Is Haute Couture Proof Art is Dead?
Haute couture : Fashion that is constructed by hand (without the use of sewing machines and sergers/overlockers) from start to finish, made from high quality, expensive, often unusual fabric and sewn with extreme attention to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable seamstresses, often using time-consuming, hand-executed techniques. A haute couture garment is often made for a client, tailored specifically for the wearer’s measurements and body stance.Considering the amount of time, money, and skill that is allotted to each completed piece, haute couture garments are also described as having no price tag - in other words, budget is not relevant. Each couture piece is not made to sell. Rather, they were designed and constructed for the runway, much like an art exhibition. -Metropolitan Museum of Art's timeline of art history
Another month, another fashion week- or so seems the trend these days. Paris' Haute Couture week drew to a close mid-July, and hardly anyone seems to have noticed.
But, really, can you blame them? There's new (or, shall we say, newer) fashion weeks in nearly every major city the world over. New seasons are being invented every few minutes (Pre-fall? Does the last week of August really need its own wardrobe?). It's harder than ever to keep up!
But after browsing the collections online, I'm left wondering if there isn't another reason the Haute Couture shows are missing from the headlines: it isn't that there's so much to keep track of, it's that so much is the same.
As the popularity of fashion in general continues to rise, the audience for everyday clothing collections (called “prêt à porter” or ready-to-wear) is growing. This audience has a taste for style but, typically, does not align itself with high fashion- meaning that the amount of people that like fashion is growing, but those familiar with Haute Couture is not. So, as designers crank out season after season for the fashion-hungry masses, there's little left in them to create a super-exclusive, over-the-top collection for couture week. Not to mention that, at day's end, the business aspect of fashion means that the focus needs to be where the money is—meaning, designers need to put more work into their ready-to-wear lines to keep a competitive edge in the market.
See exhibit A: Karl Lagerfeld had punk princesses at Chanel couture show stomp the catwalk in flat sandals and tweed column dresses-beautiful, to be sure, but not all that different from a ready-to-wear show Chanel would release. I'm drooling over the ribbon sandals, but puzzled over the lack of theatrics and showmanship that one associates with Lagerfeld. The Chanel ready-to-wear spring/summer collection was more of a spectacle, with a grocery store- inspired set that had models and customers pushing each other in carts.
Chanel wasn't the only one, either. Elie Saab showed an Haute Couture collection that mirrored his fall/winter 2015 line, adding lighter colours and fuller skirts to the same overall theme. As for Dior, the house most associated with couture? Fluid lines and strong colour blocking were on display at both Haute Couture and the house's fall/winter 2014-2015 collection.
This is not to say that the couture shows were sub-par. The dresses Saab created are what fairy tales are made of, and Dior's statement-making separates should be what the wardrobe of any working creative are built on.
The problem seems then, not that the standards of couture are slipping, as some have implied, but rather that the standards of ready-to-wear are rising. How can you outdo what's already so amazing? How can you top the untoppable? Especially when you have to do so multiple times a year?
Perhaps we need to ask Jean Paul Gaultier, whose Haute Couture collection was conceptual and theatrical and didn't carry a similar theme to his fall/winter '15 collection. A gothic dream scape filled with wings and headpieces, Gaultier's show was a stunning example of irreverent haute couture not seen since the days of Christian LaCroix in the 1990s (see it yourself in the photo at the top of this post).
Critics complain about couture because it doesn't sell, particularly compared to ready-to-wear lines. This is undeniable, but concept cars don't sell as well as luxury vehicles, so that that argument is rather mute.
If couture week continues to give us all a sense of deja vu, we risk losing the designer's playground, the fantasy land where fashion exists in its purist form. A world without couture is a world without fashion for the sake of itself; a removing of the art from the art form. But as we watch the line between couture and ready-to-wear fade ever more, I can't help but wonder: will the focus on what sells make couture finally go the way of the dinosaur? Will business win out over art? What will princesses wear to balls? And more importantly, what will dress our imaginations?