The price of a couture gown usually equals the cost of a car. In that respect, nothing has changed over the past few decades. The tag on a Philippe Venet outfit custom-made in Paris, for example, still resembles that of a compact auto, or sometimes a limousine.
People who pay such sums for clothes do not worry about cost. They do not even ask the prices, Venet said on a recent visit to Los Angeles. And they certainly don't try to get a bargain.
"What we call the good group has never changed its ways over the years," the designer said of his U.S. clients.
"They order when I come to the States, which I do each season. When the franc is devalued, they do not buy in Paris just to save a few dollars. Selecting clothes is boring business to them, and they wouldn't waste time on it when traveling."
Venet's "good group" is apparently impervious to life's economic potholes. They inherit the tendency to couture much as they incline toward the same schools that their parents attended.
They may have old money, but they are not necessarily old. The median age of Venet's New York customer, for example, is 31 years, he said. She is generally a second- or third-generation client, having learned at her mother's knee the value of an exquisitely fitted dress.
And fit is what makes couture garments worth the price to those who own them, Venet said. Although fashion journalists tend to write about new couture silhouettes each season, he explained, they do so because silhouettes can be copied inexpensively for the mass market. But custom fit is another, more crucial matter. In couture, fit is the summation of each garment, the one thing that makes a dress seem to live .
Of course, perfect fit can never be mass-marketed. It consists of a dress made by hand--from scratch--to the measurements and eccentricities of a particular body. More than that, it depends on the artistry (even genius) of the fitter. A "perfect fit" in the eyes of a lesser master (your local dressmaker on Pico Boulevard, for instance) could make you look like a stuffed potato or a dowager queen. But Venet and his French colleagues are the acknowledged gurus of fit; their dresses "float" on the body in a way that creates a kind of world-class elegance for the wearers.
Venet also designs less costly ready-to-wear clothes, which can be bought off the rack at shops such as Martha and Sara Fredricks in New York and Palm Beach, Fla. But he admits that couture is his true love.
"In ready-to-wear, I must think about price, about how the garments will look on hangers. And I must make a size 10 that fits every woman who is size 10, whether she's short or tall, no matter what her body structure. So I must construct the clothes differently.
"A couture dress, on the other hand, looks like nothing on the hanger," he says.
"It is very soft, with little detail, because the fit is what makes it exceptional. A woman must feel her body underneath the garment," he explains. (Venet's customers have one or two fittings for their clothes, which take about four weeks to make.)
In Venet's opinion, the twice-yearly formal couture shows on which journalists report are something of an irony because "the clothes never fit the models who wear them." In fact, he adds, the models usually arrive minutes before the big show and do their stint in dresses they have never even tried on before.
The designer shuddered, standing in his room at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, as he watched the videotape of his recent spring/summer show in Paris. The clothes, he complained, did not fit the models on the runway. But it was possibly his best collection ever, and certainly the one that received noisiest media approval. For it, he was voted winner of the 18th annual Gold Thimble French Haute Couture Award, bestowed by international newspaper and TV fashion writers on the designer who had "the best collection."
Venet said his customers include Jacqueline Onassis, Mica Ertegun, Nan Kempner, Annette Reed, "all the Peabodys," Libby Keck, Mary Lasker, Terry Allen Kramer and her daughter Angela, Princess Sonja of Norway, Queen Noor of Jordan and dozens of other top-drawer names in America, Europe and Asia.
His clients, he said, are "the same types" all over the world. "When I go to a party, I see the same type of people wearing the same types of clothes and jewelry--no matter whether the party is in New York, Jordan, Germany or Japan."
Party in His Honor
While Venet was in Los Angeles, New York-based philanthropist Mary Lasker gave a party for 80 people in his honor at the Bistro Gardens in Beverly Hills. Among the guests were Mr. and Mrs. Danny Kaye, Mr. and Mrs. Dennis Stanfill, Mr. and Mrs. Larry Hagman, Mr. and Mrs. Kirk Douglas, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Ziffren, Jennifer (Mrs. Norton) Simon, Olive Behrendt and Eppy Leder (Ann Landers).
After 24 years as head of his own couture house and a history that includes an apprenticeship with Cristobal Balenciaga and a partnership with Hubert de Givenchy, Venet admitted that he is still "the workhorse" of his firm. He not only designs, selects fabrics and fits, he said, but he also cuts every toile (pattern) himself.
"If you want to look good, it's a question of a quarter of an inch in the right place," he said.
And Venet knows where the right place is.