With unique techniques and handwork that exists nowhere else, haute couture is a feast of art and craft unlike any other.
Clear-minded couturiers make their mark on the future of this unique art.
They said it wouldn't last, that it had no reason to exist in a world where an expensive designer dress could be bought online and everyone wore jeans. And yet, in the face of a multitude of encroaching threats, fashion's great artistic bastion, haute couture, has made another stellar showing. Amid a sea of rapidly expanding retail outposts and celebrity-saturated media, the uniqueness of a couture piece is incredibly attractive, especially in the hands of one today's undisputed masters. In Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, Giorgio Armani, and Christian Lacroix we've found our three guiding lights for fabulous dressing this fall.
Chanel, with the small number of haute couture suppliers it has brought under its ownership, has access to the finest artisans around. But it bought the ancillary houses so they could continue for everyone's benefit. Chanel doesn't have first dibs on their time or output; it just seems that Chanel, under the direction of Karl Lagerfeld, knows how to employ them to their utmost creative capacity and refinement almost better than anyone else.
Karl Lagerfeld's lone stand in the silhouette stakes is to be hugely admired. By looking back to the heavy embellishments of the Middle Ages he pushed them into the 21st century, creating a collection almost entirely composed of densely embroidered and beaded tunic dresses, micro-cropped and perched atop legs encased in thigh-high denim boots with jeweled heels. These are the fruits of Massaro, one of the houses Chanel owns, and each look is a delicious and utterly unique piece. While clients will order skirts and dresses to below-the-knee or floor-length, Lagerfeld's acceptance of how modern women dress – with jeans as the eternal base – showed a couturier who creates clothes that maybe only a handful of women will or can ever afford to buy, but who refuses to sit in an ivory tower.
When Giorgio Armani announced that he would begin showing haute couture in Paris in 2005 many people asked why. For the man who had revolutionized the wardrobe of men and women from the late 70s onwards there seemed little left to prove, and traditional haute couture seemed far-removed from Armani's stock-in-trade: timeless clothes in subtle shades for the professional.
How wrong the naysayers turned out to be. In four short seasons Armani, with his Privé line, has gotten his claws into couture and carved out a singularly large niche for his own ideology – maturing exponentially, maintaining his design creed, but expanding the line's thrust and reach in a way that seems to go far beyond the initial notion of creating red carpet gowns for Hollywood actresses.
Even with the addition of fan-pleat python peplums, wolf wraps and clouds of scrunch-pleated organdy, Armani has managed to stay in control, dramatically upping the daywear quota and molding everything to fit the house image. In this way he has stepped in where the great couturiers of the 20th century left off – cementing relationships with his faithful clientele and developing entire wardrobes for them in the codes of his blossoming couture house.
Christian Lacroix is looking back, too – not back to the Middle Ages ike at Chanel but back to 20 years ago when his couture house was born and he was still riding the high from his lauded time at Patou. The audience swooned, the critics breathed a sigh of relief in the middle of an uneven couture season, and the bank of smiling clients applauded wildly and, from their little gold chairs, marked off the outfits they wanted with gold pens. The breath of energetic air that has wafted through Christian Lacroix's work in the past few seasons since the house changed hands shows no sign of dying down. Lacroix's handle on color is more exceptional than ever, if that were possible; his knowledge and use of fabrics are the true hallmarks of a couturier.
Embroidered hose in bright colors are the stick-thin registration marks for voluminous coats of crepe and stiff faille, creating an exaggerated silhouette (like a delicate reminder to Balenciaga's Nicolas Ghesquière that Lacroix had mastered such techniques long before the younger renegade had ever picked up scissors). Under those exaggerated exteriors were short, beaded flapper dresses that injected youth and a sexy surprise, and later breathtaking columns of draped jersey introduced a calm Grecian goddess moments before the maestro let rip with sunny abandon on a series of dramatic ballgowns that were hand-painted, embroidered, beaded, ruffled and pleated from here to delicious eternity.
Apart from allowing the minds of some of the world's greatest designers free rein, the thing that sets haute couture apart is a breadth of manual skills unequalled anywhere else in the world. Hand-embroidery and mind-boggling beading, buttons as objets d'art, silk flowers even more beautiful than the real thing, braid woven on archaic hand looms, feathers plucked and set in myriad fantastical ways, costume jewelry that often puts genuine gems to shame, hats that revise one's notions of headwear, shoes and boots laboriously sculpted and sewn by hand to fit the feet of one woman only – all of it is the lifeblood of haute couture, and each small house of artisans exists solely because haute couture still exists.
Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel knows the meaning of the phrase 'an embarrassment of riches'. With everything at his disposal he can pull out all the stops, or seductively allude to them as he did with daubs of embroidery and creative whimsy on a ground. A rough-edged black wool dress looked like it had been dipped in honey and was crawling with glittering cabochon insects. The effect was fairytale enchantment of the highest order.
At Christian Dior the mind of John Galliano refuses to be reined in. In an eclectic and challenging collection exhibiting wide-ranging influences it was the amazing patternwork and decoration that shone among the jolting silhouettes. Struggling against a densely embroidered arm-piece like a plate of armour, a draped column of blush georgette stood its own triumphant ground.
Christian Lacroix's command of decorative craft is exceptional. He knows when to lay it on thick and when only a touch will suffice. Thus a lace-inset cream blouse airily explodes in flounces, tucks and soft pleats, and is matched with the simplest of short taffeta skirts veiled in a wisp of lightly embroidered organza.
With a phalanx of seamstresses set up backstage to respond instantly to every tweak, tear, or missing trickle of crystal beads, Giorgio Armani has a precise eye in judging how to add or subtract from his clear-cut formula. A stiff, springy evening coat entirely created by scalloped ribbons attached to a tulle base and speckled with Swarovski crystals was a subtle standout.
Valentino's nod to Russia – not just to the large number of that nation's emerging clients, but rather to the culture of the country itself – was a delicious excuse to invest in some baroque flourishes. The intensive trelliswork of a shapely sable-trimmed gold taffeta jacket and its satin duchesse skirt paneled in gilded floral embroideries was astounding.
Jean Paul Gaultier, in a collection that handled lightly what could have been an overwrought Surrealist theme, employed the skill of the plumassier to create a sleeve-head framed with a fan of feathers and tricked out with a perfectly placed spread of plumes representing a rooster – the symbol of France and therefore of its most quintessential craft: haute couture.