices of Haute Couture, as well as our changed lifestyle today is probably what has driven most fashionable women from haute couture to ready to wear, and has made the ready to wear shows the more popular event, and more glamourous than they once were.
I usually go to see Dior and Chanel Haute Couture, the only two big houses left who still do couture. One by one, all the big Haute Couture designers of the past have dropped out. This time I only made it to Chanel. It was, as always, a spectacular show, with bright colors (for the spring and summer), a variety of dressy and more casual clothes, elegant women in the audience, and some oddballs who went overboard in what they wore to watch the show. But the clothes were beautiful, and the designer Karl Lagerfeld is a genius of fashion, an icon, and an absolute marvel. He’s in his 80’s, and designs both ready to wear and Haute Couture collections for Chanel. He also designs for Fendi, and his own brand. Full of energy, creativity and talent, he is tireless and brilliant. Every collection is exciting, and the shows really fun to go to. The set was all white yesterday, with cut outs, representing a fantasy garden, and as the models walked out, the whole set burst into bloom with brilliant colored flowers that sprung out. It was a knock out, and as always a fabulous event of beautiful clothes in the rarefied atmosphere of Haute Couture. No matter how it changes, no matter how few women buy it now, or that it’s a dying art, I always find it exciting, and an inspiration, and am thrilled and feel lucky to be there. And it is always fun to go!!!
I did an interview with T Magazine of the New York Times on line about Haute Couture week. It’s online, check it out if you like: http://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/tmagazine/2015/01/23/danielle-steel-couture-week-icon/?_r=0&referrer=
And if you want to see what was on the runway, take a look on style.com.