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The Allure of Couture

Yes, often it's bizarre and over the top. But it's also glamorous and flashy--and that's the point. A TV special will show how the get-ups draw customers to designers' moneymakers, such as handbags and jewelry.

July 23, 1998|MIMI AVINS | TIMES FASHION WRITER

Parisian haute couture is the last bastion of a world that tries to deny that famous historical episode known as the Industrial Revolution. There is either charm or folly in that position, depending which side of the hand-embroidered, made-to-order gown you're standing on.

Until recently, the significance and future of couture, which ended five days of fall-winter shows in Paris on Wednesday, was debated among the small number of people in fashion and related businesses. As with any subculture, their affairs would ordinarily be little noted nor long remembered by the rest of the world, which tends to be more concerned with presidential peccadilloes and strategies for surviving post-"Seinfeld" ennui than with slinky bias-cut gowns worn with pearl chokers.

To the extent that fashion is a spectator sport, however, the fortunes of its major players hold the same curious fascination as celebrity romances for a select audience of voyeurs. A two-hour show to be broadcast on ABC-TV tonight will, for the first time, expose the couture to a mass television audience.

Donatella Versace's first couture collection since her brother Gianni's death and the debut of the newly appointed Yves Saint Laurent designer, American Alber Elbaz, will be among the highlights. Couture shows normally range from the sublime to the excessive. With Anastasia lost in the Amazon as inspiration at Givenchy and a Henry-VIII-meets-the-Plains-Indians theme at Dior, it's a good bet this season's crop won't disappoint the TV audience.

L.A. sports producer Terry Jastrow, a multiple Emmy winner who has produced or directed the Super Bowl as well as six Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, saw the French haute couture shows as an opportunity to present "event television for women."

Jastrow rightly sees the fashion shows as great theater.

"This isn't about buying this stuff," he said. "Less than 1% of my audience is a customer for these clothes. It's about the romance and glamour of it all."

Jastrow brought four crews to Paris to cover 21 collections and film profiles of designers and other backstage players for "The World Fashion Premiere From Paris," airing at 9 p.m. Background stories, including some segments intended to play like lively history lessons or travelogues, could help put the couture in perspective. That challenge is the key to the risk his program faces, because if viewers don't understand that couture is about much more than clothes and, in fact, has very little to do with what most women wear, they might be alienated rather than intrigued. What is presented in most couture shows bears so little resemblance to normal clothes that if the parades of eccentric outfits worn by models adorned with bizarre makeup and outlandish hairdos aren't put into context, the fingers that operate millions of remote controls might start to itch.

The program wasn't available for advance viewing because it will be delivered to the network by satellite from Paris only hours before airing. Since the shows began Saturday, Jastrow and his team have been shooting the collections during the day and editing at night.

Although millions will be able to see more of rites of Paris than ever, couture actually has a limited reach--evidence either of its importance or its irrelevance. Throughout the world, there are only 2,000 to 3,000 couture customers, so if desirability exists in direct proportion to exclusivity, it scores on that count.

Who buys it? The idle rich, the working rich, the noisy rich and the quiet, anonymous rich. Among the crowd of international press and store fashion directors, one might spot Princess Alexandra of Greece, Princess Firyal of Jordan, a baron here, a countess there, rubbing shoulders with American business tycoons like Warnaco's Linda Wachner. Celebs sometimes attend but rarely buy. Yet their presence is important to couture's image, signifying the interest of young, glamorous women, and dispelling the idea that couture customers are dinosaurs. The notion that famous faces in the front row might purchase couture gave one designer's representative a good laugh.

"Celebrities buy? You must be kidding," she said.

*

Anyone who wants to attend the shows can request an invitation. The process of actually getting one is similar to gaining membership in a country club: It helps to have a sponsor. Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, who have strong relationships with designers based on their purchase of ready-to-wear collections, will often act as liaison for valued customers. A good client in a designer's New York or Los Angeles ready-to-wear boutique would have no trouble securing an invite.

Of the 50 or more outfits in a show, only some will be sold. Elaborate evening gowns are usually ordered by one customer, if at all.

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