Couture in China

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Haute couture, French for “high sewing” has long been synonymous with the very finest form of skill and craftsmanship. While the wider influence of prêt-à-porter often trickles down the fashion chain, haute couture remains the exclusive domain of a privileged few. The history of couture dates back to the 18th century, when the arts and fashions of the French court at the Palace of Versailles in Paris were sought and emulated by wealthy women across Europe through their own made-to-measure wardrobes.

The father of the modern notion of couture however is widely regarded to be couturier Charles Frederick Worth (1826–1895). Worth, an Englishman, transformed the late nineteenth century fashion scene in Paris with his portfolios of one-off designs and his emphasis on the dressmaker as an artist and quickly attracted a rapturous following amongst the wealthy and titled. By the twentieth century, fashion houses such as Callot Soeurs, Patou, Poiret, Vionnet, Fortuny, Lanvin, Chanel, Mainbocher, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga and Christian Dior were all following in Worth’s haute couture footsteps. But it was during the more affluent post-war period of the 20th century, and with the launch of collections like Christian Dior’s New Look in 1947, that couture truly came of age.

Around this time the term haute couture was defined and legally protected by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris in legislation which remains active today. The late ’40s heralded a new era in couture, one that Dior himself called the “golden age”. Today, economic disquiet, changes within the fashion industry and the way we buy fashion have taken their toll on the power and popularity of couture and fewer and fewer houses can afford to produce the collections. But as Asia’s economy, spending power and interest in fashion continues to boom, one wonders if something of a new dawn may lie ahead for couture.

I travelled to Shanghai to preview the launch of Chanel’s Autumn/Winter 11/12 Haute Couture collection and to investigate whether a revival could be in store for fashion’s highest art form. Pei Mansion, in the Jing’an District of Shanghai is separated from the city’s chaotic, traffic-jammed streets by a tranquil lawn and garden. I arrive at the hotel with my companion, a senior fashion editor from Elle Hong Kong, just before dusk in what the French call l’heure bleue.

Now a boutique hotel, the stately structure was built in 1934 for the prominent Shanghai family of architect I.M. Pei (designer of the controversial glass and steel Louvre Pyramid). 
Clear Lucite street lamps, a contemporary echo of the lights peppering the Place Vendôme in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, illuminate a path to the hotel’s main entrance. A familiar sign, in its iconic monochrome design, greets us: Chanel.

Chanel have taken over and transformed the entire hotel into a multi-level, private boutique complete with a showroom, lounge areas and suites for fittings. The lobby has become a showcase for the most recent season’s collection. Covering the original lobby walls are custom-fit midnight black boards with backlit, stylised stencils of the eighteenth century buildings surrounding Place Vendôme. To the immediate right of the entrance are three silver Chiavari chairs with a tweed boater hat upon each plush black seat and a matching jacket hanging over the backs as though ladies had casually cast off elements of their day suits as they entered the mansion. Two mannequins stand facing the entrance, donning delicately intricate evening gowns of feathers, beads and sequins, black wool boaters and sheer black lace masks. Behind them is a sitting area of low black sofas and armchairs and a coffee table with a glass mirror top. A waiter from the hotel silently enters the room and places a plate of tiny tarts and cakes on the table. Nobody touches them.

The term Haute Couture is fraught with misuse and muddled definitions. For many, it loosely defines a class of extremely 
expensive designer clothing; for others, it is the pinnacle of high fashion. The words certainly embody the essence of high fashion; however, such a generic characterisation does not fully account for the layered and highly structured world of true Haute Couture.

In France, to be considered an Haute Couture designer, one must follow stringent regulations determined by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (established in 1868), an arm of the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode (French Federation of Couture, Ready to Wear Tailors and Fashion Designers), created in 1973.

A member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture must adhere to the following guidelines: the house must present a collection of a minimum of 50 unique designs, including both day and evening wear, to the press in Paris in January (for Spring/Summer) and July (for Autumn/Winter); they must show the collection to potential clients; the designs must be available for made-to-order with one or more fittings to private clients; and they must have an atelier (workshop) in Paris with at least 20 full-time workers.

Official 2011 members include: Anne Valérie Hash, Christophe Josse, Christian Dior, Adeline André, Stéphane Rolland, Atelier Gustavolins, Maurizio Galante, Givenchy, Jean Paul Gaultier, Frank Sorbier, and Chanel. Correspondent members for 2011 include Giorgio Armani Privé, Valentino, Elie Saab, Azzedine Alaïa and Maison Martin Margiela. There are also invited guest members each year.

Over the years, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture has adapted to the gradual decline of the industry. “In the 1980s, I used to make 180–190 exits,” recalled Italian Haute Couture designer Valentino in reference to the number of times models would appear in a new look during a fashion show. “Now the couture collection is 40 exits.” Haute Couture was a booming industry in the period following World War II. Released from the confines of wartime austerity, many wealthy American and European socialites and aristocracy flocked to Paris, eager to purchase couture again. During this time, the ateliers of Paris supported as many as 46,000 highly skilled couturiers. Today, the number of couturiers has diminished to approximately 4,500.

The decline of Haute Couture as a profitable business was the result of a combination of many factors: the immense and growing costs of funding an Haute Couture collection (upwards of three million US dollars), the accessibility of high quality, ready-to-wear collections, the rising cost of skilled labour in Paris, and the shift in women’s fashion from formal attire to a more practical and casual wardrobe.

However, the tradition of Haute Couture seems a long way from being rendered obsolete. Despite the financial losses it incurs, an Haute Couture collection serves an invaluable purpose. “Haute Couture is what gives our business its essential essence of luxury,” said Bernard Arnault, head of LVMH Group (owner of couture houses 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.”

Certainly, the fascination with Haute Couture is undeniable. The collections set the fashion house’s tone for each season and provide the chance for the designer to allow creativity to roam free – irrespective of cost and practicality. For many women, to own a pair of Chanel sunglasses or bottle of perfume is to own the look or scent of the renowned Haute Couture house. For the fortunate few who can afford an Haute Couture piece, it is the ultimate word in wearable luxury. An Haute Couture day suit such as one of Chanel’s famous tweed numbers requires approximately 150 hours to construct.

Each piece is handmade from start to finish by one couturier, ensuring consistent workmanship as well as a sense of ownership for the artisan. An evening gown often requires many hands, as the embroidery or beadwork is highly labour-intensive and time-consuming. The rarity and exclusivity of Haute Couture ensures that the client will be one of only three or four women in the world to wear a particular design. Lebanese Haute Couture designer Elie Saab doesn’t offer designs again if they have already been sold in a particular region. Established houses present their collections to potential clients in several cities around the world with their Directrice de Haute Couture and the heads of their ateliers (the Premières) on hand for questions and fittings. To the select group of women who purchase Haute Couture, 20,000 US dollars for a day suit or 150,000 US dollars for an evening gown seems a pittance to pay for a sartorial work of art.

To sit in a room of Haute Couture is not unlike viewing rare and elusive art works at a museum. But in contrast to a museum gallery, I was invited to observe the pieces closely, touch the sumptuous fabrics and trace the beadwork. Haute Couture, after all, is meant to be worn. I found myself quickly falling under the spell.

Given Asia’s increasingly influential role in the world of luxury goods, it is not surprising that many people believe it could be the next major region for Haute Couture clientele. Elie Saab already boasts a rather starry Asian following. Beloved Chinese actresses like Li Bing Bing, Dongjie, and Fan Bing Bing have made red carpet appearances in his feminine and elegant gowns. And certainly Chanel’s presence in Shanghai, one of only three cities (the others are New York and Los Angeles) in a global tour of their Haute Couture collection, is an indication that Asia is set to play a strong role in Couture sales.

Recent presentations by Chanel have taken place in Hong Kong (Spring/Summer 2006) and Shanghai (both Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter 2011 collections). Though unwilling to reveal hard sales figures and demographics (Haute Couture houses are notoriously discreet about their clientele), Chanel’s President of Fashion, Bruno Pavlovsky, divulged that they had “exceptional results for the 2011 Spring/Summer collection” and that the “sales and number of pieces significantly increased with numerous new clients from China after the presentation in March 2011.”

Other Haute Couture designers such as Alexis Mabille (currently a guest member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture) have also experienced a warm reception in Asia, an eager yet green client base. “The new market is very interested in couture and specific developments,” Mr Mabille observes. “I am actually in Singapore to present my couture show, and people are extremely, highly responsive, curious and open to buying couture.” He reports that sales of couture have had a “good start” in Asia, “especially around Singapore and Malaysia.”

Equally important to showcasing the designs to this new market has been the process of educating the clients in Haute Couture. “They are not used to the specific process it requires,” explains Mr Mabille. To that end, he and designers like Elie Saab have been holding trunk shows and explaining the process of Haute Couture in intricate detail. Others, like Chanel, stress the historic relationship between the house and the tradition of Haute Couture and emphasise the fact that Haute Couture is unequivocally and uniquely Parisian. “Chanel is the oldest Haute Couture house still in business,” Mr Pavlovsky explains. “Haute Couture remains the ultimate luxury fashion experience and is the DNA of the House of Chanel.”

China, in particular, proves to be an enthusiastic market, quick to respond to new experiences especially of the luxurious persuasion. “I found it interesting that such an industrial area is starting to think about craftsmanship and series of low quantities,” muses Mr Mabille. “They have Chinese couturiers of course, but they are very inspired by Haute Couture. It explains this desire of French couture which is singular.” A more sophisticated and discerning palate is beginning to emerge in conjunction with the Chinese elite’s increasing appetite for luxury. According to an Elie Saab representative, their Chinese clientele “have a very precise idea of what they are looking for”. There is no doubt that more will want to join these pioneering few. Today Haute Couture may be elusive and out of reach to all but 4,000 of the wealthiest women in the world, but one can be sure that a new generation of prosperous Asian clientele will soon enter this exclusive and private club.

by Sandra Hong

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