Most people can only dream of an haute couture dress. The nearest many of us probably get is to buy the lipstick models wear on the catwalk.
Yet even for those fortunate enough to be invited to the Paris shows, the spellbinding photographs by the legendary French fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier and bound in the new book Dior Couture, provide an experience beyond the catwalk. These images combine the artistry of the haute couturier with the vision of the photographer to inspire our imagination.
Dior Couture (published by Rizzoli) is a compelling montage of creations by some of the finest designers who worked at the French label, including that of the founder himself. It presents the photographer's personal view of fashion from the great couture house.
The book stars the most beautiful couture pieces produced by the house, photographed over a three-year period in Demarchelier's New York, Paris and Shanghai studios, and features dreamy images of 150 dresses, suits and coats made in the Dior ateliers since its founding in 1947.
'The selection was made between Dior, the stylists I've been working with on the project, and myself,' says Demarchelier. 'We were given full access to the Dior archives. It was amazing.'
These range from the cinch-waisted full-skirted New Look silhouette created by Dior himself, to the work of his successors, Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan (the very first Dior show Demarchelier ever attended) and, until last year, John Galliano. Most of the pictures are of Galliano's work, as well as a couple of shots of Saint Laurent and Bohan's outfits from the 1950s and '60s, but there is nothing of Gianfranco Ferr? who immediately preceded Galliano.
There is, of course, the legendary Bar suit designed by Christian Dior, so named because it was inspired by the cocktail ritual at the Hotel Plaza Ath?n?e bar, located across Avenue Montaigne from the house. 'What is incredible is that I never had the sense that I was working with old dresses,' says Demarchelier. 'Even the Dior dresses dating back to the 1940s or '50s - which are so beautiful and exquisitely made - are still modern.'
In the book's opening chapter, famed fashion editor Ingrid Sischy highlights this point. 'Christian Dior hit upon an idea that is key and still true today,' she says. 'It has to do with our collective need to believe in some kind of magic. Describing the public's obsession with designers, Dior once wrote: 'I believe it comes from the fact that in the world today, dress design is one of the last repositories of the marvellous, and the couturier is one of the last possessors of the wand of Cinderella's fairy godmother'.'
'Every shoot was different and all were captivating,' says Demarchelier. On the opening spread is his shot of members of the Dior ateliers, assembled in front of the house at 30 Avenue Montaigne. The picture was originally taken for American Vogue, and shows les petits mains' (as they are called) in their white lab coats draped with tape measures and pochettes holding scissors, pins and other accoutrements of their craft. It nails the point that this is as much a tribute to their skills, as it is to the couturiers that designed the beautiful dresses they made.
Among Demarchelier's favourite shoots are the racy images of the Japanese-inspired Spring-Summer 2007 collection he shot in Shanghai for the 2008 Pirelli calendar, and a series of garden-party photographs that resemble impressionist paintings. 'It was a moment of grace,' he says of the flower-themed collection. 'It was at the Mus?e Rodin, just after the Fall-Winter 2010 show and we took all the girls into the garden,' where he only had 20 minutes to get the pictures. 'It was magnificent. I said to myself, 'I am very happy', but in truth I enjoyed every moment and every occasion.'
Demarchelier is brilliant at catching that moment of spontaneity, whether it is a fashion shot or a portrait. For three decades, he has been one of the world's pre-eminent celebrity portraitists and fashion photographers, working with Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Elton John, former US presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and Princess Diana, who appointed him her personal portraitist.
He is a master of lighting, but 'having a good subject is the secret to getting a good portrait,' he says. 'Beauty is in the character of a person. It's about having an interesting face and about what's inside. Anyone can take a good picture.' Looking at the images in this book, one would say he is being rather modest.