French fashion has evolved from exclusive haute couture for the very rich to affordable high-street style, writes Agnès C. Poirier
Very few women today can boast of having their measurements discreetly stored at one of Paris’s haute couture houses – and the clientele going for private fittings in grand 19th-century salons at each new collection is dwindling to dangerously low levels.
Long gone is the time when, just after the war, sophisticated and wealthy ladies could choose their winter and spring wardrobes from more than a hundred maisons de couture. In 2004, there were only a dozen of them left, among them Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Gaultier, Lacroix and Lanvin. And of those, only two grand couturiers are still alive: Christian Lacroix and Jean-Paul Gaultier.
And yet in people’s minds throughout the world, France is inseparable from couture, fashion and style. Paris’s latest trends are as scrutinised by international fashion editors as the white smoke above St Peter’s in Rome is by a billion Roman Catholics at each new pope’s election.
Of course, Paris is no more the only fashion Mecca in the world. In the last four decades, the French capital has had to share the limelight with, among others, Milan, New York and, more recently, London. Ambitious students who want to become fashion designers are as likely to choose to study at Central Saint Martins in London, Bunka in Tokyo, La Cambre in Brussels or Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts as at Studio Bercot in Paris.
Only 2,200 seamstresses are employed in the whole of haute couture and it is estimated that no more than 2,000 women in the world are regular customers
In the last 15 years, London alone has given the world famous designers such as John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo. However, every single one of them had to undergo the inevitable Paris rite of passage, making their debuts and rising through the ranks, respectively, at Dior, Givenchy, Chloé and Céline, which is what truly made them international stars. Such is the aura of French fashion.
LIFE AND DEATH
“If a seam is not quite right, that is a matter of life and death,” Ginette Spanier, the head of Pierre Balmain’s maison for 30 years, once said. Attention to the most intricate of details and sophistication in all things are probably what always set French fashion apart, even before couture was born in the mid-nineteenth century.
During the Ancien Régime, style was as vital as wit. Anyone devoid of either would not go very far at the Court of Versailles. Famous courtesans, such as Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s official mistress, owed their power as much to their intelligence as to their dress sense and style. When inventing new dresses, Rose Bertin, Marie-Antoinette’s personal designer, nicknamed France’s “minister for fashion” by the Queen’s inner circle, was inspired by architecture, painting and music; her creations were copied all across Europe.
In 1867, Englishman Charles Frederick Worth opened his first maison in Paris where fashion was a quest for both beauty and uniqueness. Made by hand from start to finish, with exquisite fabrics, following complex designs, requiring the most expert of seamstresses and skilled technicians, French couture became known for being, literally, priceless. Like oeuvres d’art.
It should be no surprise, then, that to this day the term haute couture is protected by law and its rules are so clearly defined. The term requires the design of made-to-measure garments for private clients with personal fittings, a Paris workshop dedicated to dressmaking and tailoring with a minimum of 20 full-time skilled technicians, and finally the public showing of two collections a year comprising 50 original designs each, including both day and formal evening wear.
In its heyday, a leading house such as Dior retained hundreds of seamstresses in a dozen workrooms in Paris; in 1951, Dior alone accounted for 5 per cent of France’s export revenue. Today only 2,200 petites mains or seamstresses are employed in the whole of haute couture and it is estimated that no more than 2,000 women in the world are regular customers. With some clothes taking up to 700 hours to create, simple daywear starts around £8,000 a piece while elaborate, unique evening dresses made of metres of precious and rare fabrics cost even more.
READY TO WEAR
In order to survive, maisons de couture diversified their activities and designed prêt-à-porter or ready-to-wear collections while also expanding into cosmetics, fragrances, shoes and accessories. They could thus generate much-needed revenue and reinvest some of it in their costly couture high art.
Since the 1940s, however, many brands have had to close down their haute couture departments and concentrate exclusively on prêt-à-porter. But this loss in prestige didn’t stifle fashion designers’ creativity, it simply made it more democratic. From the grand salons’ fitting rooms for the aristocracy to the high street and its gamines, a breath of fresh air flowed through France’s fashion world.
Today French ready-to-wear is in rude health. In the last ten years, Britain has seen a new wave of French brands invading its high streets, proudly joining the veteran and yet ageless agnès b. British women, including Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and model-cum-TV presenter Alexa Chung, have fallen for those designers who have been branded “chic rock’n’roll” at affordable prices: Maje, Sandro, Zadig & Voltaire, Comptoir des Cotonniers.
The Kooples may not sound very French, but don’t be fooled. They are quintessentially Gallic with their long biker jackets and tailored skinny black trousers. The look is classy Parisian: classic with an edge, classy-sexy or, in other words, well-cut basics with an unmistakable French twist, be it leather or satin.
An uncanny flair for looking effortlessly sophisticated is the French secret to style in fashion. Oblivious to the fashion magazines’ seasonal diktats, self-assured, imposing one’s personality rather than trying to conform to archetypes, often rebellious, quirky at times, French style and French fashion are about being carefree and having character.
Jean-Paul Gaultier, the 62-year-old enfant terrible of French fashion, who organically rose from prêt-à-porter in 1976 to haute couture in 1997, has the first UK retrospective of his work showing at London’s Barbican. Having already toured in eight other capital cities, this exhibition or “theatrical installation” as it is also referred to, has so far been seen by one million fashion lovers.
How fitting to show Gaultier’s genius in London, the capital of a country he adores, from where he adopted tartan, kilts, camouflage, ripped denim and Doc Martens to reappropriate them in a uniquely French way – chic and smart.
Gaultier is probably the most whimsical and humorous of French designers. Unlike many others in the French fashion industry, he’s never taken himself seriously. His humour in all things, in his life and work, disturbed French critics at the beginning of his career. Was he a provocateur, amuseur or genius? They now know he’s all three.
Here is an artist who combines high camp with high art. Dressing men in skirts and women in men’s clothes, Madonna in his famous corset with its conical bra and Kylie Minogue in a flowing chiffon gown surrounded by angel wings and topless sailors has made his style instantly recognisable. Not to mention his presenting Eurotrash on TV, alongside Antoine de Caunes, on Channel 4 in the mid-1990s. Irreverence, transgression and playfulness are key words to understanding fashion à la Gaultier.
The Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk is at London’s Barbican until August 25