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Chronicles of Chic: The factory of dreams and prestige

Chronicles of Chic: The factory of dreams and prestige

The Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week started last Sunday with Versace’s gleaming designs. For five days, selected houses that are endorsed by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture will present la crème de la crème of fashion. An arsenal of craftsmanship, sophisticated hand-made work and staggering designs will be deployed not only to seduce the estimated two thousand belles around the world who can afford the garments, but also enthuse a broader audience on what fashion can be, without the “Made in China” dark watermark. EMILIE GAMBADE looks at a world of unfettered creativity and colossal price tags.

The Paris Haute Couture fashion week is held twice a year in France, for the Spring/ Summer and Fall/ Winter seasons. Rolling out its catwalks for a privileged few only, it is known to be elitist and grandiose: to present its Fall/ Winter 2013-2014 collections, Chanel created an entire apocalyptic décor, welcoming its guests in the ruins of a theatre, like the debris of a realm that no longer exists. (See main photo)

Compared to Ready-to-Wear, Haute Couture collections are more exclusive, more exquisite, more extraordinary and a lot less profitable. On stage, only the finest of craftsmanship parades, a grand scale fairy-tale with Paris as a pretty backdrop. Designers use the imagination (and budgets) to hypnotise their audience: here comes a racy Versace and dresses that shimmer as if plugged on electrical tinsels; there walks Chanel and its ambitious stories of lost worlds and giant globes showing the brand’s supremacy, or the newcomer Alexis Mabille, and his intrepid take on Italian painter Giovanni Boldini’s work.

It is deliciously arrogant, borderline indecent, but mainly it is an incredible showcase of centuries-old fashion heritage and savoir-faire.

Not everyone can pretend to be “Haute Couture”, as the label is protected and controlled by the Fédération Française de la Haute Couture. And the selection is stringent: to be a permanent member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (the body that administrates fashion designers, couture designers and the calendar of fashion weeks in Paris), one needs, for example, to have an atelier based in Paris with no less than twenty full-time staff. The Chambre Syndicale also requires hand-made, bespoke creations, uniqueness, and the ability to present new collections at least twice a year.

The Federation’s intention is to “preserve Paris’ position as the world Capital of Fashion Design. Ironically, it was an English man, Charles Frederick Worth, who, in 1868, inspired the very creation of the august body.

Born 1825 in Bourne, England, Worth was known to be the “father of couture.” He relocated to Paris when he was 20 years old and worked at a famous local draper known as Gagelin. Married to one of the company’s models, he created dresses for her that soon attracted the firm’s clients’ interest.

Paris was, once again, a hub for extravagance in creativity, design and manufacturing with Napoleon III re-establishing himself as a French Emperor, and his wife Eugénie leading fashion trends with elaborate outfits and stylish headdresses. According to Met Museum, “The demand for luxury goods, including textiles and fashionable dress, reached levels that had not been seen since before the French Revolution.”

Worth knew how to market himself and his work: he was the first designer to put an eponymous label on the clothes he designed, and paved the way for other couturiers, drawing the contours of what would later be known as brand identity.

Photo: A model presents a creation by Italian designer Giorgio Armani as part of his Haute Couture Fall Winter 2013/2014 fashion show for Giorgio Armani Prive in Paris July 2, 2013. REUTERS/Charles Platia

The story of Worth is symbolic of what Haute Couture epitomises: a way to market a brand – and not just a piece of cloth – as an ultimate object of desire. Chanel, Versace, Armani, Dior and Jean Paul Gaultier barely make any profit on their couture lines (with only an estimated 2,000 buyers around the world, the market is awfully limited) but the exposure they get and the imprint they leave on people’s conscience is invaluable.

Photo: A model presents a creation by French designer Jean Paul Gaultier as part of his Haute Couture Fall Winter 2013/2014 fashion show in Paris July 3, 2013 REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Some will argue that the abundance of luxury is outrageous, that Haute Couture seems oblivious to any economical apparatus (crisis, what crisis?) and is just another caprice for very rich people. It probably is as it snubs austerity and happily flirts with a concept rooted in 18th Century Versailles: la folie des grandeurs. Opulent and decadent, Haute Couture displays luxury in every pleats of a dress, creating a fantasy world where picnics would be made of caviar, foie-gras and champagne.

Photo: Models present creations by French designer Christian Lacroix as part of his Haute Couture Fall Winter 2013/2014 fashion collection for fashion house Elsa Schiaparelli in Paris July 1, 2013. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

But while doing this, it also highlights the incredible work of thousands of seamstresses, known as “little hands,” the men and women working behind the making of such garments. It protects their savoir-faire and begets their skills of extraordinary value. Feather worker Bruno Legeron, who followed his mother and grandfather, has been designing headdresses, hats and other inventive cloths made of feathers for prestigious houses like Ungaro or Givenchy. François Lesage is not only an acclaimed and respected embroiderer but also the man behind the China Blue Chanel dress, embellished with over 200,000 beads. The atelier owns more than 40,000 samples of embroideries, made through the years and is an incredible repository of craftsmanship.

Photo: Models present creations by Belgian designer Raf Simons as part of his Haute Couture Fall Winter 2013/2014 fashion collection for French fashion house Christian Dior in Paris July 1, 2013. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Still, Haute Couture is a fragile castle in the sky and is not easy to enter or to sustain. In 1946, the Chambre Syndicale had given its prestigious title to 106 fashion houses. In 2013, only twelve houses carried the prised label.

French designer Christian Lacroix, who knows the bitter taste of couture defeat, after he closed his house in 2009 following bankruptcy (he now signs the House of Elsa Schiaparelli’s couture line), once said: “Haute Couture should be fun, foolish and almost unwearable.” With an almost unconscious take on fashion, Haute Couture seems reminiscent of a time where one’s attire meant to impress, where the visible sweat and hours spent creating a garment was the silent signature of elegance and not the ignored tears of faraway sweatshops.

Photo: A creation by French designer Christian Lacroix is displayed as part of his Haute Couture Fall Winter 2013/2014 fashion collection for fashion house Elsa Schiaparelli in Paris July 1, 2013. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Regardless of its stubborn grip on a type of fashion that only few will ever wear, it is the bearer of centuries of complex techniques, savoir-faire, and the pride of thousand artisans around the world. And this, like any valuable work, has a price.

Paris might not be fashion little darling anymore, but it still is a factory for dreams and prestige, an obstinate bravura made of beads, crystals and feathers. Oscar de la Renta said, “If you want to establish an international presence you can’t do so from New York. You need the consecration of Paris.” Ah, Paris sera toujours Paris! DM

Main photo: Models present creations by German designer Karl Lagerfeld as part of his Haute Couture Fall Winter 2013/2014 fashion show for French fashion house Chanel in Paris July 2, 2013. REUTERS/Charles Platiau


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