Paris Couture Week: Defiantly decadent
I'm guessing it's the latter. Paris Couture Week kicked off on Monday with Galliano's collection for Dior: 39 ensembles so inspired in their design, sumptuous in their fabric and flawless in their execution that they run into the tens, and even hundreds of thousands of pounds. This biannual parade of ostentation is the highlight of the fashion calendar, but the reality is that there are only a few hundred people in the world who can afford – and choose – to grace their wardrobes with these exquisite pieces.
It is for this reason that the world of haute couture is famously unaffected by economic downturns. It is kept buoyant by a relatively tiny number of people, people so wealthy that their bank balances are recession-proof. The couture shows so far, including those by Dior, Armani Priv and Chanel, have been notable in that they are no more or less showy and luxurious than normal. In short, they are evidence that haute couture exists exclusively within a fantasy bubble for the elite, and one that's not about to burst, recession or no recession.
At Chanel, ensembles were almost exclusively black and white, or should that be black or white. Most looks were head-to-toe white, with lace and frothy hemlines, making use of Chanel's iconic camellia motif.
At Dior, where Galliano cited "Flemish painters and Monsieur Dior" as his inspirations, we saw the fashion house's signature wasp waists and full skirts. Whorls of fabric were a reoccurring symbol, as were vast balloon sleeves. Dresses were unashamedly feminine and sweet in powder blue and egg-yolk yellow. Fabrics were typically sumptuous, layered in abundance and beautifully detailed and finished.
The consistent theme throughout the shows so far (indeed the one theme that has always stood firm in couture collections) was 'no expense spared'. The Dior show cost more than 2 million to stage, which may seem extravagant, but then the famous fashion house has seen a year-on-year sales increase of 35 per cent since 2007.
Dior isn't the only couture house that's enjoying healthy sales. New clients from Russia, China and the Middle East are now reported to dominate the couture market, giving its sales a boost. Givenchy is forecasting a 20 per cent increase in sales for 2009, while Chanel is boasting 20 per cent sales increases on last year. Industry insiders predict that annual increases in the double digits will continue in the haute couture sector. "The demand for very high-end products continues to be very strong," said Sidney Toledano, Dior's president. "Very rich people are not suffering from the crisis and the workshops have been very busy."
While haute couture seems stubbornly unaffected by the recession, the same can't be said for the ready-to-wear world. Fashion commentators are collectively holding their breath to see how designers of these more affordable collections will react to the downturn.
"Generally, designers are referencing the period around the Great Depression," says Fiona Jenvey, CEO of mpdclick.com, an online information source for the fashion trade. "Early indications show a sobriety based around 1929, or a more Dickensian, Victorian inspiration. Colours are dark and sombre, but there is also a brighter, more theatrical look coming through, indicating that the consumer wants to feel uplifted and entertained. The more successful collections may be those that offer a bit of parody in the face of uncertainty."
Just because "very rich people" are still spending the average person's annual salary on a single ensemble doesn't mean we have to like it, though. For the typical follower of fashion, ogling the couture shows was once akin to poring over pictures of supercars or luxury homes; we knew we couldn't afford the clothes, but boy, did we like to look at them.
However, such showy excess, frivolity and explicit displays of wealth in the current climate seem in poor taste. Reporting on Dior's collection, commentators have drawn comparisons with Marie Antoinette – certainly, the sheer obliviousness to the world's economic woes smacks of the French queen's famous suggestion that her starving subjects feast on cake.
While we're all switching to supermarket own-brand products, holidaying in the UK and rummaging in charity shops, the solution the world's top fashion designers seem to be offering to the economic crisis is "let them wear couture".
While couture is to be celebrated as an art form, it's also a business – and one that's kept afloat by the super-rich. In an age when conspicuous consumption is rapidly falling out of fashion – when even Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld, a fabled king of excess (he owns 300 iPods) has heralded "the New Modesty", albeit in the ready-to-wear sector – perhaps the only people left who are truly enamoured with couture are those who can afford to buy it.
On the other hand, there's no doubt that haute couture is the ultimate in escapism. It's pure fantasy; not only clothes that the vast majority of us cannot afford, but would find it tricky to manoeuvre in because wearing these pieces is an activity in itself. Legendary couturier Christian Lacroix once said: "Haute couture should be fun, foolish and almost unwearable."
"There's a credit crunch, not a creative crunch," stated John Galliano at the Dior show on Monday. "Of course, everyone is being more careful with their discretionary purchases. I am. But it's our job to make people dream." While this world is sustained by a tiny number of clients, it is said that the loss of just one of them could tip the financial balance in the wrong direction. Yet for now it appears pretty robust.
Come the apocalypse, one wonders if all that will remain is cockroaches and couture.