The beginnings of haute couture are generally accepted as being with Charles Frederick Worth in 1858; during the intervening decades, the rise and fall of the business of made-to-measure clothes in the salons of Paris has been a subject of endless discussion and debate. Flourishing in the early years of the twentieth century, and kept alive throughout the occupation of Paris during World War II, it was rejuvenated by Christian Dior in 1947. Haute couture was threatened by the rise of ready-to-wear in the 1960s and virtually dismissed in the 1970s, yet by the 1980s—the decade of excess, Wall Street, and TV soaps—there had been a revival of couture; however, this was to accelerate, for a variety of reasons, in the next decade.
The establishment of Christian Lacroix in 1987, as the first major new couture house for many years, set the tone for the next decade, which would see couture reinvigorated and reexamined. Observers and pundits are ever ready to build up or alternatively knock down haute couture: it is obsolete and outdated, or enjoying a revival and totally relevant. The reexamination continues relentlessly, and in fact in the early twenty-first century haute couture is seen to be having a major revival in importance. Haute couture is seen as the highest form of luxury since it never reveals its sales figures and is seen by those outside the business of fashion as an indulgence on the part of the brand/house and the designer. The truth about sales, costs, and so on is virtually impossible to discover and endless journalistic pieces skirt around the subject after the writer has failed yet again to pin down anyone within the company to give them solid facts and figures regarding the success, or otherwise, of the couture division of the brand/house.
The 1980s had seen couture acquire Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and other innovations, but the glitz and glamour of Dynasty and the extravagance of ready-to-wear—with, for example, the broad-shouldered, futuristic silhouettes and bombastic catwalk presentations of Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana—meant that couture survived rather than expanded or grew. So much did ready-to-wear dominate Paris, that Claude Montana in fact designed the haute couture for Lanvin between 1990 and 1992. Although considered by many at the time to be disastrous, and rumored to have lost $50,000 for the house, in retrospect he was, in his own unique creative way, helping to move couture forward.
In contrast to the decade’s flamboyant haute couture image, generally the fashion trends of ready-to-wear in the 1990s were subdued. After the extrovert power dressing of the 1980s, there was much interest in matt black and a more somber approach, both to menswear and women’s wear, from designers like Helmut Lang and Jean Paul Gaultier. Tom Ford at Gucci and Dolce and Gabbana focused on sexy tailoring; Yohji Yamamoto, Ann Demeulemeester, and Comme des Garçons played with layering and draping as well as tailoring, in long, fluid black on black. Even at the houses of designers such as Gianni Versace, the jacket and severe lines had a great importance within a collection.
Around the turn of the decade from the 1980s to the 1990s, designers who wished to establish their credentials in the rarefied world of couture plunged headlong into the competition and Versace Atelier launched in 1989. Valentino, who had shown for some time in Paris as a guest, alongside newcomer Maurizio Galante, showed that Italian designers believed this appearance was the endorsement of their skills. Showing at the birthplace of couture, the center where the heritage was founded, and in fact the only place where technically haute couture can be so called, is an affirmation of a designer’s pedigree and aspirations. The rules and prerequisites of couture may shift, but the Chambre Syndicale is the only body entitled to bestow the title “haute couture” on a collection.
Paris is also the center of understanding regarding the preservation of the heritage and crafts of fashion, of which couture is still seen as the foundation for the big houses such as Christian Dior and Chanel. When Oscar de la Renta was asked why he would want to work at Pierre Balmain Haute Couture, a role he undertook so brilliantly from 1993 to 2002, he replied: “In New York, if I ask for red silk chiffon, twenty-four hours later I have three choices. In Paris, within an afternoon I have thirty.” Indeed, it was in Parisian haute couture where Oscar de la Renta had served his apprenticeship, having been apprenticed at Balenciaga and the studio at Lanvin-Castillo. It is worth mentioning at this point that Oscar de la Renta was one of many among a generation of American designers where this Paris training was not unusual: Pauline Trigère had worked in Place Vendôme at Martial et Armand, and Arnold Scassi not only worked at Paquin, but had trained prior to that at the school run by the Chambre Syndicale.
Designers saw producing a couture collection as a means to discard commercial restraint and to demonstrate just how inventive, creative, and experimental they could be in fashion. Paris also welcomes creativity in a way that is separate to any of the main fashion capitals. New York welcomes commerciality, Milan embraces understated classicism, London adores wacky creations, but Paris welcomes creativity, luxury, and newness.
With the renewed interest in couture during the 1990s, Dior and Givenchy found it necessary to employ avant-garde young iconoclasts from London to maintain their standing as the laboratory of fashion, and to demonstrate skills and workmanship at the highest possible level. Skills are available exclusively in Paris through the ateliers spread across the city, many of them from early in the twentieth century or even the previous century; these skills are unparalleled across the globe. In 1995, John Galliano was entrusted to take over Givenchy after the retirement of Hubert de Givenchy. His right-hand man in the Givenchy studio, Dominique Sirop, left to launch his own successful couture house based around the established couture aesthetic of simply beautiful clothes with a defined clientele, thus adding to the breadth of couture styles on offer.
John Galliano was at Givenchy for only a few seasons, but from his “Princess and the Pea” opening show, he shook Paris to its very foundations with a new theatricality and stylistic abandon which led other established couturiers to raise their game. In 1996, Galliano moved to Christian Dior after the departure of Gianfranco Ferré. Alexander McQueen was whisked over from London to replace him at Givenchy and in his first show, based around the Golden Fleece, he showed that Galliano would have some competition. During the next few years, even such established practitioners as Ungaro presented more opulent and theatrically produced catwalk shows; also, the arrival of Thierry Mugler in 1992 had paved the way for haute couture to become not just a laboratory of ideas but also a support to the image of fragrance.
The reexamination of haute couture by designers who had trained in Paris and those who were new to the concept of couture, its heritage, rules, and approach to fashion, had a new “canvas” to explore. The opportunities within couture offered a much bolder canvas to work across, and with much more impact than ready-to-wear could ever muster. Indeed, in 1998 Thierry Mugler celebrated his twenty-year career with a show at the Cirque d’Hiver which featured Tippi Hedren, Carmen dell’Orifice, and every supermodel in town from Kate Moss to Eva Herzigova, with James Brown as the finale. It was also the year in which Viktor & Rolf launched their extraordinary couture aesthetic on the world in an art gallery, Galerie Thaddeus Ropac. They presented a couture collection for 1999 in blackout material, where often only piping or millefeuille collars showed up under ultraviolet light; they then showed the entire collection a second time under normal lighting. Also in 1999, Maggie Rizer was the single model dressed in layer upon layer in front of the audience as a living Russian matryoshka doll, and their final couture collection in 2000 (until their return to couture in 2014) was shown in thick, artificial “fog” and was based around bells.
Expense and production seemed more appropriate to the world of couture than ready-to-wear during this decade, and the willingness of the “money men” to finance spectacular events showcasing couture was seemingly endless. Although an element of this can be attributed to the strengthening of the image of the house/brand to enhance fragrance and beauty sales, there was as yet no major emphasis on accessories bearing the house name or logo. So in context, couture must have been seen as a special case in terms of budget. This also leads us to the observation that rumor has always suggested that the two oldest houses with an uninterrupted couture heritage, Christian Dior and Chanel, see haute couture as a major differential to almost all other global brands and this accounts for the preservation at almost any cost of this division of the company. It also points to the fact that brands such as Versace and Valentino have an interest in couture as part of the structure of the brand and as a major differential to brands that are expensive, or even considered to be luxury brands, which do not have a couture division within the brand structure. Note how many brands counterbalance this with “special” collections such as “black label,” “made to order,” “limited edition,” and other versions of “couture” to boost the impression that they are at the top level of fashion.
No wonder Alexander McQueen, in his time at Givenchy, had a model on horseback enter the Cirque d’Hiver for the fall/winter collection of 1998–1999, or showed his collection for spring/summer 1998 in two back-to-back Japanese gardens; John Galliano had an entire train come into the Gare d’Austerlitz for his fall/winter collection of 1997–1998. For Christian Dior, Galliano had already created a fin de siècle wonderland in the Jardins de Bagatelle for fall/winter 1997–1998. More was definitely more during this decade. Although both John Galliano and Alexander McQueen are seen to have suffered creatively, and paid a high emotional price for their time at haute couture, at the beginning everything was amazing and, even if not well received by all, there was no doubting the effect their shows and collections had upon the world of couture.
The decade of couture excess led by these two houses even prompted Karl Lagerfeld to create more statement presentations at Chanel, but here the emphasis was on glamour by using every “supermodel” of the moment: Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer, Helena Christensen, Karen Mulder, Naomi Campbell, and Linda Evangelista—and more—all in one show. This was also perhaps why Chanel opted for smaller shows in contrast to the huge extravaganzas and showed in tiny salons at the Ritz in 1997, even returning to the newly redecorated original spaces at Rue Cambon in 1998. Interestingly, Karl Lagerfeld is now the last designer who uses the setting of haute couture as an extravaganza in the 2010s, with extraordinary settings—from an entire forest installed in the Grand Palais, or a mechanical exotic garden which bursts into bloom—among his presentation concepts.
While during the 1990s designers such as Hanae Mori and Adeline André continued to design to please their clients and sell actual garments, for many designers couture had become a playground where the bigger the event and the more publicity it received, seemingly the better it was. However, as the decade drew to a close, the smaller Chanel shows seemed more exclusive; the brutal murder of Gianni Versace in 1997 shook fashion’s confidence; and the growing suspicion that Galliano and McQueen were not actually advancing sales came to seem like the morning after the party. By 2001, McQueen had left Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta left Balmain in 2002, and the writing was on the wall even for Galliano. Although he stayed another decade at Dior, in 1999 his surrealist collection was shown in the first-floor couture salons at the headquarters in Avenue Montaigne, as were several shows during the coming seasons.