Haute couture: A way of life

Haute couture evolved in an era when women travelled to Paris to order their wardrobe, writes Francesca Fearon

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2012, 3:13pm

There are some things that you just cannot hurry in this age of instant gratification. In the world of fashion, that is haute couture.

It is remarkable in the modern day that haute couture exists at all because it is the very antithesis of fast fashion.

Nevertheless, far from having its obituary written, interest in couture has started to grow again in recent years.

Haute couture is founded on a way of life belonging to the last century. It evolved in an era when women travelled to Paris to order their wardrobe and would patiently submit to fittings, have toiles made (mock-up versions of the design in cotton calico) and wait months for their delivery.

It was worth it because they knew what they would receive would be beautifully crafted and fit perfectly. These women paid - and continue to pay - for the privilege of wearing something unique.

Riccardo Tisci, the creative director at Givenchy whose exquisitely embellished dresses and dramatic plaited leather jackets take weeks to perfect, describes couture as "a religion". And for clients, that is exactly what it is.

Time is the modern world's luxury and couture is about labour-intensive craftsmanship.

Beaded fringes can be mass-produced as quickly as machines can string them.

But in Givenchy's piece de la résistance from the autumn collection, red and black beads were strung by hand in a pattern that created a mosaic design to match the embroidery on the top of a floor-length cape. It is an effect that even modern manufacturing techniques would struggle to replicate.

At Valentino, the show notes on which clients tick their preferences list the hours it takes to either make a dress or outfit in the atelier, or to hand-embroider them. Many of this season's day dresses and jumpsuits average 500 hours of work in the atelier, while the evening wear averages 700 hours.

However, an inky-blue blouse and trousers ensemble covered in a "constellation" of crystal sapphire and jet beads took 1,200 hours to embroider - and this was before it was even assembled. Similarly, a neat high-waisted cocktail dress had no less than 250,000 pearls densely embroidered on to it.

Designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli, who have been at the helm of Valentino for four years, are masters of rustling up big statements out of thin air - or at least clouds of lace and chiffon and beading. They spotlight the refined age-old techniques of hand beading and embroidery to be found in their Rome atelier and bring a fresh attitude and youthful spirit to the house.

At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld went so far as to produce the brand's famous tweeds, not in tweed but in cleverly worked stones and embroidery. He was using the traditional skills of Chanel's ateliers to create something truly modern for couture.

According to Bruno Pavlovsky, the présidente des activités mode at Chanel, there are about 1,000 haute couture customers worldwide. This doesn't sound a lot, but couture is about quality and exclusivity.

"Since the financial crisis we have actually found more new customers and young customers coming to haute couture," he says. "There are fewer customers from existing markets like America and Europe and more from China, Russia, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Brazil."

Some customers order by video and fitters fly out to see them. Representatives from Chanel visit their clients twice a year whether in New York, Dubai, Hong Kong or Shanghai. Visits may take place a few months after the unveiling of the collection on the catwalk, which happens in January (for spring) and July (for autumn).

"We need a minimum of two fittings before delivery," Pavlovsky says. "Sometimes they come to Paris and sometimes we go to them." This means a client might not receive her order until three months after the fashion show.

Giambattista Valli, a newcomer to the exclusive circle of Paris haute couture houses, debuting in July last year, admits that not all his clients have such time to spare. The new generation wants their orders quickly.

"They come, they love it, they want it now," he says. "They don't have the knowledge of fitting a toile [the traditional way of having a first fitting]. So we do the fitting in the real fabric in the real colour because they don't have that kind of imagination to visualise it."

Some young clients even order by phone, giving measurements and coming for a single fitting in the final garment. "Then they wait two or three days for the finished dress." It is, he admits, a different way for couture.

Valli also highlights another factor: "Fashion needs new blood", pointing out that "haute couture is an essential part of fashion's DNA, so you cannot kill it". Customers, he explains, "want luxury with a big 'L'". Luxury is not about being expensive, but it is something that brings with it the weight of tradition."

In Italy, designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have just realised a 27-year dream of launching their own Dolce & Gabbana couture collection, a breathtaking achievement for a couple so new to the metier, yet so skilled in tailoring and embroidery.

Until the 1980s, Rome had its own Alta Moda. But it is the great houses of Christian Dior, Givenchy, Chanel and Jean Paul Gaultier that anchor the Paris season.

Guest members of the Chambre Syndicale, the French haute couture federation, include Italian designers Valentino and Giorgio Armani, and Beirut-based Elie Saab.

Valli, Alexis Mabille and Stephane Rolland are new names and even newer is Raf Simons, who made a sublime debut in July for Christian Dior.

His wearable minimalism earned him an army of loyal fans while he was at Jil Sander and he has transferred that elegance and discipline to his collection at Dior.

"I never thought that a couture house would consider me, but when it happened people were not all that surprised about it; it made sense," he says.

"These couture ateliers can do so much, but I think the beauty is to make a woman see that couture can bring something to them that is so refined that they cannot find it in ready-to-wear."