It’s that time of year again, time for the ‘Haute Couture’ fashion shows in Paris. It still always amazes me that not so many years ago (maybe 10??) it was an all week affair, running from one fashion show to the next, sometimes in some very unusual locations (swimming pools, a train station, the polo field in the park). Before that, the very serious Haute Couture shows were held in hotels, with the models going down the runway in elegant ballrooms. And now, instead of seven days of many shows a day, there are only two of the long established fashion houses left that still do Haute Couture: Christian Dior and Chanel. (Givenchy still does haute couture as well, but fewer pieces, and they are shown in a showroom, and there is no runway show).And now haute couture fashion week is only two days long (with many unknown designers who will never achieve the stature of the famous designers of the old Haute Couture, like Balenciaga, Balmain, Mme Gres, Yves St. Laurent).
Haute Couture is almost a lost art, with each garment made entirely by hand. There can’t be a single machine stitch anywhere on an Haute Couture garment. The people who work on the clothing, and make the gorgeous creations by hand, have to do a twelve year apprenticeship before they are considered full-fledged seamstresses and tailors. It is truly a dying art. And the clothes in Haute Couture often/usually include amazing details, like intricate embroidery and beading. The clothing itself is staggeringly expensive. An Haute Couture wedding gown (usually for royals, Arab princess, or the brides of mega billionaires) starts at $500,000. Hard to imagine!! And there is always a wedding gown as the grand finale of any runway show.
There are very, very, very few buyers left for Haute Couture clothes. Mostly, the shows are put on as important publicity for the house, so even though the number of buyers is dwindling, these last two remaining shows are still put on twice a year. In January, to show summer clothes, and in July to show winter clothes. And it takes three or four months to complete a garment for an order, which includes many, many, many hours of intricate, minute work, all by hand.
Typically, there are about 60 to 70 outfits in a show, and somewhere between 40 and 50 models (the most famous supermodels at any given time), and some of them change outfits during the show. And even if you’d never consider buying an Haute Couture dress in your wildest dreams, it is still an incredible art form and worth seeing. The French consider it an art, and take it very seriously. And it’s a thrill to see the shows. The decor and setting is always amazing, and there is palpable tension as people wait for the show to begin. There is music playing. The people who come to see the show are seated in the audience at hotels around Paris, or at a beautiful antique glass building called the Grand Palais. The shows are by invitation only, and invitations are hard to come by and considered a prize. The fashion press is there, editors of important magazines, like Vogue, movie stars (Cameron Diaz was at the Chanel show and looked absolutely gorgeous, and just like she does in the movies!!), and potential clients, who attend the shows beautifully dressed, perfectly made up, and often wearing jewels. It’s exciting to see!!!
The first outfits on the runway are usually more sporty and casual, pantsuits, suits with skirts, simple daytime dresses. Everything is put together as an outfit: the dress, shoes, sometimes a jacket or coat, jewelry. Makeup is sometimes wild and hair extreme, or the reverse: very sleek and simple. This time at Chanel, most of the models had hair teased straight up sky high, kind of like Bride of Frankenstein. And sometimes shoes are almost impossible for the models to walk in, the heels are so high. This time there were very pretty high heeled mostly sparkly pointed shoes with ankle straps. (And I have to say the models were terrifyingly thin, and often are, too much so. Normal humans just don’t look like that, and it’s a tough example to set for young women, and not a healthy one for their self-image. As the mother of five daughters, it worries me to see models that thin!!).
After the more casual outfits come short cocktail dresses, then long evening gowns, and finally THE wedding gown which is the finale. And after the wedding gown, there is a pause, and then the designer comes out, walks down the runway to the audience’s applause. In the case of Chanel, it is Karl Lagerfeld, who is German, 80 years old, and an unbelievably talented, legendary, energetic designer. He not only designs Chanel’s ready-to-wear and couture, but also for his own label, and another line of clothing as well, and he’s an active and talented photographer. His hair is snow white, he wears it in a ponytail, wears high collars, interesting clothes, often tail coats, and gloves without finger tips. He is surely a legend and one of the most talented designers today. Truly a remarkable person!!!
In this case, the setting for the show was fantastic!!! It was at the top of the Grand Palais, and an entire set had been built that looked like an airplane, with the audience sitting in rows, with video screens of clouds passing by the portholes and above. It was amazing!! And carts were rolled down the main ‘aisle’, which then became the runway, offering mango juice or champagne. It put everyone in a festive mood instantly!!!
The clothes themselves were very lovely as always, with some very simple, beautiful daytime clothes, some striking evening gowns, and lots of razzle dazzle in the audience, and some beautifully dressed women. (You can see the show and the clothes on Style.com)
Chanel is the only show I go to now. I used to go to many of the shows, when there were many, and always to Dior. But although I respect John Galliano’s talent, when he began designing for Dior, the clothes were too dramatic and not really what I like, and I eventually stopped going to the Dior Shows. Mr. Galliano is no longer designing for Dior, and they haven’t yet hired a new designer, so the clothes were designed by their design studio this year, which interested me less as there is no real ‘signature statement’ by a great designer, with no big designer creating their clothes. So I didn’t go to their show. There has been much speculation in the last year as to who will take Mr. Galliano’s place (there was talk of Ricardo Tisci at Givenchy going to Dior, but he didn’t. Marc Jacobs, Phoebe Phylo (of Celine), and Alexander Wang. But no one has accepted the job yet, and the guessing continues).
So it was an exciting day. There was a press show at 10 am, and another one for clients, celebs, and ‘important people’ at noon, and I was invited to that one. It is always an honor and a treat to be there. I sat in front of the previous First Lady of France (Bernadette Chirac, and she’s a lovely woman I’ve met before), and also Daphne Guinness, fashion icon from London, in towering platform shoes, black and gold lame leggings, with jet black and platinum hair teased and swept up, and a ring on every finger. It’s almost as exciting to watch the audience as it is to watch the show!!
And no matter how remote haute couture seems from our daily lives, and even if one never owns a piece of haute couture clothing, it is a fantastic experience just being there, seeing it, and being part of it for a moment. The show takes about an hour, and I was back on the street (like Cinderella after the ball, but in this case with both shoes on) at one o’clock, having experienced the magic of it yet again. It is always exciting to me, it never fails to thrill me, whether I like a particular collection or not. For all of my childhood and adolescence I wanted to be a fashion designer (and went to design school, but got into writing instead), and I feel like an excited kid again when I see it. It’s an amazing experience and a thrill every time!!! Afterwards, I went about my life, did some errands, bought shampoo, and did some work at home. Back to real life…..but for one extraordinary hour, I was transported by the world of Haute Couture again. There is nothing like it!!!!