Bodice draping at Worth, Paris, 1907 © Jacques Boyer/Roger-ViolletNothing about the fashion industry makes us dream like haute couture does. Extremely precise yet outstandingly creative, this discipline (officially started by Charles Frederick Worth in the 1860s, although heavily inspired by the flamboyant fashions and lifestyle of the court of Versailles) oozes magic. And while today many question the current influence and the future of couture, Olivier Saillard – director of the renowned Musée Galliéra in Paris – and Anne Zazzo – art historian and curator – believe its evolution will only take it to new heights. Together, they have written a book and curated an exhibition (both titled Paris Haute Couture, supported by Swarovski) exploring its history from Poiret to Saint Laurent, and its fascinating prospective. AnOther caught up with these two true Parisians to discuss savoir-faire and creativity in today’s couture.
Haute couture is so deeply associated with Paris… could it ever exist outside of the French capital?
Olivier Saillard: Couture is first and foremost the reflection of French heritage and tradition, and a certain idea of savoir-faire transmitted from generation to generation. Economically, it demands and enormous amount of money and its profits aren’t big, so it takes a very passionate investor – the likes of Dior, Gaultier or Chanel – to finance an haute couture collection. In those terms, I don’t think it is possible to produce couture outside of Paris today, especially considering the current economic climate. However, I do believe other countries could very well invent their own forms of couture, different from the French and inspired by their own cultures; why not?
What are the “métiers d’art”? How essential are they to haute couture?
Anne Zazzo: Since in haute couture the basic rule is to make everything entirely by hand and all kinds of materials are involved in it, the industry needs experts to work exclusively in the treatment of feathers, embroideries, gloves or buttons. These are what we call in France the “métiers d’art”: ateliers like Lesage, Lemarié, Massaro or Jean Clément who have become necessary to couture through the years. They are craftsmen whose savoir-faire is unique, and their work adds to the value of a couture gown. They are actually so apprised that couture designers like Karl Lagerfeld have been sponsoring and supporting them for years.
"Haute couture is heavily coded and traditionally follows a very strict etiquette"
You say haute couture is paradoxically best revealed through what it conceals, what do you mean by that?
OS: The public in general – and even many people who work in the fashion industry – tend to identify couture with precious, heavily ornamented, embroidered clothes. However, the more a gown is simple, the more it is haute couture: for it is through simplicity that we can best appreciate the craft that goes into couture. Take for instance Madame Grès; it took her years of work and experience to be able to think and execute her trademark dresses, and ultimately that is much more important than any amount of hours spent making a gown.
Can bad taste exist in couture?
AZ: Haute couture is heavily coded and traditionally follows a very strict etiquette. Designers have always shown the clothes in a specific order, according to the sartorial needs of women of the world 24 hours a day: morning suits for both the city and the countryside, tea dresses, cocktail dresses, evening gowns… Each occasion has its own outfit, and such codification tacitly implies good taste. However, as Picasso said, good taste is the enemy of creativity, and haute couture is a creative craft. When a designer leaves his mark upon his collections, he inevitably pushes the boundaries of taste. It happened with Worth, who dressed 1870s women in tapestry motifs (prompting many jokes at the time), with Schiaparelli and her extremely sexualised collections and with Galliano’s eerie proportions and ornament overdose. So in a way, bad taste is very couture!
Is there a sense of nostalgia to today’s couture?
OS: I see more and more young designers trying to find new, sustainable ways to work, and looking back to a time when couture was produced in a more artisanal way. People like Bouchra Jarrar and Alexandre Vauthier have built small teams and sometimes work with friends and family. They don’t feel the need to grow exponentially or to open boutiques in every street corner in China. Then, of course, there is a much less exciting form of nostalgia in couture – aesthetic nostalgia. Some designers create nothing but incredibly ornate evening gowns. Not only are they perpetuating a false cliché of what haute couture is, they are also creating dresses for a kind of woman who doesn’t really exist anymore.
"I really think for people who can afford to buy haute couture the investment is not that important"
What is so magical about owning a couture garment?
OS: It’s not about the price (I really think for people who can afford to buy haute couture the investment is not that important). It’s about the personal relationship of a woman – and her body – and a dress. Custom made clothing, no matter whether it is couture or a very simple dress that one has made for oneself, is always something we cherish, something we are not easily tempted to throw away. It’s the radical opposite of fast fashion. Couture dresses take time to make, several fittings… They are executed with the utmost attention and tenderness and meant exclusively for one person’s body. Dresses made by Azzedine Alaïa or Chanel have a very special kind of lightness: they feel natural, almost like petals. That’s where the magic of haute couture is.
What has prêt-à-porter inherited from haute couture?
AZ: The obsession of permanent creation. Designers like Yves Saint Laurent (and later Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel) came from haute couture and developed prêt-à-porter collections, transmitting the idea that a brand has to have its own style and image. The cult of designers comes also from couture… Today, Alber Elbaz and Hedi Slimane are just as respected as any haute couture designer.
What should we expect from haute couture in the 21st century?
OS: It will of course have to change. We no longer live in a world which allows us to be dressed in couture from dawn till dusk. We have entered a new era, but that doesn’t mean this form of art has to disappear. Right now a new, extremely creative way of making prêt-à-porter is emerging which could take over couture houses (given of course that mass production would slow down or stop). I personally think the French government should be a lot more supportive and help finance small ateliers with expert craftsmen and “couturières”, then invite one designer - I’m thinking of Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo or some of the rising talents of the London scene - each season to create a collection. That would let them unleash their creative side without thinking of production constraints… Wouldn’t it be wonderful?
Paris Haute Couture is out now, published by Rizzoli. The exhibition, supported by Swarovski, is at Hôtel de Ville, Paris, until July 6 2013.
Text by Marta Represa
Marta Represa is a freelance writer specialising in fashion, art, photography and culture.