The clothes are sumptuous, studded with pearls and Swarovski crystals; the sets are lavish, featuring Busby Berkeley-style choreography in enchanted forests and space-age discos. It’s safe to say that the twice-yearly couture shows, currently taking place in Paris, are quite the spectacle. The prices are as gobsmacking as the dresses: a made-to-measure ballgown could easily cost the same as a Rolls-Royce; a blouse might be the price of an apartment in Madrid. Which begs the question: assuming that very few would spend six figures on a frock, what is the point of couture?
Just as car manufacturers show off their expertise through the creation of supercars, fashion designers use couture as a statement of strength and technical ability. Entry to the schedule is strictly policed by the Chambre de commerce et d'industrie de Paris – in order to become a couture designer, fashion houses must meet stringent guidelines, including having a Paris-based atelier with more than 20 staff. Couture is a showcase for a designer’s most outrageous ideas, where budget is no limit to ambition. It is also an expression of financial muscle. Versace, for example, almost collapsed during the recession of the early 2000s, and stopped showing couture for eight years. When it returned to the schedule, in 2012, the brand was perceived as being back in rude health. In short, couture designers are the creme de la creme; fashion’s richest, most accomplished top dogs.
Given that most luxury houses make the bulk of their profits not through clothes but through handbags, wallets and perfume, does the glory justify the expense and hours of labour? The couture houses would argue that it does. Until recently, couture clothing was only really visible to the masses during awards season: think of Angelina’s leg and its attendant Versace dress at the Oscars, or Jennifer Lawrence pratfalling in Dior. But in the age of social media, when the day’s most fantastical images are hashtagged and tweeted and Instagrammed around the world, the sparkle and glamour created by couture shows has an ever greater footprint. And so couture has become ever more likely to spark trends. In January, for example, Chanel – the spiritual home of the quilted ballet pump – sent models including Cara Delevingne down the runway in trainers and sparkling kneepads during its couture show. The look reflected a broader interest in fashion sportswear on the high street and precipitated a trend for trainers on womenswear and menswear catwalks for the rest of the year.
And finally, in the age of the global super-rich, couture really does sell. Sales of Chanel’s most recent collection – spring/summer 2014 – rose by 20%, while Valentino is projecting growth of 30-35% for couture in 2014, according to fashion trade magazine WWD. The same magazine reports that the average age of Dior’s couture customer has fallen, from mid 40s to early 30s, a change Dior’s chief executive attributes to the rise of rich, tech-savvy customers in burgeoning markets including China, Russia and the Middle East. The point of couture is clear: it’s all about glory, pizzazz and the bottom line.
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