Haute couture: Making a loss is the height of fashion

High fashion for low prices: Haute couture houses
trade in fantasy, and, in these times, more people want to fantasise. Given
that a good year in the haute couture business is one where you lose even more
money than usual, the prevailing mood in Paris was of recession-busting
buoyancy. The big-name designers were falling over themselves to boast of how
many outfits they had sold at below cost price, and how this proved that the
fashion business was healthier than ever.

Jean-Paul
Gaultier reported record sales, “but we don’t make any money out of it,” the
designer assured journalists backstage.

Haute
couture – the term translates as “high sewing” – is a spectacular anachronism.
Colossal in its costs, tiny in its clientele and questionable in its influence,
it still remains one of the great themes of Parisian life. In his book, The
Fashion Conspiracy, Nicholas Coleridge estimates that the entire couture
industry rests on the whims of less than 30 immensely wealthy women, and
although the number may have grown in recent years with the new prosperity of
Asia, the number of couture customers worldwide is no more than 4,000.

At
this stratospheric peak of the rag trade, many designers never even meet the
women who buy their clothes. Some are known only by numbered codes, do their
buying through intermediaries and settle their bills from Swiss bank account

To
qualify as couture, a garment must be entirely hand-made by one of the 11 Paris
couture houses registered to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Each
house must employ at least 20 people, and show a minimum of 75 new designs a
year. So far, so stirringly traditional, but the Big Four operators – Chanel,
Dior, Givenchy and Gaultier – increasingly use couture as a marketing device
for their far more profitable ready-to-wear, fragrance and accessory lines.

It
isn’t hard to see how this works in practice. “Haute couture is what gives our
business its essential essence of luxury,” says Bernard Arnault, the head of
LVMH, which owns both Dior and Givenchy. “The cash it soaks up is largely
irrelevant. Set against the money we lose has to be the value of the image
couture gives us. Look at the attention the collections attract. It is where
you get noticed. You have to be there. It’s where we set our ideas in motion.”

The
big idea being the one known in the trade as “name association”. Couture
outfits may be unaffordable, even unwearable, but the whiff of glamour and
exclusivity is hard to resist. The time-starved modern woman who doesn’t make
enough in a year to afford a single piece of couture can still buy a share of
the dream for the price of a Chanel lipstick or a Givenchy scarf.

For
all this, couture has been in decline – the optimists would say readjusting to
changed conditions – for years. The number of houses registered to the
Syndicale has halved in the last two decades. Pierre Cardin once had almost 500
people working full time on couture, but by the Eighties the number had fallen
to 50, and today the house is no longer registered.

Modern
life tells the story. Younger women, even the seriously wealthy ones, find
ready-to-wear clothes invariably more practical and usually more fun. Couture’s
market has dwindled to a core of ageing European grandes dames, the X-ray wives
of old money American families, and the female relatives of oil sheiks. Asia’s
new wealth has slowed the decline without arresting it.

“Haute
couture is a joke,” scoffs Pierre Bergé, the former head of Yves St Laurent –
another house that no longer creates it. “Anyone who tells you it still matters
is fantasising. You can see it dropping dead all around you. Nobody buys it any
more. The prices are ridiculous. The rules for making it are nonsensical. It
belongs to another age. Where are today’s couturiers? A real couturier is
someone who founds and runs their own house. No one does that any more.”

Why, then, are the
surviving couture houses smiling? Partly because they trade in fantasy, and, in
these times, more people want to fantasise. “We’ve received so many orders we
may not be able to deliver them all,” says Sidney Toledano, head of Dior. So
the clothes are rolled out and the couture losses roll in, and everyone agrees that it’s good
business.

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