When asked in 1991 whether he would continue to support couture despite its lack of profitability, chairman of LVMH Bernard Arnault responded with a solid yes. It is the research and development laboratory of Paris style and taste, and the pure expression of the style of a fashion house. Fifteen years later, and a week after the fall couture shows have just wrapped up, the viability of couture still remains an issue of debate. The clientele for these five and six figure pieces stands now at roughly 2000 individuals. Not surprisingly, the number of design houses doing couture has also once again dwindled. Labels such as Versace, Lanvin, and Ungaro have dropped them from their calendars. Could it be argued then that the handful of designers still doing couture are at the epicenter of this so-called research and development laboratory?
The answer should be an obvious no. Many of the bright stars of the fashion world – Ghesquire, Theyskens, McQueen, to name a few – are pouring innovative ideas into the ready-to-wear collections for their respective houses. Furthermore, these collections do not need to negotiate their relevance in the modern world as couture does, which is often accused of either being too old or too artistic and out of touch. How did the recent shows navigate through this? Chanel raised the hemlines of their tweeds and paired it with thigh high denim boots, imitating a certain thread of street style where girls wear their dresses over skirts. But the look appeared more forced than modern. Over at Dior, Galliano literally armored his models and the idea emerged of dress as defense and protection in these increasingly uncertain times. This theme, however, had already been articulated in the ready-to-wear shows earlier this year. Valentino and Saab, two courtiers prone to avoid agendas, produced some beautiful, contemporary dresses that would look great on the red carpet, but it also prompted the question. So what? Ricardo Tisci, on the other hand, produced a refreshingly restrained, somber collection for Givenchy that contained enough multi-ethnic references to give Galliano a run for his money. But they were incorporated with more subtlety, and extricated Givenchy from the at-times burdensome Audrey Hepburn associations. And Christian Lacroix’s color infused show presented an easy youthfulness and charm to his knee length dresses.
Another point in favor of couture is its usefulness in brand positioning and marketing. It adds to a brand’s visibility and prestige, assures consumers of its quality, and helps push the sales of accessories and other goods. But is haute couture still a necessary image maker? The twice yearly ready to wear shows have themselves become important marketing tools, where spectacle oftentimes supercedes the clothes. Who can forget the hologram of a ghostly Kate Moss at McQueen’s latest show, or the Penn State marching band that performed a few years back at Marc Jacobs spring show? These designers are pushing forth an agenda and image for their brands without the aid of haute couture. Other labels that do not have a haute couture line have learned to successfully manage their brand in part due to the constant updating of iconic pieces. In the case of Burberry, for example, it’s their trench. To put it more generally, haute couture no longer seems to be fundamental to defining and maintaining the status of a brand. Of course it helps, but when millions of dollars are involved in putting together one show, is simple nostalgia for these lovely pieces enough to keep the tradition going?
Sources: The NY Times, International Herald Tribune