Paris Couture Week is almost upon us again and it seemed a good time to visit an exhibition posing the question “What is Luxury?” at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Despite perennial articles about whether Haute Couture is dead/almost dead/thriving (delete as applicable) it offers a small cadre of elite designers the opportunity to elevate fashion design to art form, free of the commercial constraints that apply to ready-to-wear.
So what does luxury mean today? According to the V&A’s exhibition we experience luxury in many ways. It could be expressed through an object: in the precision of a watch mechanism; the extraordinary nature of a chandelier lit with dandelion heads (yes, really); the opulence of a commissioned object; the exclusivity of rank displayed through military dress; or the preciousness of a jewelled ornament.
Or it could be the implied care and workmanship that has produced something: the expertise glistening in the light-reflecting weave of a suit; the innovation that takes a functional object to new levels of performance; the passion expressed through loving craftsmanship; the pleasure of creation, acquisition and use of a beautiful item; or the transformation of the ordinary or flawed into the exceptional.
In a world in which extreme wealth has lost its power to shock, we prize the investment of time equally with that of money. That could mean the years the artisan spent acquiring skills and experience; the time spent crafting the product; and often the lifecycle of the product itself and the way it develops and changes with use. It suggests a journey of discovery and transformation over time, with stories accumulated around the object and successive owners that enhance it, almost giving it an independent life of its own.
So whether we are marvelling at the skill of Dior’s petit mains, admiring an Hermes Kelly bag from afar, or reading about another tour de force from Chanel’s stable of artisan embroiderers, lace makers and others, we are seeing an extraordinary convergence of talent and expertise. Each item represents an investment of hours of effort and passion on the part of the artisan that lives on in the object itself. So that’s why I’ll be riveted by the Haute Couture shows and why I hope Couture never dies.