We may know where couture fits in the fashion calendar, but not our current culture. Every first week in July, couture week speckles Paris with unimaginable embroidery and unrivaled tailoring. Rooted in labors of love that take hundreds of hours to complete, the collections are the antithesis of the coup de gras of traditional retail - instant gratification. Rather, our culture seems to favor fast fashion, see-now buy-now, and returns, a combination promising wearability, and waste not far behind. The pieces are low-cost, short-lived treasures soon found in the trash. Couture’s painstaking processes are growing outdated in the eclipse of online shopping and planned obsolescence. But, as evidenced by Saint Laurent’s recent commitment to a couture training program, the practice not only persists, but is seen as a source of sustainability. Still, the couture customer is found fewer and farther between and with the likes of athleisure and ready-to-wear as the new norm, there is little argument for such a perhaps antiquated industry.
A stark contrast to our throwaway culture, couture is the link to craftsmanship and longevity -- both for shoppers and designers alike. In retail, temporary is the new standard and retention is hard won. But for every fast fashion devotee willing to sacrifice quality, there are the nostalgic few who believe in couture’s devotion to material and true luxury. The work of age-old ateliers charms sentimental fans, whether they can afford it or not. As anyone who’s used Vogue Runway to zoom in on every shape-shifting feather and gravity defying bugle bead would say, the lure is not the complete look, but the millions of petit details pulling it all together.
Today, in a retail culture emphasizing slim turnaround for an even slimmer price, the weeks of labor and minutia required for couture seem ill-fitted to survive. But, then as now, the shadow of couture bolsters a global brand. Though it pulls little by way of profit, couture is a press tool playing on aspiration. Rather, like a brand’s storefronts on the world’s premier shopping streets, the effect is in its exclusivity. And while there are no menacing all-black-wearing bodyguards keeping our eyes from ogling the embroidery on our smartphones, the price itself ensures a closed-door policy. As a result, whether it be a perfume or a coin purse, we buy the affordable offshoots of couture’s grandeur. Couture, says head of LVMH Bernard Arnault, is less about catering to consumers and more about building brand image.
"Haute couture is what gives our business its essential essence of luxury," he told the Telegraph. "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.”
For someone outside fashion or with immunity to Elie Saab, such attention to detail reads archaic, but for the believer it is inexplicably modern. In a world where copycat crop-tops and polyester reign in retail, artisanal is not dated, but novel. And perhaps it is thanks to today’s inundation of the new that many are beginning to treasure the seemingly out-of-date. This season, both Ralph and Russo and Guo Pei capitalized on the tendency to look back to move forward with silhouettes pulled from the shadows of classic haute couture and a tinge of vintage gilded glamour. Say what you will about Dior's ratio of daywear to dresses, but Maria Grazi Chiuri’s bound angular bodices and full skirts were nothing new -- simply, the New Look -- and yet felt utterly fresh in a week of pale pink and palettes.
"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.”
Still, in somewhat of a contradiction, just as couture needs to reach into the past as a reminder of its relevance, it has to extend a hand to emerging brands and technology. Before Dutch designer Iris van Herpen was spinning rosettes from metallic filament, she was the first couturier to experiment with flexible 3D printing. Seen since in skull-like corsets and Chanel tweeds, 3D printing is now a mainstay most recently used to construct gilded necklines in this season’s Versace. Viktor and Rolf, first premiering their couture in 1993, presented larger-than-life puffer coats that later unzipped to show painstakingly patchworked denim. And unlike collections demonstrating the pinnacle of put together, Maison Margiela conceptually stripped couture down to the muslin. Galliano’s box-cutter trenches and derailed knits shifted focus to the deconstructed, rather than the curated.
The above appeared as official invitees of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, with newcomers to the calendar Rodarte and Proenza Schouler acting as RTW tagalongs.
To traditionalists, the presence of the Mulleavy sisters, and Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough was foreign, like a watering down of the pigment. But rather than detract from legends of old and well-established recents such as Giambattista Valli and Alexandre Vauthier, the designers injected couture week with commercial wearability - and a healthy dose of baby’s breath.
If new entrants, ready-to-wear, and technology were a cocktail, the Fédération would once have been staunchly prohibitionist. These changes didn’t come without challenge but now signal couture’s want to remain significant. And, despite all odds, it has -- some of the most exciting moments on the red carpet and in editorial are owed to couture creations. Rihanna stopped traffic in tufts of Giambattista Valli tulle at the 2015 Grammys and Chanel couture is a consistent favorite at Cannes. As for editorial, from Anna Wintour’s now-infamous debut cover mixing acid-washed denim with Christian Lacroix to W’s recent wall of red behind a Dior-cashmere-clad Marion Cotillard, couture packs a visual punch among otherwise mundane cover lines.
But aesthetics aside, perhaps the appeal is in the paradox. Despite more and more reasons to abandon couture, designers and devotees alike cling to it, and brands continue to pursue an impossible luxury that, logically, has no place in our economy or consciousness. But fantasy has never been logical, nor has nostalgia. From the tiniest sequin to the looming set, couture creates a world away. And if brands can continue to tap into escapism, couture will remain ever-present and evolving. Slow fashion is having a moment, and while the thousands of crystals, beads, and appliqués may not shout sustainability, couture is the slowest fashion available.