Haute couture has survived a century of war, austerity, fads and a fair number of bungling owners. During the 1990s, when many houses were gobbled up by big groups, with money made in real estate and finance, couture felt vaguely touristic, like one of those traveling Wild West shows for city folk who had never seen a buffalo — or, in this case, an exquisitely handmade dress. Still, couture survived. Nowadays, almost no one talks about its demise. Quite the opposite. Not only have revenues reportedly risen, thanks to big spenders in countries like China and Brazil, but there are also more new names on the calendar, like Giambattista Valli. This season Versace returned to Paris after an absence.


Giambattista Valli

Despite the rosy picture, I doubt that couture is a serious business for the houses, with the possible exception of Chanel, which every year spends millions of dollars on lavish sets for Karl Lagerfeld’s collections (this time, an airplane cabin). But given all the buzz it creates, I’m sure that couture is really good for business. And I know that because the clothes don’t measure up. I’ve been thinking about this all week. In a world of choices, with luxury brands and customized ready-to-wear, what makes haute couture different? Is it savoir-faire? Handwork like pleating and embroidery? Or is there an extra quality? For the woman looking for immaculate fit, for something exceedingly pretty, she can’t do much better than Mr. Valli’s dresses, with their silk-swathed shoulders and waists finished in grosgrain. I felt the same about Giorgio Armani’s Privé show, where the actresses Jessica Chastain and Cameron Diaz sat in the front row.


Even though Mr. Armani’s tailoring can sometimes look a bit rigid, as if he confused fierce crispness with couture polish, the clothes were a step above his ready-to-wear. There were crystal-beaded mermaid dresses, jackets in an unusual mesh fabric, a new Armani day skirt with an asymmetrical dimple in the silk organza and dramatic variations on snake patterns. The palette was specific, too: the earthy greens and browns of early spring. Yet, despite the technique and the bold snake motifs, the clothes were not inspiring. To me, the experience was not all that different from watching a very good ready-to-wear show a decade ago.



Does couture have to be original? By virtue of being one-of-a-kind, some clothes do feel original in their design and nonstandard use of materials. I was impressed with a Givenchy bolero made of tiny dark beads and pieces of crocodile molded in an array of geometric shapes. It’s certainly stunning, but Riccardo Tisci’s couture collections are so limited in scope (10 outfits each season, a spare, evolving silhouette) that they almost qualify as an art project.


Numbers, of course, aren’t everything. And nobody shows the quantities that couturiers did in the past. In the ’90s, Saint Laurent typically sent out 100 looks. But even regular output lends consistency and rigor to couture. And it helps organize one’s thoughts around a compelling idea. That was the problem with Donatella Versace’s 15 looks. Yes, the corset-and-lace designs looked well executed and Versace-like, but they didn’t seem very demanding.

Jean Paul Gaultier


I think couture should yield an experience that’s unavailable anywhere else. The means may be fabrics that are custom-made or specially dyed.
Afterward, I heard some editors say, in effect, “What woman today would wear those clothes?” Well, by that standard, we’d all be dressing like the Kardashians. A friend, after seeing Mr. Lagerfeld’s all-blue Chanel show online, said, “It’s not modern.” I fear that couture is not modern — or, anyway, the term may be unnecessary. Couture is history. Couture is extremely particular. Mr. Lagerfeld did his collection in 150 shades of blue. I found myself slightly hypnotized by the effect, as you would be if staring at a blue garden. And I thought his lean, no-nonsense shapes — free of tricks, corsets (albeit with spectacular embroidery for evening) — expressed a rare degree of self-assurance. Couture is about dressing individual personalities, a point Jean Paul Gaultier made brilliantly in a collection inspired by the late Amy Winehouse. Many of the ideas were vintage Gaultier — the tuxedo, the skimmy dress with a flash of lingerie — but the chaotic mix, along with the cotton-candy hair, was effective. Ms. Winehouse may seem a strange symbol for couture, but like her, couture is fragile, rare, free-spirited, ornery — and when it’s gone, it’s gone.
By Cathy Horyn
All photos are from

Friday, February 03, 2012 · Categories: Trend Analysis, Fashion, Runway
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