Thursday, July 17, 2014

Haute-To-Trot: The Magic of Haute Couture

The magic that is Haute Couture Fashion Week wrapped up last week in the glistening city of Paris. It is an event which occurs twice a year, once for Spring/Summer collections in January and a Fall/Winter collection in July, and is the time when the dreams of fashion grace the runways, unbound by the needs and demands of ready-to-wear (prêt-à-porter) fashion.

These two weeks a year I always sit fascinated on my computer watching seemingly impossible works of art grace the runways. Being able to actually watch these shows live and have my own piece of Haute Couture both have proud places on my fashion bucket list. But what is Haute Couture really?

A backstage photo from Chanel Haute Couture S/S 2014

Haute Couture (literally translated to 'high fashion') is a tradition of 150 years that is both protected and regimented by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris. In English, this organization is the regulating body that determines which fashion houses are eligible to pronounce themselves as Haute Couture Houses. There are strict rules in place to protect the art of Haute Couture, including that all houses must design made-to-order clothing for private clients with a minimum of one fitting, that the house has a atelier (workshop) in Paris that employs at least fifteen people full-time and every season present a collection that contains at least twenty-five “passages” (outfits). This number was reduced from sixty in 2002. Members of this organization include French houses like Christian Dior and Chanel, as well as foreign houses (correspondent members) such as Versace and Elie Saab.

Valentino, Zuhair Murad and Giambattista Valli from their Haute Couture F/W Collections 2014

The atelier staff, known as “petite mains” are masters of their craft. Every stitch, every bead and every feather is sown onto the garment by hand. Haute Couture houses employ the use of these masters in order to produce jaw-dropping garments. In the last decade, in order to protect these dwindling artisans, Chanel has started buying and funding such ateliers including embroidere Lesage, feather specialists Lemarié, button maker Desrues, glove maker Causse and even the Scottish cashmere producer Barrie Knitwear. This is both clever and lucrative on the part of Chanel, but it also ensures the continuation of these lesser houses and protects the future of the precious art form of Haute Couture.

Instagram from Stuart Emmrich at the Dior Haute Couture show. 
The back of Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington's (both from Vogue) heads are shown. 

I’m not being melodramatic when I say Haute Couture is the dreams of fashion brought into reality. These exquisite items go so far beyond normal fashion. They are art, pure and simple. “Couture has a power that ready-to-wear can never have. Because the intention of les petite mains as they sew, all that love and belief, goes into the cloth.” Lady Amanda Harlech, a couture veteran who has worked alongside the likes of Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel and Jean Paul Gaultier for more than eighteen years once said. “Couture is my laboratory of ideas,” says Jean Paul Gaultier, whose Haute Couture lines have been inspired from everything from butterflies to vampires.

Dior and Chanel models in the finale of the Haute Couture F/W 2014 collections

Over the past few years, Haute Couture has experienced a revitalization, largely due to the work of Didier Grumbach, the outgoing president of the Paris’ Fashion Federation. “With so much focus from fashions powerhouses on heritage and traditions, couture has returned to the center stage as it is the embodiment of savoir faire,” said the co-founder and director of Flaunt magazine, Long Nguyen, suggesting a possible reason for the rejuvenation of Haute Couture, which over the decade has lost some visionary design houses like Balenciaga, Balmain, Yves Saint Laurent and Lanvin. Why have some of these great houses relinquished the title of Haute Couture? Because despite the hours of work that goes into making such divine pieces, Haute Couture lines do not garner profit for the houses. Pierre Bergé, the original business partner of Yves Saint Laurent, was famously quoted in 1987 saying “No we don’t make profit from couture.” But that doesn’t stop many fashion houses from continuing. Most of these houses support their Haute Couture work by the profits of their ready to wear lines, accessories such as shoes, bags and jewelry, or through makeup lines or signature fragrances.

Elie Saab, Chanel (detail) and Jean Paul Gaultier dresses from their Haute Couture F/W collections 2014

The work of Haute Couture is, to many, shrouded in secrecy and assumptions. The most common legends of these garments include that they are astronomically expensive and are bought by a very select crowd. Both these rumours are (sadly) true.

Dior models walk in the finale of the Haute Couture F/W 2014 show

There is no doubt the clothing in Haute Couture are expensive. Astronomically so. But when you consider all pieces of Haute Couture are hand-made and the hours, skill and quality put into the designs, if you can afford it a Haute Couture piece will last you your lifetime and longer. “Bare in mind that it takes two people two weeks to make one suit all by hand,”Amanda Harlech reminded us. Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino have been quoted saying that a laborious garment can take anywhere between four hundred to eight hundred hours to complete. A Haute Couture wedding gown can take up to one thousand hours to finish and multiple fittings. But such work creates pure masterpieces. It’s expensive, but these garments are worth it considering their uniqueness and the time spent constructing them.

Viktor & Rolf, Ralph & Russo and Versace dresses from the Haute Couture F/W 2014 collections

Also true is the fact that the customers of Haute Couture are very small number. Jean Paul Gaultier claims to have between sixty and eighty loyal Haute Couture customers, but he also has stated that this number is increasing. No longer is Haute Couture exclusive to the unknown stuffy world of European royalty and Western “new money” – the cliental of Haute Couture now extends beyond these limited boarders and into the regions of the Middle East, Singapore, Malaysia, Brazil and Russia. Julien Fournié, who launched his couture fashion house in 2009, recently said that “I believe that the reason why people have a new taste for couture these days is because after the financial crisis they are rediscovering in a new light the value of craftsmanship, of lasting finishes, of genuine know-how, far removed from the worst expressions of marketing.” So whilst the numbers of people who actually purchase Haute Couture may be small, there are a growing number of clients around to purchase items and keep the magic from ceasing forever. 

A gown from Maison Schiaparelli Haute Couture F/W 2014 collection

Lebanese socialite and famed couture customer, Mouna Ayoub insists that word of mouth has driven larger numbers of rich Middle Eastern women to Haute Couture during the last decade. “It’s all so secret and they deny it, because spending more is frowned upon,” says Ayoub, who reportedly spent nearly 300,000 Euros on just one Chanel couture dress (lucky thing!). “But I personally know at least one hundred Arab women who in the last few years have started buying couture. They love it.”

Backstage at Elie Saab Haute Couture F/W 2014 and at Valentino Haute Couture F/W 2014

So, in the mists of this revilalisation of Haute Couture, what did some of my favourite fashion houses produce this season?

Christian Dior
With a collection entitled “Encyclopedic”, Raf Simons presented a time travelling collection of styles ranging from the very traditional gowns to very modern dresses.  Too divine to express.

With his runway designed to look like a simple Parisian boudoir, Karl Lagerfeld’s designs walked down the runway in simple, clean cut tartans with beading and punk-rock style hair. Not unusual for the infamous designer and fashion house. 

Donatella’s mix of high slits, cut-outs, round shoulders and garments that could only be considered dresses because she claimed they were. Inspired by the fifties and Charles James, Donatella also took inspiration from her muses of Lady Gaga and Grace Jones.

Jean Paul Gaultier
Inspired by vampires of all things (I think he’s a bit late on that trend – Twilight is over) this collection was dark and gothic with lace jumpsuits, chains, pompadour hair and blood red lips. Interesting, if not a little scary.

Elie Saab
Ever the designer of princess worthy gowns, Elie Saab’s latest collection was inspired by Paris, the city of light. Lace, tulle, fur and crystals intermixed with jeweled colours of sapphire, aquamarine, ruby and rosé.

With nearly nude-faces the models for Valentino glided down the runway like Grecian goddess with elegant drapery and simply chic hairstyles. Chiuri and Piccioli were inspired by Pre-Raphaelite art in this divine collection.

Girogio Armarni Privé
Dominated by three colours: black, white and red, the Armani collection was a striking mix of girlishness and bold designs, with some of the dresses looking like they’d gotten mixed up in some fishing nets.

Ralph & Russo
Delicate lacework, a palette of soft purples, blues and whites, voluminous skirts, rich satin and beautiful drapery describe the Ralph & Russo collection. I want almost every piece of this collection.

Zuhair Murad
The most red carpet worthy collection in my mind, Murad was inspired by geometry to produce glittering garments rife with sex appeal and floor length gowns.

Giambattista Valli
Garden-party chic with lace, flowers, skirts that flounce mixed with tulle, embroidery, feathers and ruffles. The final four dresses in candy-like colours were unbeatable.

Maison Schiaparelli
Marco Zanini’s collection for the recently revived fashion house of Elsa Schiaparelli was full of luxurious garments laced with well placed senses of humour. And of course there were hats.

Giambattista Valli, Elie Saab and Dior dress from Haute Couture F/W 2014 collections

Kendall Jenner makes her Haute Couture debut in Chanel's show

Versace, Chanel and Armani Haute Couture F/W 2014 dresses

From Lan Yu's Haute Couture collection F/W 2014

Jennifer Lawrence, Dior boss Sidney Toledano and Emma Watson watch the Dior Haute Couture F/W 2014 show. 

Please note no photos are mine.

Fashion is a weapon, use it with class.

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