From London, a few final thoughts on the Paris haute couture
Paris haute couture is often a bit like stepping back in time. You have shows with brittle little gilt chairs and hand-written name-tags, the kind of politesse that seems retro. Sometimes, they get your name wrong – I was “Madame Alexander Fury” at Giambattista Valli – but it doesn’t really matter. You mind it less than a computer misprint, certainly.
In fact the accident of the human hand is what couture is all about. I was talking with Delfina Delettrez, scion of the Fendi family – she mentioned how she valued the slight imperfection in the stitches of the Selleria bag because that’s what shows you it’s hand-made. The imperfection is a sign of its perfection.
Does that make any sense? I’m never sure. The couture shows are even more discombobulating than their ready-to-wear counterparts, shown entirely out of season – chiffons in driving Janvier snow, sables sweltering in a July heatwave. Why? Because, if you’re incredibly wealthy, you have those clothes run up straight away (give or take a few thousand hours) so they’re ready for the spring we allegedly enter in February, and the autumn we’re supposed to slip into come September. So you get confused.
The rhythm of haute couture is one way it differs from ready-to-wear. Also the stratospheric cost, engendered by the hours of craft packed into every piece. A simple couture suit costs five figures because it’s entirely made by hand, to your measurements, by some of the most skilled artisans in the world.
Of course, generally speaking, clients don’t want simple suits from couture. “No-one wears couture in the day,” was Donatella Versace’s take on it. Her coats, bejewelled, mink-lined, and crafted from crocodile, didn’t exactly scream “Working Mum”. Whoever wears them probably doesn’t need to work. Valentino had some terribly simple suits in featherlight cashmere the colour of a Werther’s Original. Or cognac, which is a much more couture comparison. They were amongst the highlights of the week. But Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel has begun to twist the idea of “simple”, creating tweeds that look normal but are actually a mass of Linton-alike embroidery, or break into paillettes on chiffon at the hem (Raf Simons played with the same kind of thing in his suits at Dior). One season the Chanel dresses were adorned with feather embroidery which gave the impression of them disintegrating, like a charcoal line.
That was visible, but the painstakingly-crafted trompe l’oeil tweed is barely discernible unless you buried your head in the fabric. So why bother? Because that’s the sort of special something that can only be achieved through couture. And because if the couture client will pay five figures for a simple suit, you can push that past the 50k mark for something really, really gobsmacking.
As Delettrez implied, the idea of the hand is what marks out haute couture. The seamstresses that sew it are even called les petites mains – the little hands. But it’s not the deftness of their technique, necessarily, that makes couture special. For me, what’s special is the humanity of couture – people, making clothes for people. There are no machines involved, not even the machinery of big business. Despite the price-tags, couture profits are minute due to the sheer cost of labour involved.
Couture is a nice break from a fashion industry increasingly obsessed with the bottom line. Couture isn’t about turning a profit. It’s about making exceptional clothes. That’s another of the thousand and one reasons I loved what Christian Lacroix did for Schiaparelli. The clothes were never intended to be sold – Diego Della Valle said that to Monsieur Lacroix from the outset. At the same time, Lacroix’s instinct is to be a couturier, not a costumier. Or even, god forbid, an artist. That word gets thrown around a lot at couture, but couture isn’t meant to be hung on a gallery wall, it’s meant to live. It’s that humanity again. Couture has got to have a body inside it. It’s not art, it’s haute.
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