The Illusion of the Couture
Twice a year, when the haute couture shows debut in January and July, the question of the relevancy of these unspeakably expensive garments reappears. For many, haute couture represents everything that is wrong with fashion—a frivolous and grotesque waste of money with dresses costing more that some people’s lifetime earnings—while others believe it is the lifeblood of the industry. With dress and life as a whole moving progressively more casual, it is hard to see where couture fits in this evolving world—if a couture dress is only ever seen on a runway by editors and billionaire clients and then at a private party of the 1%, is it something everyone else should care about? Is it something that other designers and fashion lovers should aspire to? Though the death knell has been chimed for haute couture since the early 1960s, it continues on with even more increased attention due to social media. In 1995 WWD remarked couture had been “pronounced dead more times than disco,” and through careful analysis it becomes apparent how the second half of the Nineties shifted couture’s fortunes and made it the media circus it is today.
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Similarly to now, in the mid-1990s—after years of the waif, minimalism and streetwear—couture stood out as an anachronism. Trundling into its dotage, for the most part it felt elderly and uninspired yet the cachet for a brand to have an haute couture collection was undeniable. Licensees and the new mega-conglomerates began to see the appeal of couture as a form of publicity, and sought out designers who could bring flash and relevancy to couture, which would then trickle into increased perfume and sunglass sales. This was the very antithesis of the remaining grand couturiers that continued to design for their “Ladies,” creating elegant and tastefully bland outfits for every occasion. A very definite split can be seen between those who designed for spectacle and those who designed for customers (a tiny select few). Since the early-90s Gianni Versace had been amplifying the drama of couture, but his influence was slow to impact other designers.
In 1995 many of the old guard retired (both Carven and Givenchy that year), while others (like Valentino and Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel) sought to find a new relevance by looking away from trends in ready-to-wear and the street to focus on a conservative, old-world glamour that was the very opposite of grunge. Leading this return to glamour was actually a designer outside the couture, showing only RTW in Paris—John Galliano’s increasingly over-the-top, couture-like ready-to-wear shows reactivated all levels of fashion. Using vintage couture fabrics and couture techniques, he produced garments that sizzled with the technical complexity and attention to detail of the haute couture (he described them as “pret-a-couture”.) Even before he was brought in by Givenchy in 1995 (premiering in January 1996) and given his first opportunity to have the petite mains run free through his wildest fantasies, his RTW designs were causing seismic shifts within couture—a rediscovery that couture’s most important elements were the impeccable construction, the perfect fit, the opulent glamour.
Following Galliano’s lead, the spring 1995 couture collections reflected an obsession with fit and the waist that could only be achieved with the exquisite tailoring of haute couture. These were clothes for dressing for an occasion, clothes that reflected nostalgia for another time. At its base, yearning has always been central to fashion—a yearning to be more beautiful, to appear richer and more successful, transmuted over time into a yearning to re-create another more glamorous, more dignified era. According to Christian Lacroix, “Couture is for those times when life is like a theater and we put ourselves onstage.”
The push-and-pull between the need for customers and the need for media interest was clear—one season tasteful luxury would be everywhere while six months later the press would celebrate when “haute couture almost literally stepped off its pedestal” and “picked up the relaxed mood of sportswear.” The media either wanted couture to be a relaxed continuation of ready-to-wear (something easily understood and sold to the public) or all drama; there was little to excite in the elegant suits and evening gowns that actually sold to the front row doyennes. Fashion television was bringing couture into the homes of the masses (causing some like Pierre Cardin to stop doing shows in order to “protect the creativity of his couture for clients, who want to buy exclusive models and pay a very high price”) as was Yves Saint Laurent, who became the first designer to show his couture collection live on the internet in July 1996. Many designers took advantage of this new media connection, using couture as an extension of their marketing budgets. Thierry Mugler’s and Gianni Versace’s spectacles were media extravaganzas (fall 1995 complete with a James Brown performance and a custom soundtrack by Prince with Madonna in the front row, respectively) that laid the groundwork for the current iterations of couture shows—held primarily for publicity purposes, and as a way to introduce new ideas that are then quickly absorbed into other, less expensive collections.
Media reports of the death of couture seemed in glaring opposition to the young daring designers entering that world. The spring 1997 haute collections included the debuts of Galliano at Dior, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy, and Thierry Mugler and Jean-Paul Gaultier’s own couture houses (Mugler had previously shown luxury ready-to-wear and made-to-measure pieces during the fall 1992 and fall 1995 couture weeks). Mugler remarked that, “Couture… allows you to execute your wildest fantasies. Basically, it is a privileged time that allows you to bring your dreams to life.” While not all immediately successful at transcending their RTW roots and using the métiers of couture to full advantage, they brought a frisson of excitement to haute couture. Though their over-the-top glamorous gowns were unpopular with longtime clients (Deeda Blair called McQueen’s first collection for Givenchy “hideous and irrelevant”), in the mid-90s young Hollywood rediscovered the lost art of dressing up and began to use couture for the ultimate photo opportunity (think Uma Thurman in custom Prada at the 1995 Academy Awards and especially Nicole Kidman in Galliano for Dior chinoiserie at the 1997 Academy Awards.) Starlets clad in couture now feels so obvious that it is easy to forget how novel it felt two decades ago—the relevancy and interest they drew to couture led directly into increased profits for the scent and accessory arms of the houses.
By the turn of the millennium, haute couture had almost completely shifted away from elegant, timeless clothing to the fantastical. In quotes that seem equally as true in 2018, an undisclosed retailer told Vogue in 1995, “There is a generation of women who want the illusion of the couture”; while Lacroix said in 1996, “Everything has become so banal today that people are starting to have a desire for the exceptional”. As society today moves farther and farther away from any traditional sense of decorum, and closer to a casual world ruled by technology, there is a definite yearning for a feeling of beauty, luxury and fantasy that is both of the past and of another world. Couture will survive as long as there are fragrances and handbags to sell—though we yearn for an illusionary world created by the haute couture, it is the lipsticks and stiletto heels that we purchase to satiate those desires.