Well, it’s that time of year again—-it happens twice a year: the Haute Couture fashion shows in Paris. But what was once a sky full of fireworks, for an entire week twice a year, is now just a whimper compared to the Big Bang it used to be, for a variety of reasons.
French Haute Couture has been considered both an industry and an art form, for the hundreds of years of French participation (or leadership at one time) in Fashion. To be ‘haute couture’, a garment must be entirely made by hand. Every single stitch must be hand done, on intricate fabrics, complicated draping, exquisite embroidery, no machine can ever touch it. The seamstresses who work on the garments must apprentice for l2 years before they are officially considered workers in the art. And for many, many, many years, fashionable women came from all around the world, to see the fashion shows in January and July to see what each designer was offering for next season. The fashion shows were glorious, impressive beyond belief. Roughly, 75 outfits were shown on gorgeous internationally known supermodels (with hats, jewelry, accessories, shoes that were beautiful and impossible to walk in). And after the show, the women who wore ‘haute couture’, these incredible hand made garments, would try on samples if they fit them, or just look at them, and select the ones they wanted, be measured from head to foot, and order these treasures that were as much art as fashion. They have always been expensive, although they are even more so now. The government sets the dates for the haute couture shows, each designer was assigned a day and time slot, and the week of these fashion shows was a MAJOR event in Paris, with press from around the world to record it, hot criticisms or praise in the press for the collections, and movie stars, royalty, the wives of heads of state, and fashionable wealthy women in attendance. It was always an incredible treat to attend the shows, whether you bought or not. And you can’t just decide to go, you have to be invited. People damn near killed each other, or bribed or begged to get an invitation. Historical names in haute couture are Chanel, Balenciaga, Dior, Givenchy, Lanvin, Mme Gres, Fath, St. Laurent, and many others. Some of those names have now become ready to wear clothing brands, a few remain haute couture (in addition to ready to wear), and sadly some have disappeared forever.
So if you have grown up with the traditions of French fashion, Haute Couture week twice a year is a HUGE deal!!! (In January, they show clothes for next summer, and in July they show the clothes for fall and winter). And when you left a show, after seeing the magic there, even cab drivers would ask you how the show was. Everyone in Paris cared about these fashion shows, even if they’d never been to one, and the French were enormously and justifiably proud of them.
But like everything else in the world, times have changed. Money has changed hands, fortunes have been lost or diminished, new fortunes have been made by people who don’t know or care about haute couture, women entered the work force, blue jeans happened, and people just don’t dress like they used to. It’s fine now to run around all day in blue jeans and running shoes, and no one wears evening clothes or ballgowns very often even among the very rich. Life has become infinitely informal. And the once famous designers have closed, retired, and died off, and no one has replaced them. They have, in fact, become irreplaceable. The house of Christian Dior still shows haute couture, now designed by John Galliano, a young British designer, and their thrust is to the spectacular and theatrical, as PR for the brand, rather than wearable clothes that most of us could live in. Hubert de Givenchy retired about a dozen years ago, Alexander Mc Queen took over designing the collection for several years, and now Richard Tisci, a young Italian designer. Valentino retired a few years ago, although his couture collection is still presented. Versace no longer does couture. Yves St. Laurent retired, and then passed away, and the haute couture end of the business is only a glorious memory now. Balenciaga hasn’t done haute couture in years. Fath no longer exists. Balmain closed their couture collection when Oscar de la Renta retired from designing it. Most of the famous haute couture houses have closed or changed or no longer exist. Instead of perhaps 20 haute couture designers, I saw a list of l6 this week, and had only heard of 5 of them: Givenchy, Dior, Chanel, Armani, and Gaultier. I knew none of the others. And the collections are shown in a span of 3 days, mostly by unknowns, and they show 20 or 30 items, not the enormous collections of years gone by. Fashion houses now make their money on cosmetics, perfume, accessories, and ready to wear—–haute couture is just window dressing for PR, and a tribute to the past. And in addition to the designers who have disappeared, so have the clients. One used to oohhh and ahhh at famous movie stars, young queens and princesses we had only read about, the wives of presidents, and women we knew about from the press, fashion magazines, and best dressed lists. And although I saw Madame Chirac at the Chanel show today, (the wife of France’s previous president) I saw no one else I recognized. And the wife of the current French president was once a model at the haute couture shows, and has never attended them as the President’s wife. The shows take about half an hour now, once they start, usually about half an hour late. And gorgeous models walk down the runway in fabulous clothes, to the sounds of exciting music. The atmosphere is one of excitement and expectation, and the sights are those of dazzling beauty: the models and the clothes.
So, now that you know what the Haute Couture shows are about, that’s what I did today. I went to the Chanel show. As a show, if you’d never been to one before, it was fabulous. Chanel is designed by Karl Lagerfeld, an incredibly talented designer, and an icon in the fashion world, second only to Coco Chanel herself (who established the house in the l920’s. She was an incredibly glamorous woman! She was single, drove a car, introduced trousers for women, designed and wore great jewelry, and smoked in public!!). The clothes today at Chanel were gorgeous, the models dazzling, and all in all it was a huge success. But as an haute couture follower and fan of many years, who loves to fantasize about the clothes, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that if someone had made me an incredible gift and told me to pick an outfit, there wasn’t a single one I could have worn. The models all looked about twenty years old, and the clothes were fabulous on them, but not in a million years could any of them have been worn by someone my age. And these are mega, mega, mega expensive clothes. No twenty year old could afford them. So they are designed for very, very young women now, or this collection anyway, but only their mothers or grandmothers (if they were lucky), could afford them. Most of the collections were suits with shorts instead of skirts, and I can’t imagine myself running around in a very expensive outfit that was based on shorts. There were baby doll looks and mini skirts, and all of it would have been perfect on any girl from l6 to 30, but beyond that no one older than that could wear them. Okay, 32 maybe, but surely not much older than that. The middle aged women sitting on either side of me looked equally disappointed. If nothing else, you want to fantasize about yourself in them, not feel yourself shut out by decades. But I guess that’s the nature of haute couture now, it’s not for ‘grown ups’, it’s for very young girls (with generous boyfriends or husband or parents who will buy them for them). Or maybe they’re just designed to look pretty on them, in recognition of the fact that most people don’t wear haute couture anymore, and it is more of a spectacle for PR than a serious effort to sell to clients who love clothes. It made me sad for the old days when haute couture was designed for a broad range of affluent clients who actually wore the clothes. I have tried on many haute couture samples in my life, and just slipping them on your body is a thrill. Just touching a garment made from such exquisite fabrics, so intricately made feels like a privilege and an honor. My late mother in law gave me my first couture ‘cast off’ evening dress by Balenciaga when I was l8. It was an incredible experience and I cherished it for years. It was a piece of art. Now the designs I saw today are designed for young girls, but just wouldn’t have worked on more mature women. So I felt left out. I was still in awe of the beautiful clothes, the gorgeous designs, the spectacular models, and dazzled by the show, but I was reminded again of how haute couture has changed, that it is now more of a display and an art exhibit than a sample of truly wearable fashion. It saddens me that so many of the wonderful designers are gone, and I am grateful that there are still a few left. Chanel is the last of the great original houses still in operation, as is Dior. It is as much about tradition as about fashion, and I was happy to catch a glimpse of it today…..even if you won’t see me wearing any of the clothes. But we can dream, can’t we? And fortunately, the dream is not yet gone, there is still a little bit of it left. It’s exciting to be at a haute couture show, whether you can buy the clothes or not. (I studied fashion design when I was young, so haute couture is always a thrill for me, and I have followed it for my entire life, as an art form I truly love). And I was happy to be at the Chanel show today. At the end of the show, there is always a bride, and then the designer comes out to take a bow. The bride wore palest pink at the Chanel show today. I could easily see one of my daughters in it, but not myself…….Haute Couture, and its hey day, are really part of a lost world. And I am glad we still get these reminders of it from the few designers who are left. I hope it never entirely disappears!!!!!