Haute couture is dead. Haute couture is dying. Haute couture is booming. Haute couture is irrelevant. Whatever haute couture is, it certainly isn't boring. And today, the four-day, three-ring circus that is the Parisian haute couture shows begins for Autumn/Winter 2011.
I'm always struck by the fact that many, many people don't really grasp what haute couture is all about, and that its difference to ready-to-wear doesn't just lie in those famously astronomical price-tags. Let's get technical: ready-to-wear is the design and mass-manufacture of clothes, showing collections geared for Autumn/Winter in February/March and Spring/Summer in September/October. These timescales are well thought-out, giving designers time to manufacture their collections and ship them to retailers to coincide with the seasons they are designed for (I won't factor in pre-collections for now). Haute couture, on the other hand, shows its spring creations in January and its winter clothing in July - the idea being that, if you are immensely wealthy, you can go out and buy the clothes straight away.
Well, sort of. The one thing most people can't grasp about haute couture is that it is entirely, solely made by hand. That's a rule stipulated by the Chambre syndicale de la Haute Couture, the industry governing body. To qualify as haute couture, every seam must hand-sewn, every pattern hand-cut, every single garment made specifically for an individual client. The fabric cannot be cut before the client's measurements have been taken. Thus, the expense of haute couture is not only in the physical cost of the garment, but the time the clients spend in those laborious fittings, numbering two or three for a simple suit but sometimes seven for an elaborate evening dress, which are ironically the bread-and-butter of the couture industry. Add to that time-cost the five-star expense of staying in Paris for those fittings (although many clients keep a Parisian hôtel particulier for just such an occasion), and haute couture costs quickly leap ever-higher.
There is, however, a justification for the expense. Haute couture is fashion's Formula One - a chance to see the best of the best, at their best, and to buy into a piece of fashion history. To parrot a well-known cosmetics brand (who put their pharmaceutical power behind many an equally well-known fashion brand), haute couture is expensive because it's worth it, with hundreds, even thousands of hours of concentrated work lavished on clothing that is about as close to art as fashion can get. Haute couture is a place for fantasy, where if a designer wants to individually apply forty thousand ostrich fronds to a chiffon dress, pluck apart a tweed and have the fibres re-woven into a braid, or hand-bead a perfect facsimile of leopard-hide (complete with tail) to the front of a taffeta ballgown, it can be done. Christian Lacroix calls haute couture a 'laboratory of dreams', and John Galliano always dubbed the couture the 'engine' of Christian Dior, a dynamo spinning off ideas for ready-to-wear, accessories and even cosmetics. Of course, Galliano's artistry is notably absent from this season's couture collections - his spring haute couture show, a virtuoso performance dedicated to René Gruau and magically capturing the lightness of his illustrator's touch, was the last pure expression of Galliano's vision for the house of Dior.
Let's dwell on that collection for a while, because Galliano's swan-song was a perfect summary of postmodern haute couture. Galliano's clothes were inspired not by couture originals, but by Gruau's renderings of them, transforming image into reality, which was itself then pixellated, broadcast live and transmogrified once more into image. Which is how the vast majority of us now consume fashion - and haute couture especially, given how rare it is for mere mortals to actually get our hands on these talismanic garments. It's also how haute couture operates, proud and protective of its own past, referencing its finest moments in the hope of them rising like a Lesage-embroidered Lazarus. Every couture house has its own history to mine - Karl Lagerfeld riffs on Chanel classics season after season; Valentino glances to the Sheik Of Chic's sixties origins and eighties power-dressing; Givenchy resurrects the spirit of Bettina Graziani and Audrey Hepburn. Dior, however, holds the couture trump card: that Willy Maywald shot of an impossibly poised, improbably preened model sporting the cinch-waist shantung jacket and vast pleated wool suit of 'La Bar', the keynote piece of the collection that came to be known as the 'New Look', and to many represents the apotheosis not only of haute couture but fashion itself.
Of course, the entire fashion industry is still on tenterhooks as to the naming of the next heir to the Dior throne, which is expected to be postponed until September. That would mean that new blood flows into the house on the sixty-fifth anniversary of Christian Dior's New Look, never a birthday to be overlooked, especially by the French. Newspapers at the time hyperbolically bellowed that 'Christian Dior Has Saved France' with a collection that ranks as arguably the greatest 'fashion moment' ever, and the very zenith of haute couture. This season (in fact, this afternoon) the design studio at the house of Christian Dior will be presenting a couture collection that serves a very difficult purpose - dotting the design 'i's and crossing the 't's of Galliano's tenure, but also preparing the stage for the new Dior Dauphin.
SHOWstudio.com's real-time reportage of the A/W 2011 Haute Couture Collections begins 5 July 2011.