Haute couture. The phrase conjures images of romance, fantasy, visual extravagance. But wardrobe basics? Probably not.
Yet to characterize couture as the pinnacle of sartorial indulgence for celebrities and the superrich is to misunderstand and undervalue the form. Yes, grand gowns, often embroidered, feathered, and frothed for otherworldly enchantment, play an essential part. But couture is not only about that.
It is also about clothes for real women in real life—“albeit,” Giorgio Armani tells T&C, “a very rarefied form of real life.”
Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri, another of couture’s most high-profile practitioners, says couture is “clothing that isn’t content to shine only under the chandeliers of a gala or party, but that proudly displays its personality in the light of day.”
Chiuri’s words carry a powerful subtext: Haute clothing can’t be content to shine only under chandeliers, because the couture client doesn’t confine herself only to such flattering illumination. Rather, she lives in the real world, where for most people, the very rich included, daytime pursuits are at least as important as swanky soirees. Just look at the authoritative pants from Dior and Armani Privé in this story, and the perfect Chanel white blouse that easily moves from day to evening.
And look ahead, as well, to the parade of talent expected to descend on Paris this summer, starting July 5, when live shows and presentations can return to the couture calendar, as the Fédération de la Haute Couture announced earlier this week. The usual suspects are accounted for, including all the creative directors quoted here, but the season's newsmakers are “guest” designers who cut their teeth in ready-to-wear, like Pyer Moss founder Kerby Jean-Raymond, the first Black American designer to show during the couture, and Sacai’s Chitose Abe, who is collaborating on a collection with enfant-terrible-turned-elder-statesman Jean Paul Gaultier.
The French couturier Alexandre Vauthier describes his clientele as “bold, empowered women with dynamic lives” and numerous wardrobe requirements. “Couture is not only ceremonial clothing,” he says. “It can be exceptional in all its details, and it is adapted to the best techniques in the world.”
And, Vauthier muses, evening regalia aside, “discretion is the essence of luxury, isn’t it?”
In fact, providing full-wardrobe options to fashion’s most discerning customers has been couture’s raison d’être from its founding, which is widely attributed to Charles Frederick Worth, who established his fashion house in Paris in 1858. (It’s one of the industry’s anecdotal delights that couture, perceived as consummately French, traces its origin to an expat Brit.)
Across the decades couture gave rise to versatile, high-endurance wonders such as Coco Chanel’s tweed suits, Yves Saint Laurent’s peacoats and smokings, and, in between those two, Christian Dior’s New Look, which after World War II proposed an audacious move from austerity to flamboyance and ultimately provided the template for a new daytime silhouette that would resonate across fashion.
Yet, over time, reality can collect dust. Leapfrog several decades, and by the early 1990s couture had receded in influence and attention, surpassed in excitement by a generation of new stars of European ready-to-wear, designers such as Miuccia Prada, Helmut Lang, and Jil Sander, all of whom challenged old notions of chic. Compared to their work, couture’s prevailing staid aesthetic felt très madame, still serving an important clientele, but of little creative interest. Then something happened: John Galliano and Alexander McQueen arrived at Dior and Givenchy, respectively, where they presented exquisite collections in extraordinary theatrical events.
“Galliano and McQueen were pivotal figures,” says the fashion historian Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Their couture shows were amazing extravaganzas that went so far toward the costume element in so many of the looks that many people who saw them said, ‘It’s completely impossible. This is nothing that anybody will ever wear’… That was crazy. There were all kinds of great ideas to modify in a million ways, and there were plenty of other clothes in the mix.”
Truth be told, the press often got swept up in these romantic narratives (they were hard to resist), and magazine editors took to featuring the most flamboyant offerings. This had a snowball effect across the haute sphere, ultimately fostering a narrow view of it. In photographs an over-the-top ball gown looks “special” and distinctly different from ready-to-wear, whereas a photo of even the most painstakingly crafted, expertly fitted jacket often just looks like, well, a nice jacket. So why the fuss?
The fuss is in the creation, the craft, the handiwork, the way each piece is still fitted to the person who will wear it (or wear it first—couture gets handed down the generations). The item is unique to the woman.
“This beauty and craftsmanship are the key for me, not the extravagance,” Armani says. “Extravagance may indeed have become the image of couture, perhaps because of its visibility at lavish occasions. But couture can be beautifully wearable.” And suitable for round-the-clock. At the major couture houses, daywear comprises a healthy proportion of the orders. Privé clients favor jackets and trousers.
At Chanel, daywear has the edge over evening in terms of looks ordered—about 55 to 45 percent, with (shocker!) the seasonal interpretations of those iconic suits and jackets leading the way (although in couture the “tweeds” are often intricate embroideries). The house states that its haute purpose is “to be by the side of our clients at every moment of their lives, day to day, not just for lavish occasions or ceremonies.” Yet day to day must not be confused with mundane.
“Haute couture is, by essence, romantic,” says Chanel creative director Virginie Viard. “There is so much love in each silhouette.”
The love. While such language may sound corny to those who don’t buy into the emotional aspects of dressing, believers believe. Especially at the haute level, when each dress, each jacket, each coat is literally handmade.
“It is a rare privilege being able to work like this,” Viard says. “Excellence reigns everywhere, in the famed Chanel ‘hand’ that can achieve everything, from the flou work to the tailoring.”
Couturiers would not design and oversee this most specialized realm of fashion if they didn’t revere it; there are far easier ways to make a pretty dress. The dynamics of a couture atelier are very personal on multiple levels, with strong relationships between the couturier and the devoted, gifted craftspeople who make the clothes, known with admiration within the houses as les petites mains, the little hands. In turn, those petites mains are notorious for their emotional attachments to the pieces on which they work. They are artists, and the tailleur and flou they so painstakingly cut, stitch, and shape are their art.
Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli often speaks of the intense collaboration involved in creating couture; he once named each look in his collection after a member of the atelier. He describes a ritualistic gravitas in the processes of creation and stresses that this exists regardless of the degree of ornamentation.
For spring 2021 Piccioli set out to create a daywear-focused couture collection that would highlight the skill and devotion of the atelier. That meant eliminating the visually spectacular elements and overtly fancy fabrics that, when overemphasized, can distract from the beauty of the form itself.
“I don’t believe that luxury is about decoration or expensive fabrics,” Piccioli says. “It’s the hours, the time that people spend to transform something that you know into something different and special. That’s why I didn’t want to decorate the surface. I wanted the construction itself to show the workmanship.” As examples, Piccioli cites a skirt crafted from small squares of yellow cashmere, knotted together into an openwork grid, and a masterful trench coat in which the back flap somehow morphs into the sleeves.
“This apparent simplicity is actually complexity—all the effort, all the workmanship to achieve pure lines,” Piccioli says. “I wanted to transcend the gravity of the execution to arrive at the simplicity, the magic of fashion.”
None of which matters if the magic on view doesn’t speak to the client. At Dior, Chiuri heads one of fashion’s most storied houses, and she has brought a determinedly feminist viewpoint and an unapologetically problem-solving approach to design. “The relationship between utility and creativity should never be a compromise,” she says, “but rather a deliberate use of the rules as a strong starting point for new directions.”
When designing daywear, she works toward a specific goal: “to ponder what fashion today actually is. Something to be used on a daily basis, an attitude toward life, more than just a single moment of attention for an event or occasion. If I think of haute couture, I would say that this design is even more personal, ‘tailored’ to those who choose to wear the unique couture pieces. I constantly keep in mind the woman who will wear the piece, and I ask myself what she will be doing when she wears it. The clothing in the spring 2021 collection is the answer to those questions.”
That’s it in an exquisitely sculpted nutshell. At its non-soiree best, haute couture is about serving a discerning, demanding client with impeccable clothes crafted specifically for her, to suit her myriad wardrobe needs while keeping it real.
And, of course, keeping it beautiful, in craft and workmanship—the haute X factor. Says Armani, “Beauty is eternal, and our love of it a powerful force.”
Photos by Danny Kasirye, styled by Mike Adler, hair by Charlotte Mensah at Premier, makeup by Valeria Ferreira at the Wall Group, nails by Michelle Class at LMC Worldwide, set design by Trish Stephenson at Patricia McMahon, production by Zoe Rose-Davis. Lead image: Valentino Haute Couture trench coat, sweater, skirt, and shoes; Bulgari High Jewelry Earrings; Van Cleef & Arpels necklace ($27,600) and ring ($17,000)
This story appears in the May 2021 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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