When we think of couture these days – IF we think of couture these days – it is often as a relic of the past. Those of us who care about such things seem enslaved to the images of the distant past that are ingrained in our memories. The phrase â€œHaute Coutureâ€ conjures up dusty postcards of iconic images from the deep recesses of our memories: of 1950’s fashion editors like Carmel Snow sitting in a dove grey ballroom chair at Dior – her hat, gloves, and shoes perfectly matched to her skirt suit; of 1960’s actresses like Audrey Hepburn dressed for both her films and private life by Hubert de Givenchy himself or of the Jet Set American socialites like Babe Paley and Gloria Guinness glamorously jetting off to buy (sometimes the entire) Balenciaga collection under the watchful eye of Cristobal himself; and of 1970’s American socialites like Nan Kempner and the French actress Catherine Deneuve sitting front row at Yves St. Laurent and smoking their way through their endless schedule of fittings.
In the 1980s, when design went over-the-top and the couture famously started to go â€œD&Dâ€ – that’s Dallas and Djeddah, to you and me – we Americans began to associate couture with the tall blond Texans like Lynn Wyatt who favored Valentino and the first Mrs. Trump, Ivana in Christian Lacroix bubble skirts and Thierry Mugler skirt suits. Throughout the 1990’s we saw fewer and fewer images of American women in couture in the glossy society pages of W magazine. We heard rumors of the vast couture graveyards in the Middle East – dry cleaning establishments stuffed to the rafters with last season’s couture creations, whose owners had forgotten them having moved on the latest season’s must-haves. Even this year’s Sex and the City 2 perpetuates this idea that the world’s greatest clothes are swaddled in black fabric throughout the capital cities of the Arabian peninsula. Many a fashion editor has dined out on tales of instantly recognizable flashes of this season’s couture looks peeking out from under the abaya of a woman clearing security at Charles de Gaulle.
This past award season saw much debate in the American mainstream and fashion press as to whether or not actresses should wear couture, about whether or not it’s relevant to the American fashion consumer who flocks to the nearest mall to wear cut rate copies of runway looks to her senior promo or a summer wedding. Personally, I applaud it. Kaiser Karl and Chanel had the lock on this for a very long time, putting Nicole Kidman and Kiera Knightley in couture for their movie premiers. Even Miss Hermione Granger (otherwise known as Emma Watson) wore custom made Chanel to her movie premieres. Signor Armani and his Armani Prive line have long graced the red carpets of American award shows to wide acclaim. Why the ccontroversy? As near as I can tell, the issue is not about the custom made aspect of it. When Jennifer Lopez wears an Armani Prive gown that is cut to her ample or â€œreal womanâ€ proportions, no one balks, but when an actress wears the actual dress that walked the runway of an haute couture show, everyone is up in arms. Perhaps because it implies that the actress holds herself to a stringent regime of diet and exercise to maintain her model thin figure.
I myself was very much looking forward to this latest season of Haute Couture shows and I don’t mind saying that it was because of all the controversy surrounding Zoe Saldana’s appearance at the Oscars in a Givenchy evening gown, designed by Riccardo Tischi. One of my more outspoken stylist friends – who will remain nameless – dismissed the gown by saying it â€œlooked like her dress was pooping purple pompomsâ€. I thought the dress was genius and I believe that one by one, elements of that design will trickle down through ready-to-wear and into mass market. Mark my words! A few seasons from now, American women young and not-so-young will be clamoring for the color purple, ombre ball gowns, crystal bodices or even pompoms – just not all together in one dress!
If the past few seasons of ready-to-wear have ushered in a new era in ladylike dressing, elevating the level of dress to which women adhere, then the couture is right on track by going over-the-top again. Not since Audrey Hepburn was dressed by Hubert himself, have we seen such interest in the Givenchy brand. The male fashion editors I know spend endless hours comparing our wishlists for items from the men’s collections. The latest couture collection, designed by Riccardo Tischi, is the stuff that fashion dreams are made of. The classic elements of Haute Couture are all still there – handmade Chantilly lace, painstaking Lesage embroidery, hand sewn crystals and feathers, and exotic furs (who knew you could bleach Baboon fur?) – but presented in an entirely new and completely relevant manner. Tischi’s designs respect the artistry of the ghosts of fashion but bring the art form into the present – and the future.
The House of Valentino has been much scrutinized by the fashion press since the departure of Mr. Garavani, but this season, the design duo behind the label – Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli – have laid out a new and completely forward looking direction. Even the requisite rosso Valentino evening gown takes a huge step forward by introducing utterly new proportions on a classic silhouette. Armani Prive offers a new geometric silhouette, banishing embellishment – long a staple of the brand – to the sidelines, literally!
From Paris, even the much coveted Chanel skirt suit – the longstanding epitome of Haute Couture for daytime – has been brought into the 21st century and beyond. The jacket is now cropped to the same length as the half sleeve (3/4 sleeves are so last year!) and the skirt is now cut with a most unforgiving high waist. John Galliano’s Haute Couture collection for Christian Dior deserves its own ode from me, but I’ll sum it up here by saying that fashion bloomed in full glory once again! Drawing inspiration from real flowers, Galliano presented a dazzling array of colors, embellishment and shapes. The must-have silhouette is the tulip skirt, redefined for a whole new generation of fashionable women. The Dior original features parrot tulip frills!
As for its relevance, the Haute Couture will always influence design the world over. We are still seeing the ripple effect of Galliano’s Spring 2006 collection for Christian Dior. The signature origami folds of the gowns and day suits rippled through the ready-to-wear collections of American designers and even showed up in this year’s prom season offerings, although much diluted. In order for a design element to reach the masses, it has to start somewhere. If that has to be Haute Couture runway shows that I so love and other so often hate, then so be it. Bastille Day is upon us and we have no shortage of bread in America, but we do have a shortage of style in our everyday lives. To the masses who say they can’t afford to look stylish or fashionable, I say â€œLet them wear Haute Couture!â€
(If my column is missing next month, you’ll know I was dragged out of my home by the unstylish masses and guillotined – but more than likely I’ll have died wearing Givenchy!)
1. Zoe Zaldana in Givenchy
2. Jennifer Lopez in Armani Prive
3. Givenchy Fall 2010 Couture
4. Valentino Fall 2010 Couture
5. Armani PrivÃ© Fall 2010 Couture
6. Chanel PrivÃ© Fall 2010 Couture
7. Christian Dior Fall 2010 Couture
Image Layout: Tiffany Carlin