#1358 Arena of the absurd – my Haute Couture feature for The Dominion Post

Just six rows in front of me sits Anna Wintour, venerable editor-in-chief of American Vogue and star of fashion’s favourite doco-film, The September Issue. To her right, the fiery haired Grace Coddington, Wintour’s creative lieutenant. To her left, Blake Lively, in town to shoot a few summer episodes of teen megadrama Gossip Girl. Fellow Gossip Girl-er Leighton Meester is placed a little way along, with French actress (and Harry Potter seductress) Clemence Posey. Other members of note in the front row include Daphne Guinness (ultimate fashionista and heiress to the Irish beer and banking fortune), supermodels Natalia Vodianova and Milla Jovovich and Hollywood starlet Jessica Alba. It’s day two of Paris’ Haute Couture Fashion Week, and the Chanel show is about to begin.

Make no mistake, all those famous ladies are a sight to behold. But eclipsing their moment is a rather large catwalk centrepiece. It’s a golden lion guarding a single white pearl. The word ‘towering’ doesn’t do this statue justice. It’s like a small planet.

A show of this magnitude is a costly exercise. There’s the set (golden lions don’t come cheap); then the models, all of whom are big-name girls; and finally the clothes themselves. Every season a huge amount of criticism is thrown at the luxury houses for continuing to pump money into what is essentially a dying art – for an absurdly privileged few. The relevance of Haute Couture is a constant debate. In this era of economic recession and fast fashion, what place remains for a $100,000 dress that takes 40 experts 1000 hours to create?

It’s said that there are 500 couture clients left in the world, and 150 of them come to see the shows in person. The rest enjoy private appointments with the designers behind gilded doors. But there are no shortages of people amping to go to the Haute Couture presentations. Celebrities, media, friends, family, hangers-on… Each has their place, each serves a purpose.

The right kind of celebrity at an Haute Couture show is a win-win situation all around. The star enjoys the cachet that comes from her association with a luxury brand; if approved, she’ll be allowed to borrow dresses for upcoming red carpet events; and if she’s particularly lucky, there’s always the possibility of a profitable fragrance contract. The designers gets extra column inches. Celebrities add hype, hype sells papers. The best-use-of-a-celebrity-for-hype award goes to Jean Paul Gaultier this season – he had Dita Von Teese perform a striptease routine on the catwalk, in the middle of the show.

With such a small number of women willing (and able) to purchase couture, a good or bad catwalk review from even the most prominent fashion critic isn’t going to hinder or help sales of the gowns. Yet the media still plays a crucial role in the fashion food chain. You see, it’s not all about selling beautiful dresses to wealthy ladies. An Haute Couture show helps to create a brand. It allows a fashion house to showcase its creative vision – its essence – which is then mass-disseminated by the magazines, the newspapers, the TV stations, to the world. That much-publicised ‘essence’ of a brand is then repackaged and sold as accessible items like sunglasses, cosmetics and perfume. ‘Buy our scent and capture the elegance, the society, the glamour of the highest fashion.’

Finally, there are the clients, the women who actually purchase the dresses. They’re easy to spot. Generally middle eastern, always in the front row, dripping with jewels and the designer’s creations, their outfits worth more than your average New Zealand house. But even they’re making less frequent appearances. Safety is a concern (a woman who can afford to drop hundreds of thousands of dollars on a single dress is a kidnapper’s dream), as is discretion – not every buyer of Haute Couture wants her photo splashed all over the gossip rags. Though, granted, that is an oxymoronic statement in itself. Any woman willing to wear an Haute Couture dress is asking for attention.

To cater for those more ‘private’ customers, Givenchy chose an intimate salon presentation over a show this season. Invited guests were given the opportunity to see and touch the clothes on hanging mannequins, while models walked from room to room. Perhaps in a sign of the times, Christian Dior scaled back on venue, showing in a marquee on the Musee Rodin grounds – in past seasons the house was known to take over entire palaces. It didn’t stop the celebs from arriving in flocks – the aforementioned Hollywood starlets all showed up, plus a yellow-mohawked Jared Leto with Olivier Zahm.

But neither Givenchy nor Dior scrimped on their collections. Inspired by Latin American festival The Day Of The Dead, Givenchy showed 10 intricately detailed looks, embellished with skeleton-esque boning, feathers and gold. Christian Dior’s colourful gowns burst with shape and life like blossoming bulbs – designer John Galliano looked to nature and flowers for inspiration.

And there’s no scaling back at Chanel. Karl Lagerfeld seems to be catering for every possible client this season. Tweedy suits and conservative coats for the more mature woman, fur trimming for the oligarch, painterly floral prints for the artiste, sheer silks for the young and sexy. And for a little bit of theatre, a bridegroom wearing a lion head. Jessica Alba seems to have particularly enjoyed that last bit. Just metres away from me she poses for photos with friends, claws up, growling like a wild cat.

Now, just in case you were thinking all those clients value their discretion, a crowd of hundreds gasps as Ms. Guinness – in a silver gown slit to the hip – hops on the back of a motorcycle and roars off to her next engagement. I just hope she knows it’s not machine washable.

(This article came out in the July 17 edition of The Dominion Post.)


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