At the vanguard of creative perfection, haute couture incomparably fires the imagination and defines one-of-a-kind luxury.
Whether from the hand of the old masters or the younger upstarts, haute couture encapsulates the rare, the precious and the perfect.
Twice a year they do it, working late into the night, slumped over white tables, sewing tiny stitches and even tinier beads by hand. Teenage models, who up to now have only ever worn jeans, step on unfinished hems and gasp inside tightly-laced corsets in front of a man who makes instructions about putting a pin in here, letting a seam out there.
And, yet, twice a year, out of this chrysalis of madness, fingers scrambling to thread needles, pleats being pressed, and pins, pins, pins everywhere, emerges the most beautiful butterfly of fashion–haute couture.
Despite the falling numbers of houses practicing this unique art, couture continues to hold its relevance— and its power to inspire—in the increasingly cynical and fast-paced world of fashion. Names like Chanel, Lacroix, Dior, Gaultier and Valentino represent the apex of dress dreams coming true, while newer members such as Armani, Elie Saab and Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy bring their own distinctive tastes to this feast for the senses.
That Karl Lagerfeld chose the soaring crystal beauty of the Grand Palais to showcase his latest couture collection for Chanel is no coincidence–superlatives attract superlatives and in Paris Chanel is the great bastion of haute couture. It's also not surprising that Chanel now owns the most important artisan suppliers to French couture, for Lagerfeld is not only one of their greatest exponents but his encyclopedic knowledge and constant forward march means he pushes them on to ever-higher levels of awe-inspiring creativity. Witness a striped jacket composed of thousand of tiny pleats, another finely shirred and embellished with narrow black lace. The architectural wonder of an ergonomically seamed black wool day-dress is less obvious to the eye. If some of the soft-pegged day skirts seemed a tad on the short side, never fear, this is couture and it serves to cater to each client's every whim! And speaking of whims, those flower-bedecked dresses fluttering a diaphanous chiffon trail of feather and sparkle are the thing that whimsical dreams are made of.
Since parting ways with his house's former owners, Christian Lacroix seems to have found a new joy in his couture; not that there wasn't any there already, but rather a more liberated, optimistic joy. Lacroix can embrace the historical roots of his Provençal youth without getting bogged down in history, and by going back to them he brings them forward to our times. The delicate jet embroideries fastening the front of a curving jacket, the labor-intensive lace appliqués decorating another jacket's back, the puff of a sleeve, the matador jackets and the swirling skirts in a kaleidoscope of prints that somehow all work together–this is the magic that Lacroix brings to couture. Through the coquetry of lace, the knowing addition of a jewel-pinned ribbon, or a ruffle on a hem to add that certain 'je ne sais quoi', each dress, each blouse, each over- and underskirt is one-of-a-kind, and a testament to Lacroix's loveliness.
This is the laboratory where it all happens. Clients don't come to Dior to find couture dresses they can wear straight off the runway—and if they do then they're often disappointed. But thrilled at the same time! For Galliano plays to the crowd, but in his own way—creating spectacle and proposing ideas and moods, but rarely simple finished dresses, thus ensuring that the client spends time at the couture atelier deciding how she wants to re-appropriate certain looks to her own lifestyle. And if she flips for this collection it's safe to say her own lifestyle is a rather exciting one, for Galliano was inspired by the unrest and passion of the French Revolution. Along the jutting pannier skirts, corseted waists, laced-up backs and high bound necks were scrawled provocative slogans and skeletal images–exquisitely beaded by hand, naturally!
The Roman couturier has lightened up for the summer season and the stuffiness has evaporated into a wisp of dotted tulle. Gone are those shantung suits; in their place little wrap jackets and fluttering tiered skirts. Though caught walking down a desert highway of a runway, Valentino's girls seemed on their way to someplace moneyed—Palm Springs, possibly?— even if this couturier's light hand rarely forces vulgar monetary implications. Instead, the good life is hinted at in a soft mauve jacket with a gently undulating collar and sleeves lightly embroidered with flowers; in the dozens of tiny pin tucks taming the flutters of a mousseline dress, or the subtle hand-smocking dabbed at a shoulder. And the body is hinted at in floral dresses with almost-imperceptible lacy inserts for a veiled view of thigh, or the intricately beaded arabesques playing peek-a-boo down the front of a cocktail dress. Only Valentino would take something as utilitarian as a basket and elevate its design to unexpected luxe levels by weaving dotted chiffon and gold thread to bind a bodice.
Jean Paul Gaultier
To see the workings of Jean Paul Gaultier's mind expressed in its purest form is to view one of his joyous haute couture shows. Nowhere else can the absurd and the sublime come together with such covetable—and eminently wearable—results. Taking Greece as his starting point he manages to pull from obscurity a densely tucked bodice here, a ballooning harem pant there, and mix them with his own signature sharp tailoring and sailor stripes. Granted, the Grecian factor is more symbolic than literal—no 1950s Hollywood costume epics here—for even a Delphic oracle couldn't foresee the mélange of intricate beads spilling from a bosom, the fabric kicking from a knee, or the magic master class in draping, pleating and embroidering that Gaultier almost makes look like an afterthought.
What marks the difference between a store-bought signature suit by Giorgio Armani and one from his couture collection? Unparalleled fit, the best fabrics, hand-finishing, and, most importantly, a suit you won't see on every savvy businesswoman around town. And that's just for starters. Since Armani has started his own couture line and invested so much of himself in it, the results have bore remarkable fruit, and this season's crop has the pick of the bunch. Bringing to couture his style of assured ease that has already attracted thousands of devotees worldwide, he highlights one jacket front with a dark lapel, and softens another with sharp organza tiers, rakes ribbons across a midriff and sculpts pants with anatomical flair. Among graphic columns, floating panels, and embellished lace, two beaded pajama suits stand out—pure and deceptively simple in their weighty wondrousness.
From frustration, true poetry can sometimes arise. Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci is a young couturier whose insistence on showing his haute couture as 'tableaux vivants' for the past two seasons has hampered appreciation of his unique talent. While the desire may be an up-close viewing of the detail, couture needs to move to be more than museum pieces. And as layers of murky silk organza sprouted froths of ostrich feathers the movement would have been spellbinding to behold. Tisci has tapped into the house founder's back-catalog, bringing back copious amounts of black, veiling and unveiling bodies, and respectfully playing with some of the house's rarified couture codes—severe high-waist trousers and skirts topped with precise but lightly-handled romantic blouses. A black guipure jacket at lunch and gossamer whorls for evening suggest fragile frisson rather than froth. Youthful, mysterious, bewitching, and airily chic, Tisci's oeuvre captures the unique excitement of creating credible—and incredible—couture.
While everyone else wrings their hands over haute couture's demise, Elie Saab smirks quietly to himself, content in the knowledge that he's got a huge business in the Middle East and major exposure on the red carpet circuit. In Saab's case, the Hollywood connection is as much of a curse as it is a blessing, for it detracts from the spectacular quality of his clothing—eye-watering beading, luscious fabrics, and dresses fitted to within an inch of their lives. Such is the often forgotten reality of couture away from the paparazzo lens. Saab makes little concession for daywear short of a re-embroidered lace jacket over satin cigarette pants, and cocktail is as 'day' as his clients seem willing to stretch to. When the evening comes alive so do Saab's creations—swinging fringe caressing a bared back, a ribbon straddling a bust, sequined flounces of pleated chiffon leaping skyward, seams following the body's sinuous curves to herald the seductive possibilities that only dresses that fit like gloves can arouse.