Monday, 4 January 2010

Keeping Couture Alive

Old wine in new bottles, fine; new wine in old bottles, dodgy. I was thinking of this today after talking with a colleague about this season's Paris haute couture, which takes place in two week's time. As couture shrinks – for how many years can it survive before it just becomes a parade of posh frocks little different from designer ready-to-wear? – many couture houses have tried to revive their sinking fortunes by bringing in new young designers. It's a stratagem that might look convincing on paper but it fails much more than it succeeds. Inevitably. Couture is so grounded in a period of privilege and a way of life that cannot be conceivably restored that it must eventually die as a practical exercise in fashion to be worn. Again, couture is not something to be taught in colleges. It takes years of 'hands on' experience – in Paris alone – for it to be mastered. No young designer today has that experience.

So, what is to be done? Established fashion houses are very valuable commodities that can go on making money long after their eponymous designer has gone. And few can resist the temptation to give it a go. It was, for example, inconceivable to let Chanel disappear with the death of Coco. Perfume, makeup, accessories - all needed a fashion show to keep the spirit of the house alive and its profits high. It was a touch of genius to bring in Karl Lagerfeld to carry the torch. Bold as a lion, shamelessly addicted to personal publicity, much more a stylist than a designer, he entirely ignored Chanel's dictum that all fashion must be logical and charged in like a mad bull, tossing everything for which she had stood on his sharp, ambitious horns and deliberately vulgarising her aesthetic in order to make the house the hottest fashion news in the world. His chutzpah succeeded brilliantly. Coco might have been spinning in her grave with rage but, under Lagerfeld, Chanel has survived and prospered. The reason is that he was a virtual reincarnation of her - arrogant, dismissive and so totally convinced of his superiority that he could have been her son.

In contrast, Christian Dior – gentle, modest and never entirely at ease with his fame – had to wait much longer for his alter ego to appear after his death in 1957. Things had ticked over but had been lack-lustre until John Galliano – a man with no experience of couture but, in strong contrast to Lagerfeld, a deep respect for the legacy of the house's founder, along with a mix of creative assurance and modesty almost unknown in Paris – set about revitalising it for a modern clientele, whilst so successfully retaining the original aesthetic that Dior could have designed the collections himself. The love of fabric, the romantic idealisation of women, the theatricality and the pleasure in turn-of-the-century glamour: their creative DNA is as one and the rest is … as they say.

Balenciaga has had no such luck. Nicolas Ghesquiere, the current designer there, sees no relevance in couture for modern women. And he is right in that, of course. But it seems a great pity that, even in its long, slow death, couture is deprived of a reprise of the artistic spirit of Cristobal Balenciaga, one of its greatest luminaries - even the greatest in the informed view of many. Not that it is easy to imagine Ghesquiere's aesthetic ever being subtle enough to re-create Balenciaga's magisterial modernity, I think. Then again, we are told that the spirit moves in mysterious ways, so it might still happen.

But I will never know, not having seen his clothes on the runway for some seasons. You see, I was banned from Balenciaga because I wounded Gallic pride by accusing the house of being intellectually pretentious. If I had called General de Gaulle a secret transvestite and a wife-beating drunk, the heavens could not have showered my head with more fire and brimstone. The women in the press office clearly felt that not only their personal honour but that of Paris as the fountainhead of fashion had been sullied - and by an Englishman, at that. I accepted the edict, of course, thinking all the time of Crécy, Poitiers, Honfleur, Agincourt and Waterloo. But, above all, I was thinking of Cristobal, and how he must have been smiling down on them. It was a curiously satisfying situation for me, because they had done exactly what he would have in the same circumstances. Instinctive genius as he was, he wasn't always so hot at personal relations. He was notorious for pursuing vendettas with other designers, cutting clients off without a word if they displeased him, refusing to meet all but the most carefully chosen members of the press and even closing his firm down – with the immortal words,"It's a dog's life" – without informing any of his devoted staff that they were instantly out of a job.

So, who said the spirit of a great design house dies when the designer does? No such thing. It just waits for the perfect reincarnation to come along and then starts all over again.

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