Monday, 25 January 2010

Paris Couture Preview

Today I head for couture week in Paris, still the fountainhead of fashion, promoted as such by the French government and accepted by civilized women (and men) across the globe as the indispensible and inescapable creative dynamo for other fashion centres.

It used to be that couture was the driving force of this amazing city's creative energy but that is no longer the case. As fewer and fewer of the grand names of the past (Lanvin, Balenciaiga) bother with it, and so few designers in Paris have been trained in it (Gaultier is the one remaining figure since Lacroix closed his atelier and Valentino retired), couture is increasingly being seen as an indulgence the fashion world cannot afford in these straitened times.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It may seem a perverse argument but it would be highly detrimental to the future of fashion if couture were allowed to fade away – already a real and present danger – because of current financial difficulties. Without couture, fashion has no cultural basis, history or lead and becomes just another commodity to make money from. It is couture alone that creates the vocabulary of the fashion for tomorrow. Or it should do.

But at this point it isn't. If Couture is losing its position as fashion leader, blame has to be laid at The door of couture itself. The Chambre Syndicale de la Couture – the body charged with protecting and safeguarding French fashion's jewel in the crown – has opened its exclusive club (once the most exclusive in fashion) to designers who are not only not trained in couture but even not trained in fashion at all.

It is possible to cut corners and fudge the rules and get away with it lower down the feeding chain – who looks for originality of concept or intricacy of cut in high-street chains? – but it should be unthinkable at the pinnacle. During this week I will see shows of dumb, posh dresses whose designers have been welcomed in and encouraged to call their work couture. It is no such thing, no matter how hard wily PRs try to convince us that it is. All it is really about is red-carpet dressing where banal evening dresses are 'lent' (how many are ever returned?) to actresses as the best way of getting instant world publicity. And all the big-name designers (there are lots of other designers in Paris trading as couturiers, but they are little more than up-market dressmakers) have played this game. And they probably feel they have had to in order to survive. But it is a complete and disastrous reversal of the way things should be in a healthy fashion industry. There is no design energy in high-street clothing and nowhere near as much as there should be in designer fashion. Why would couture wish to align itself with sterility?

Currently, couture designers are either meaninglessly recycling the past (only Galliano at Dior and Lagerfeld at Chanel even begin to use it as a jumping-off point for a modern design approach), turning back to their own past glories, or showing retreads of the current ready-to-wear collections, their own or those of other designers. And this is why I am not expecting too much excitement this week in Paris.

But I might be pleasantly surprised. I hope I am. Couture is in trouble and the way to get out of it is not to go down the scale but to go up, with boldness and imagination. There is no other way to go, if it doesn't want to go through the door marked Exit. The fashion world is awash with interchangeable minor talents at the moment - far too many of them for a healthy industry - most little more than copyists.

Couture must stand apart from such mediocrity and fulfill its role as leader. It must provide a new path of inspired genius, vision and bold energy, one that will embolden the rest of the industry as Dior's New Look did in 1947. At that point French fashion was so much in the doldrums that many thought it could never recover. But Dior proved them wrong. Within two seasons all designers were following his lead. Much more importantly for a healthy industry, he inspired other great designers to challenge his approach to fashion, including Chanel (who came out of retirement to do so), Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent. From them came the future. And, if our future currently looks bleak it is because we are waiting for their modern equivalents. It is couture's job to provide them.


  1. Your blog has become a daily ritual for me. Your unvarnished, informed opinions are always a highlight of my day! Thank you.


    The Luxe Chronicles

  2. Dear Mr. McDowell:

    What are your views on the role of the French State in helping preserve the haute couture sector?

    Shortly after Christian Lacroix's last haute couture show, French Minister of Culture Frederic Mitterand declared that the loss of another couture house would be an unacceptable loss for French cultural patrimony and vowed to "not remain inactive". He then proceeded to do absolutely nothing. Francois Lesage has also personally lobbied the French government for assistance in preserving jobs in the tiny sector.

    To date, the best the Sarkozy government has done is to promote the adoption of a "Charte des bonnes pratiques" announced by
    French Industry Minister Christian Estrosi in November to address some of the more pressing issues that affect small luxury industry suppliers including intellectual property rights, payment schedules, etc. I don't know much about it but it seems like a rather tepid response to the inequity of bargaining power between the small independent suppliers (brodeurs, plumassiers, etc.) and the large luxury houses.

    If haute couture is indeed the jewel in the French fashion industry's crown, why has so little been done to help preserve it? Also, should the French State do more? I would love to know your views on the subject.

    Many thanks,

    The Luxe Chronicles

  3. Dear Mr. McDowell

    Eagerly awaiting your reviews on Couture Week. I hope you will be surprised too!


  4. I really hope you are pleasantly surprised!

    It seems as if mediocrity is embraced and celebrated on today's red carpets. I was asked to comment on the looks for the Golden Globes but felt unable to offer any enthusiastic musings on dresses that lacked innovation and any youthful edge.

    I hope this year more fashion forward pieces that can translate into something more fashion forward in the pret-a-porter collections, are shown in Paris. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

    Random Fashion Coolness