All about the atelier

It’s possible we’re thinking about this all wrong – this being the now-shrunk-to-three-days-with-only-six-full-fledged-couture-brands couture shows. It’s possible we’re asking the wrong questions. It’s possible that, instead of perennially rending our garments and plunging into the long tunnel of debate over whether couture is relevant in a not-entirely-post-recession 21st century, we should reconsider our assumptions. It’s possible we should look at this the way the Musée d’Orsay does.

After all, if you walk by that cultural institution these days, the most noticeable item on the large swathe of its façade that faces the Seine is not a poster announcing the upcoming Gustav Mahler show but an advertisement featuring a large (2,890 sq ft) sequinned Chanel perfume bottle. When asked about it by various offended citizens, up in arms about the muddying of high culture with consumerism, the museum’s chiefs simply shrugged: they needed the money. Their budgets and state funding had been cut and in order to keep the exhibits of the highest quality they turned to fashion. Tant pis.

So maybe we should forget the elitism couture represents – the idea that it is for only 200 or so of the richest people in the world, and the rest of us get perfume – forget that up in Davos it’s this sort of chasm the big thinkers were tackling, and think instead about the economic benefits it involves: all the petits mains, or seamstresses, it keeps employed (and whose skills would not be transferable if couture disappeared, because most of their roles, when it comes to ready-to-wear, are performed by machines). After all, if you think about it that way, it transforms how you see the shows.

If you think about it that way, for example, the visual extremism of the Christian Dior show, where designer John Galliano was inspired by mid-century illustrator René Gruau to create exaggerated 1950s and 1960s shapes as exacting in their detail as a line drawing – new look jackets with bristling wide skirts; strapless feather evening sheaths ballooning at the knee and then trailing languidly beneath; silk and tulle gowns tacked to the body’s curves at the front and framed by a train at the back – becomes less about being hard to wear (how do you fit through a door in a dress that size?) than about the work that goes into them: the hours and hours it takes to realise such garments.

And you can appreciate that, and stop wondering why a woman of today would want to look like a caricature, even an extremely beautiful one, of yesterday. Then, likewise, the futurism of Armani Privé, which featured light-reflective, metallic fabrics in jackets, skirts and leggings, and some startling geometries (long columns seemingly sliced between the ribs and the hips, and then reconnected by a swathe of skin-tight contrasting fabric so the two parts appeared to move on their own, independent of the body, and the eye was drawn to the mid-section) becomes more about the challenge of engineering such fabric forms than concerns about which woman really wants her midsection to be the focal point of an outfit. And it seems less important that the red carpet dreams of Elie Saab – all lace and crystal, beaded and encrusted – are so unabashedly MGM, and more important that they clearly take so much effort, or what you could think of as billable hours.

It is, after all, the workmanship (and workers) that has always been at the heart of couture; it’s the reason the clothes are so expensive and why people are willing to pay those prices. It just hasn’t always been so obvious – indeed, for a long time, it wasn’t supposed to be, the work was supposed to be invisible, so the perfection of certain garments seemed like magic. These days, however, perhaps to justify its existence, couture seems to think it has to hit you in the face: see what we can do!

At least most of the time; there are still dissenters, such as Valentino’s team of Pier Paolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri, and Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, all of whom believe couture should be what Chiuri calls “a private luxury”. To that end, the most time-consuming, complicated dresses at Valentino actually seemed the simplest: cream-coloured day dresses with all-over diamond piping or open-ladder inserts tracing a seam (each pipe was rolled by hand and individually attached); ditto Givenchy, where Tisci has abandoned catwalk shows in favour of, yes, private presentations, and where the work in a dress that took 4,000 hours to make – cream-on-beige matte sequins painting a winged, curve-hugging sheath on a single piece of tulle – was visible only up close, as were the 28 layers of paper-thin chiffon that made up a millefeuille neckline on another gown, flat at first and opening gradually as a woman walks (the designer was inspired by Japanese butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno, and origami).

Yet the net results at both shows were clothes that looked, somehow, ineffably, better – the kind of better that most people would be hard-pressed to explain, just as they might not be able to explain why a dress like that cost so much until they felt it on. And if why it isn’t obvious, in a world as noisy and full of distraction as this world, how can you trust consumers to understand – or the number of consumers needed to keep the ateliers in business?

You can gamble, or you can settle on a middle ground. This is the approach of Jean Paul Gaultier, who can cut a tuxedo jacket with indecipherable elegance but tends to mix his understated expertise with the occasional Carmen Miranda ruffle and Barbra Streisand beaded pyjama for look-at-me effect (this time he closed with a male bride – the androgynous It person of the moment – and a cancan dancer). Also Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, who alternated eye-popping takes on contemporary life such as embroidered tulle jeans and beaded T-shirts with heavier, more ornate crystal evening coats and sheath dresses, the first so feather-light and delicate they seemed to float off the body, the second rooted in visible manual labour, both to make and to wear. Those clothes are heavy.

Yet, though the first are the pieces for the connoisseur, the second have a purpose not to be dismissed. In the end, this isn’t just about aesthetics but supporting an atelier. After the past two years, we all should be able to appreciate that.

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