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It can be out of touch and mega-expensive, but haute couture is what keeps the art in fashion.


French haute couture, that institution of handmade high fashion and even higher prices, has had more near-death experiences than that of a soap opera star.

It's clearly not dead, judging from the sublime displays of design and craftsmanship that came down 26 runways in Paris this week. But as an institution, it has changed. At best, the couture collections are examples of high art; at worst, they're money-losing businesses that exist to mollify egos of buyers and sellers alike.

A new debate about the future of the 134-year-old institution mesmerized fashion this week when one of its most important members, Yves Saint Laurent, retired with a touching retrospective of his 40-year career. His longtime business partner, Pierre Berge, sparked the heated controversy earlier this month when he declared , "I believe absolutely in the end of haute couture. This way of life no longer exists." Saint Laurent's departure leaves only 11 full-fledged members in the couture ranks.

Couture is many things--exclusive, excessive and exquisite. Often called the laboratory of fashion, it exists as one of the industry's most extraordinary contradictions. By reverently adhering to time-consuming and often antiquated construction methods, its practitioners guarantee the future of the art form. Yet as it strives to be artistic, the clothes can become increasingly out of touch with clients' needs.

When the creative minds of designers no longer find a value in elaborate embroidery, sumptuous fabrics or clothes cut and tailored for an individual client, then couture's traditions and hope for a future will vanish.

"The purpose of couture is the search for the best in quality workmanship, in construction and in fabric," said Kalman Ruttenstein, senior vice president for fashion direction at Bloomingdale's, who attended this week's shows. "It's the top of the line in design as well."

French couture remains the world's most prestigious clothing enterprise partly because it comes with a long history that includes dressing an international array of royalty. Parisian haute couture was founded in 1868 as an outgrowth of medieval guilds which regulated the operations of the city's couturiers, including the influential Charles Frederick Worth, who was the first to sell designs that were copied in the United States. Nearly 100 years after it began, however, couture started to lose ground to ready-to-wear as designers, including Saint Laurent, shifted their emphasis to the less expensive collections beginning in the 1970s.

Despite periodic predictions of its demise, couture perseveres. It remains as designers' only purely artistic exercise because it allows them to create without the pressure of commercial constraints--broad acceptance and, often, profitability. Saint Laurent's couture house reportedly lost $11 million a year. Though the collections may not support themselves from the sales of a few dozen ensembles that sell from $25,000 to $100,000 each, executives believe couture is the gem that shines glamour, prestige and distinction on the profitable parts of the brand--fragrance, cosmetics, jeans and ready-to-wear.

The twice-yearly couture presentations used to guarantee a respite from the crass commercialism and circus atmosphere that has turned the ready-to-wear shows into a bizarre form of entertainment. Yet during the recent four-day round of couture, that feeling was obscured by new kinds of mayhem, which included protesters from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who interrupted three of the spring (and furless) shows.

Long-absent superstar models such as Carla Bruni and Ines de la Fressange, returned to the catwalks and shared headlines with an ever-odder fleet of celebrity guests. This season's bold-type names included Chelsea Clinton, Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Madonna, Sheryl Crow and a ubiquitous Gwyneth Paltrow, who was providing a celebrity-eye-view of the collections for a future In Style magazine piece.

"It's good PR for the designers and the stars," said James Galanos, a retired Los Angeles couture designer who shared customers with many of Europe's top names.

"It's all show. The taste is not there," he said, noting that couture's traditional customers still want what it can offer. "They don't give up that lifestyle. They are crying that they can't find clothes in the retail stores. That is why they go back to the couture. Everything else is geared to a 20-year-old."

They'll pay dearly for the privilege of dressing elegantly. "I have a friend who spent $45,000 for a suit," Galanos said. "She ordered a pair of pants to match, and they charged her $30,000." A simple suit can cost $25,000, while elaborately embroidered evening gowns can cost $75,000 to more than $200,000.

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