Many fashion historians contend that the glory days of Haute Couture were the 1950s and 1960s, when the elite members of “Café Society” – whose daily lives were chronicled by the society pages of the day – morphed into the newly dubbed “Jet Set”. Jet travel allowed American society women like Babe Paley and Gloria Guinness to lunch at La Grenouille in New York City one day and sit front row at Balenciaga in Paris the next, without the bother or stress of a three-to five-day ocean voyage – during either the height of winter or the peak of hurricane season.
Those women whose wardrobes merited a coveted spot on the annual International Best Dressed List – as compiled by Eleanor Lambert herself – would camp out at the Ritz or the more quietly chic Plaza Athenee to calm their nerves between rounds of frantic fittings at the various fashion houses they patronized. These “endless fittings” actually involved three or more fittings over the six weeks after the show. The reward for “enduring” these arduous biannual fashion expeditions? A spot in the International Best Dressed Hall of Fame – to which a woman was “retired” when Ms Lambert deemed her “above annual comparison”!
Then – as now – what truly defines the Haute Couture customer is daywear. Society figures dressed for both charity luncheons and casual lunches with friends. Real movie stars like Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, who were famously dressed by Hubert de Givenchy and Valentino Garavani, respectively, actually paid for their clothes, albeit at deeply discounted prices. They also wore HC in their daily lives. Sorry all you Hollywood starlets who go to Starbucks in “gifted” jeans and “borrow” HC evening gowns for red carpet events – you will never truly be “Best Dressed”.
Fall/Winter 2013 offers many exquisite daytime options for daytime HC. The Chanel suit has long been a staple of the well dressed woman’s daytime wardrobe. While hard working New York bond traders may ape their fashion betters in a $5,000 pret-a-porter Chanel suit (bought with the proceeds from a good day of trading) any Best Dressed woman worth her salt goes for “the real thing” at upwards of $30,000. What’s the difference, you ask. Higher quality materials, hand sewn construction – and fittings! For this collection, Karl Lagerfeld drew inspiration from futuristic films to craft a collection that respects the tradition of the brand but moves boldly forward into a bright future.
“Engineering” a print or pattern is both costly and wasteful; perfectly aligning stripes or prints requires discarding a lot of costly fabric. In other words, a flawlessly engineered garment is the very essence of HC! This season, Valentino’s oversize windowpane plaid skirt suit is an HC “must have” for any lady who lunches. For the woman who finds Chanel “too pedestrian”, Raf Simmons has put his own spin on the classic Christian Dior skirt suit. Mixing glen plaid and houndstooth – and then hand sewing sequins in an oversize houndstooth pattern – he makes a potentially dowdy classic utterly modern!
Christian Dior himself ended the war on fashion excess with his “New Look” for Spring Summer 1947. Sixty six years later, Giambatista Valli offers a “new” New Look to a whole new generation of HC customers. His day dresses evoke the longer dresses that famously thumbed their noses at wartime rationing by “requiring” twenty yards of fabric to construct. This is how today’s HC customer wears luxurious volume and hand sewn beads, sequins and appliqués – short, sexy and fresh!
For the HC customer who believes that “nothing succeeds like excess”, why not take an embarrassment of the world’s most luxurious fabrics, cut them into strips and then sew them all together? Jean Paul Gaultier is well known for taking classics and giving them an ironic twist. Just the other day on Park Avenue I saw a woman walking her dog in sequined Breton stripes. Here, he melds all the classic traditions of HC construction into a thoroughly modern sculpture.
By now, you may be asking just who wears HC. In the 1980s, Texans and New Yorkers dominated the front rows of HC fashion week. Lynn Wyatt famously called HC “sculpture in fabric”. Ivana Trump infamously earned “$1 a year – and all the dresses she can buy” – for running New York’s landmark Plaza Hotel.
As those Page Six bold faced names fell victim to divorce, bankruptcy and even incarceration, nameless middle eastern women suddenly took over the front rows at the Paris shows. HC daywear disappeared from public view in America and rumors flashed around the fashion world. Was that the latest Givenchy sleeve peeking out from under a burqa in the first class lounge Heathrow? Are Middle East dry cleaners truly the mythical couture graveyards, where the world’s most glorious fashion creations languish – unclaimed – after only one wearing? That scene in Sex and the City 2 was a nod to these urban fashion myths.
Today, the Russians and the Chinese dominate the front rows of HC week in Paris. Where these clothes will be worn – and seen – remains a mystery. Perhaps you’ll see an HC Chanel suit in the first class lounge at Domodedovo airport or across the high stakes Baccarat table in a Macao casino. Regardless of whether we actually get to see these clothes in real life, technology – and dedicated journos like myself – ensure that you at least see them as they appeared on the runway and continue to draw inspiration for our own quests to be “Best Dressed” wherever you live.
– Joseph Ungoco
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