Jul 26, 2008

Columnists - Vir Sanghvi

The real deal about Haute Couture

Have you ever wondered, when you see pictures of models on the ramp: “Which normal person wears these clothes?” As the Paris and New York fashion shows have got more and more outrageous, it is a valid question. After all, these shows are organized by multibillion-dollar conglomerates which are in the business of selling garments. Shouldn’t they be more concerned with making clothes that people actually want to buy? Many ramp fashions are simply unwearable.

I was at the Christian Dior haute couture show in Paris in the first week of July and watched John Galliano, Dior’s celebrated designer and one of the fashion world’s most outrageous major figures, take his flamboyant bows at the end. Galliano’s clothes usually attract the who-buys-this-stuff-anyway kind of question. Even though few fashion critics dispute that he is among the world’s most talented designers, his propensity for drama and his flair for over-the-top fashion have led to questions about the commercial viability of his clothes.
I discovered in Paris that the answers to those questions are more complicated than we may think. First of all, there’s the phenomenon of haute couture itself. These days only around 200 women in the whole world can afford couture, where the gowns start at over $100,000 (around Rs43 lakh). No house makes money from couture even at those prices so the shows are used for promotion and to make news.
At Dior, the couture line is an opportunity to show off Galliano’s genius rather than an attempt to sell too many clothes. This marks a shift in emphasis. In the old days there were more women who could afford couture (which was less expensive because skilled labour was cheaper) and Christian Dior (the man, not the brand) made his reputation as a couturier. His successors (and former protégés) Yves Saint Laurent and Marc Bohan kept to the same approach.
But by the time Bernard Arnault took over Christian Dior in the 1980s, couture was dying and the house was in decline. He sacked Bohan and hired the more contemporary-minded Gianfranco Ferre. But while Ferre’s clothes were trendier, he never pleased the old couture customers or made a mark on the ready-to-wear market.
Dior was revived only after Galliano’s appointment in 1996. The shows made news internationally because of their flamboyant presentation. And because the clothes themselves were such masterpieces of design, the fashion press finally offered Dior the respect that it had withheld for decades.

But who bought the couture clothes? Well, first of all, they didn’t need to sell all of them. Many were meant only to make a splash on the ramp. Secondly, they aren’t all quite as outrageous as they seem on the catwalk. Many can be tweaked or worn differently so that they seem less shocking. For instance, some of the outfits at the Paris show this year seemed to leave panties worryingly visible. But if the gowns were worn with slips (which, of course, they were not on the ramp), then the panties easily were hidden and the gowns suddenly seemed less shocking.
Even within the couture range, considerations of commerce are rarely absent. When Galliano conceives of his collection, he takes the idea to Sidney Toledano, Dior’s chief executive. The actual designing does not begin till Toledano has signed off on the vision. Then, before the dresses are made, Toledano is shown versions of each dress cut in simple white fabric so that the corporate side can have its say.
Like all houses, Dior is shifty about revealing what inputs Toledano gives Galliano. But can it be an accident that the collections always follow the mood of the times? At times of prosperity, Galliano is outrageous and exuberant, knowing that people will buy clothes they don’t really need or which they can only wear once. When the public mood is more sombre, the clothes are less shocking and more subdued so that people can buy classic looks that will last forever. This year’s collection was brilliant but, given the fears about the health of the global economy, it was also much more wearable and timeless.
For all fashion houses, the big money lies in accessories (handbags etc.) and fragrances (though Dior Perfumes is a separate company). But the ready-to-wear lines are also expected to turn a healthy profit. Those clothes are shown separately and though they may draw inspiration from the couture, they have their own — more commercial—identity. When most people say they are wearing Dior or Chanel, it is the ready-to-wear lines they are referring to, not the super-expensive couture (I’ve met only one woman in India in the last few years who had a couture gown made — and she paid in excess of 100,000 euro or Rs68 lakh) for a single dress at Chanel).
The genesis of the ready-to-wear line, which is rarely as outrageous as couture, is very different. Before Galliano starts designing, he will consult with a delegation from the commercial side. They will tell him what sold well last season and what did not; how many jackets they need and how many dresses; whether the line has become too focused on gowns; whether more working women are coming in to buy office clothes etc.
After he has all this information, Galliano will design the clothes. And even then, the commercial side will be consulted on the designs before the garments are made for the show. Once the clothes have been shown on the catwalk at the ready-to-wear shows and buyers have said which ones they like, only then will Dior decide how many pieces of each garment it needs to produce.
My previous experience of Paris haute couture had been at Chanel where the couture line is not dramatically different from the ready-to-wear collection. But watching the Dior show and talking to Toledano the next day, I realized how complicated the business of fashion really is.

The next time you see a photo of some outrageous Galliano creation and wonder “who would wear that?”, don’t worry about Dior’s commercial prospects. They don’t want very many of us to wear the couture clothes. They are just happy that we noticed them at all

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