I was an undercover client: Long live the haute couture
written by Debra Scherer
Illustration by Jean-Philippe Delhomme for Vogue Paris
So many have written the practice of Haute Couture off, calling it outdated, unnecessary, outmoded and the worst insult imaginable in the fashion world, old. Of course it makes no sense. Here we are, listening to mass market product producing corporations calling everything from suits to sandwiches “bespoke” and the actual word “couture” has as much meaning left to it as “friend” and “like.” Yes, it a different world; a world where Donatella and Karl design for the dreaded H & M, and many of the great fashion designers have been lost and replaced with creative directors that may as well be game show contestants. Yet, could the few French houses still practicing these dark arts still make beautiful and strong gestures in the manners of costume, flexing their “petit mains” and showing the style world who’s boss?
When I was an editor at French Vogue in Paris, John Galliano was at Dior and Alexander Mcqueen was at Givenchy and the Haute Couture was still something really special. It was meant not only to clothe a rare few, but also to inspire the upcoming ready-to-wear season. We examined every inch, every stitch, to sort of “take the temperature” or sniff out what would soon be “in the air.” These exquisite collections were the foundations on which these houses stood, and in turn, were the aesthetic foundations for the rest of the industry in its entirety, even if only to provide that which to be against.
There was one season, as a journalist, I actually went under cover as a couture client. We were tasked at French Vogue to come up with ideas of how to represent these collections, and as the Belgian Deconstructivists were busy tearing it all down and new forces in ready-to-wear were exploding in London and Milan, everything traditional, historical and institutionally French was under attack. I thought by doing a sort of reportage about the experience itself could be a fascinating take and one even I had never really seen before. The houses were in on it and sat me with the “ladies” (who never sat with the press by the way) and I posed as an American heiress having just flown in on the Concorde, staying at The Ritz just for the collections. I attended the sweet little lunches and cocktail parties and had fitting appointments scheduled as well. To illustrate the story, the very droll and brilliant artist Jean-Philippe Delhomme posed as my husband and together I talked clothes with girls while he acted bored to death while secretly sketching and taking notes. Oh what fun we had!
The fitting appointments were the most interesting. All the measuring and the trying on! I remember a snakeskin coat McQueen had done, and the “pearl buttons” on the Chanel jackets were larger than life actual pearls. The craftsmanship and the fits were to die for and the most unexpected point of it all was that the sleeve and skirt lengths were up to you. That is where the real couturier has a leg up on a mass produced ready to wear designer. They not only have the materials and craftspeople to make any dream come true, but they also can take risks, really push an idea and go all the way there, as the client has the look made to fit her lifestyle, her set. Transparency disappears, colors change, miniskirts become below the knee. The only rule a client could not break was to own the same dress as another client who travels in the same circles and would possibly be at the same event. Then it was between the ladies to make the call between them as to who would wear what, when and in which color. Again I have to say, Oh what fun!
So, thanks to the few houses who still practice the arts and crafts of Haute Couture. The next generation needs to be inspired by more than pop culture references and complicated set design. They need to be inspired also by the sublimely beautiful shapes and drapes that only this level of workshop can produce. I dedicate this to all who dream of working in fashion. It is important for the industry. It really really is.