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Fashion's High Art Hits a Low

Ingun Arnold (win)
July 8, 2004

Handcrafted luxury gowns are no longer en vogue: Only eight Paris fashion houses are participating in the current haute couture shows as demand for the unique creations has dropped over the past few years.

Bye-bye, haute couture: Models applaud at Hanae Mori's last showImage: AP

Fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent once described haute couture as "whispered secrets passed on from generation to generation." He's since pulled out of the business of selling deluxe dresses -- just like many of his colleagues.

Yves Saint Laurent Haute Couture in gelb
Yves Saint Laurent's 2002 farewell showImage: AP

Long gone are the days, when fabulously rich ladies ordered haute couture outfits by the dozen. The value of brands is all that's left of the "high art of tailoring."

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months," Oscar Wilde, the Irish dandy and writer, remarked more than a century ago. He was talking about prêt-a-porter collections, i.e. ready-to-wear, mass-produced clothing, for which haute couture remains the trend-setter.

Cheap advertising

As a source of income, haute couture itself has become meaningless and only accounts for about 3 percent of revenues.

Versace for the massesImage: KölnMesse

But the luxury lines are the perfect advertising gimmick: Cosmetics, perfumes and accessories are sold by evoking the image of a brand's star creations.

"Producing such a collection costs less money than a global advertising campaign," said Didier Grumbach, president of the French fashion association, the Federation Francaise de la Couture. Fashion houses still invest between €500,000 ($617,000) and €2 million to put on a 20-minute haute couture show.

Those that keep doing it, that is: During its heydays in the 1950s, 23 Paris fashion houses presented haute couture collections -- soon only seven will be left: Chanel, Christian Dior, Christian Lacroix, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Louis Scherrer, Dominique Sirop and Torrente.

Japanese fashion designer Hanae Mori, 78, the first foreigner to be admitted into French fashion's governing body, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, showed her last collection on Wednesday.

Hochzeitsmesse in Zürich
No-name bridal gowns at a wedding showImage: AP

"Haute couture no longer responds to the needs of today's women," Emanuel Ungaro said when announcing his decision to drop designing luxury dresses and devote his entire attention to prêt-a-porter collections instead.

A globalized fashion world

Ungaro is now longer his own master, anyway: Back in 1996, the Italian fashion concern Salvatore Ferragamo -- producer of luxury shoes, bags, accessories, watches and perfumes -- had already taken over the brand.

Louis Vuitton Laden Schaufenster
Jennifer Lopez isn't the only who likes Louis Vuitton bagsImage: dpa

Christian Dior, Christian Lacroix and Givenchy on the other hand all belong to the world's largest luxury conglomerate, LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy), which still sells some haute couture in select boutiques. The company's revenues come mainly from the sale of wine, liquor, prêt-a-porter fashion and leather goods.

Hermes, synonymous with high-end accessories and perfumes, holds 35 percent of shares of Jean-Paul Gaultier. Yves Saint Laurent has been taken over by Sanoli. Jean-Louis Scherrer left his company after 30 years when Seibu from Japan took over.

Versace has also dropped haute couture for a pragmatic reason: After losses in 2002, the company simply didn't have enough money to put on a show.

Balmain fashion house, founded in 1914, is bankrupt but still hopes for a revival. Givenchy has nothing to offer, because the company is still looking for a successor for its former British chief designer, Julien Macdonald.

Faking it

"The dress must not hang on the body but follow its lines," Madelein Vionnet, grande dame of French fashion, once said about her work. "It must accompany its wearer and when a woman smiles, the dress must smile with her."

Haute couture remains unique and any standardization is strictly taboo: It's fashion that beautifies drooping shoulders, hides crane-like necks and creates the perfect décolleté.

Hennes & Mauritz Laden in Brüssel Schaufenster
Hennes & Mauritz store in BrusselsImage: presse

But the luxury comes at a steep price: Day dresses cost about €15,000, an evening gown starts at €35,000. Is it worth that? Even the super rich have begun to get stingy and turn to small tailors who will copy the original for a fraction of the price.

Fashion discounters such as Zara and H&M also look at the collections for inspiration. Grumbach of the Federation Francaise de la Couture bemoans the development -- but there's very little he can do to keep it from happening.