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01.27.10

Is Couture Dying?

Between the down economy and the collapse of Christian Lacroix’s label, what will happen to Paris’s fabled luxury lines? Robert Murphy on French fashion week and the future of couture.

Between the down economy and the collapse of Christian Lacroix’s label, what will happen to Paris’ fabled luxury lines? Robert Murphy on French fashion week and the future of couture.

Paris’ haute couture season hobbled out on its stiletto heels this week, humbled by a down economy and the absence of once-flamboyant French fashion darling Christian Lacroix, whose financial woes prevented him from showing a collection for the first time in two decades.

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The week produced a memorable spectacle and attracted a handful of stars. Tina Turner and Anne Hathaway turned up at Giorgio Armani’s Privé show. Kylie Minogue was at Christian Dior, and Claudia Schiffer and Charlotte Gainsbourg came out for Chanel.

But it was the opulent clothes that largely took center stage. Karl Largerfeld delivered a seamless lineup of outfits in soft pastels given a modern edge with silver embroidery. Dior’s John Galliano took a look back at couture heritage by taking inspiration from Charles James, while Jean Paul Gaultier opted for a Mexican theme that ended in a fiesta when French singer and actress Arielle Dombasle appeared and lip-synced one of her songs.

But despite the glamour of the week, recent developments have led some to wonder if Paris’ prestige is in peril. After all, this is a country that prides itself on its chic lifestyle. And haute couture, the tradition of offering handmade dresses at six-figure prices to the world’s richest women, is considered a point of French national pride, so much so that the government polices the appellation “haute couture” just as it protects gastronomic treasures like Champagne wine and Roquefort cheese.

But efforts to protect couture’s mystique haven’t isolated it from the turbulent economy.

Last fall, a Paris judge effectively closed Lacroix’s once-envied business because it was so heavily loaded with debt.

Rumors about Lacroix’s fate have become popular Paris chatter ever since. There was talk that the court would force an auction of Lacroix’s massive archive of dresses. Though that rumor proved false (for the moment), an auction is being organized to sell the furniture French decorators Elizabeth Garouste and Mattia Bonetti created in 1987 for Lacroix’s couture salons, according to well-placed sources.

Lacroix's absence is already being felt. Only a dozen couture houses exist today. The majority are closet businesses operated by people like Dominique Sirop, Franck Sorbier and Adeline André—hardly household names—who mostly sell wedding dresses to local French clientele.

Traditional couture stalwarts like Yves Saint Laurent, Balmain and Jean-Louis Scherrer all shuttered their high fashion operations in recent years in response to bad business and changing times. That left only a handful of major houses—Chanel, Christian Dior, Givenchy, Valentino, Jean Paul Gaultier and Armani—to perpetuate what many believe is a dying craft.

“Couture isn’t an industry any more,” said Didier Grumbach, the president of France’s Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the organization that oversees Paris fashion. “It’s a savoir-faire and a service. If you think of it in terms of an industry it’s totally decadent.”

Most of Paris’ major couture operations lose money. But even if Chanel and Dior, for example, spend millions each year staging and producing clothes for their twice-yearly couture shows, neither seems bothered to foot the bill.

“Couture isn’t an industry any more,” said Didier Grumbach, the president of France’s Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the organization that oversees Paris fashion.

“It’s considered advertising,” said Grumbach. “For France, couture is a symbol of the luxury industry. For that reason it’s very important.”

Finding clients nonetheless is more difficult. Many traditional American clients are staying home this season—understandable in this economic climate when the starting price of a Chanel suit is €30,000 (or around $42,000).

“There are way less clients coming this year,” said Cameron Silver, the Los Angeles vintage clothing guru who has dressed countless stars for the red carpet. “No one cares about [couture right now].”

Fashion houses are notoriously tight-lipped about business. But even they admit American business declined last year.

“It’s true that the American clients were more discreet in 2009,” said a Chanel spokeswoman.

But like many things in luxury, new clients have emerged. “We had more clients from Asia and Eastern Europe last year,” added the Chanel spokeswoman.

That may be true, but with the number of couture houses continuously shrinking, it has become more challenging to attract press and clients to Paris for a couture event.

In recent years, the Chambre Syndicale tried to bolster the event by inviting younger designers to show their luxury ready-to-wear during the couture season. This has had some success but it has not necessarily burnished couture’s luxury image.

This season, however, organizers tried a new tactic. For the first time a group of Paris’ most exclusive jewelry houses, including Cartier, Boucheron, Van Cleef and Arpels, have been invited to take part in the couture calendar.

A special “jewelry” day was tacked onto the couture shows during which houses will showcase their most exclusive baubles to press and clients.

The move sends a signal that couture may be in danger of oblivion if left on its own.

And everyone knows that diamonds are eternal.

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Robert Murphy is a Paris-based writer and art dealer. He is the author of The Private World of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé (Vendome) and Une Vie Saint Laurent (Albin Michel). His work has appeared in W, WWD, Details, The World of Interiors, AD, and the International Herald Tribune. He runs RCM Galerie in Paris, specialized in 20th-century furniture and post-war European sculpture.