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Fashion for the few casts its spell in Paris

Paris — Only a handful of women in the world can afford it, and designers make little if any money from it, but haute couture never fails to cast a magic spell over the realm of fashion.

Starting next Monday, no fewer than 20 houses will be sending out their latest one-off creations over three days of exclusive haute couture shows that get underway in the French capital.

Joining such venerable names as Chanel, Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier and Givenchy will be newcomers Alexandre Vauthier (a favourite of R&B star Rihanna), Maxime Simoens and Julien Fournie.

Italy’s Valentino and Giorgio Armani Prive will be present as well, together with Elie Saas and Rabih Kayrouz from Lebanon.

“An haute couture dress is never expensive enough,” said fashion industry consultant Donald Potard, and to the few hundred women who can indulge themselves, the appeal of a one-of-a-kind creation is undeniable.

A unique creation from a young designer is never less than 15,000 euros (20,000 dollars); double that figure for something from a big-name house. Wedding dresses can go for 120,000 euros or more.

“All it takes is some embroidery from the very best workshop to add 45,000 to the bill,” said young couturier Alexis Mabille.

Haute couture exists only in Paris, where it is a legally protected appellation subject to strict criteria such as the amount of work carried out by hand, the limited number of pieces and the size of a house’s workforce.

Every six months, haute couture houses get together to decide who can join their ranks.

While the carefully choreographed shows are magnets for the fashion press, many buyers — from all corners of the world, with a significant number from Asia and the Middle East — prefer to be discreet.

At salons such as Jean Paul Gaultier’s elegant quarters in Paris, clients have their own personal mannequin on which their chosen designs can be painstakingly made. The final product can take hundreds of hours to complete.

Few in number, buyers of haute couture nevertheless vary in age and background. “Don’t think they are all chic elderly ladies,” says luxury industry consultant Jean-Jacques Picart.

“Is there something for me?” is a question that Claude Mialaud, director of haute couture at Jean Paul Gaultier, hears often.

She previously held the same job at Yves Saint-Laurent for 15 years and typically travels outside France about 15 times per season to privately show the collection; she also greets clients privately in Paris.

“They do not want to be seen. They prefer to be discrete, which gives them a certain mystery,” she explains.

Mialaud’s travels find her in New York, the Gulf, Switzerland, Spain and Hong Kong, accompanied by one or two seamstresses who can perfect the creation on the body of the woman who will ultimately wear it.

Some details on a design can be altered — sleeves added, for instance, or a hemline changed. But Mialaud is duty-bound to reveal if an haute couture dress has been sold to someone else.

“There are women,” she says, “who cannot risk finding themselves meeting someone else in the same dress.”

Among those making their haute couture debuts in Paris, Vauthier, 39, previously worked at Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier.

Simoens, 26, a favourite of many French fashion editors, founded his own house in 2008 after working for Jean Paul Gaultier, Christian Dior and Balenciaga, while Fournie, 35, used to be artistic director for Torrente.

Gersende Rambourg / AFP / Expatica