Last week’s Haute Couture shows in Paris have been reported variously as triumphs of art and artisanship (especially at Chanel, Valentino and Maison Margiela) or the last throes of a dying business model. Every year we see reports that Couture cannot survive in an industry dominated by celebrity, speed-to-market and constant pressure for re-invention, and yet it does and may even be on the verge of finding new expression as talented designers like Gareth Pugh, move towards a business model based on carrying out individual bespoke orders.
Paris is where the art of Haute Couture finds formal structure. The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture is the exclusive membership organisation for those companies designated as Haute Couture houses. It controls the Haute Couture mark – a legally protected label – and it reviews annually the list of companies that can employ that designation.
Why so much fuss? London’s Fashion and Textile Museum offers a rare opportunity to find out when they open their archive and allow visitors to see, and even touch, Haute Couture garments. Attending one of these workshops last week, I was keen to understand what sets a couture garment apart from a beautifully-made ready-to-wear or even a bespoke tailored piece. Quite simply it is an altogether different level of artistry, artisanship and engineering.
Curator, Dennis Nothdruft was our guide and we started (where else?) with Christian Dior and two exquisite evening gowns that were made for Mrs Henry Heinz III. Both featured a similar construction of a corseted bodice sewn to an underskirt, with an embellished overskirt to cinch the waist into the familiar New Look silhouette.
From the Muguet collection from Printemps-Ete 1954, there was an ivory gown, sprinkled with lily of the valley buds after which the collection was named (pictured above). The from the Libre collection from Printemps-Ete 1957, we saw a seafoam tulle gown (right), lavishly embroidered with bucolic scenes – exactly the kind of thing one could imagine a latter-day Marie-Antoinette appreciating.
Everything was hand-stitched and embellished, right down to the interior construction of the corset, with boning for shape, internal reinforcement and two horizontal elastic tapes to enable the wearer to pull in the corset for the perfect fit.
From there we moved onto an Yves Saint Laurent design for Dior and a complete contrast – no corset, no underskirt, no embroidery but instead what would become a distinctive bell-shape to the skirt and a pared down aesthetic in tune with 1960s fashion.
From the same decade, we saw a Chanel suit that, even though made in the late 60s, was completely wearable today. In typical Chanel style, the jacket was chain-weighted at the hem to keep its shape and the simple design was given lustre with gilt chain detailing at the cuffs (see left). It was total Chanel and embodiment of Coco herself who worked right up to her death in 1971.
From her 1954 comeback and throughout the 60s, Chanel was highly popular in the US market and we also saw a Chanel evening dress made under licence to Bergdorf Goodman – an ultrachic black dress, hand-stitched (even with a tiny tailors’ chalk mark still visible) with ivory collar and cuffs and more gilt and braid embellishment. One notable thing about this garment (shared with some other couture pieces) was its weight. Haute Couture fits like a glove but is not necessarily easy to wear. Corsets are rarely comfortable and heavily embellished garments can be heavy – but wearing such exceptional pieces comes at a price and not only a financial one.
So far so gorgeous but easily my favourite piece was yet to come and was a miracle of extraordinary skill and structure. To be continued.