To hear Didier Grumbach, president of the Fédération Française de la Couture, tell the story, Paris haute couture is flourishing. His relentlessly upbeat comments, delivered from an impeccably smiling façade, are about as reassuring (and accurate) as the Pentagon's daily press briefing.
What is true is that Givenchy, Versace and Ungaro have pulled out of the upcoming Paris couture shows for Fall / Winter 2004-05, scheduled from July 6-9, amid strong indications that Valentino may do the same. It is also a well-known fact that both Christian Lacroix and Jean Paul Gaultier are under mounting financial pressure - in the latter case, necessitating draconian budget cuts across the board. Meanwhile, John Galliano continues to produce show-stopping pieces for Christian Dior - requiring a second rendering by couture directress Catherine Rivière before they can be fitted to the House's dwindling list of clients - while Karl Lagerfeld turns out classic pieces for Chanel destined for such youthful matrons as Bernadette Chirac. The failure of any of those remaining columns would inevitably lead to the complete structural collapse of the Federation.
And just as the debate about the future of couture was resurrected last week, Pierre Bergé was the first to jump into the latest fray with his comments to WWD. "I've always said that couture would die with Yves Saint Laurent," he insisted. "Now it's the domino effect."
While it's true that Bergé has long been a nemesis of Grumbach, who he once accused of "running the North America division of Saint Laurent Rive Gauche into the ground", and that his penchant for brusque repartee (accusing Anna Wintour of lying down for cash) might be controversial, he's also demonstrated reliable insight into fashion and its future. After all, he first became a gauche caviar millionaire by recognizing Yves' burgeoning talent, then co-founding the House of Saint Laurent in 1961.
So have times completely changed? That was a question put to me recently at the bar of the Hôtel de Crillon by Alber Elbaz. "When I was in New York just after September 11," the designer recalled. "The one good thing I thought might come of the disaster was a change in people's behavior. I remember going out to buy some bagels, and the deli guy said 'here just take them for free'. But it seems like that sort of kindness was short lived. And in Tel Aviv everybody has gone crazy, having sex and doing drugs like there is no tomorrow. But for fashion, everything has completely changed since the 90s. That was all about sex, and at the end sadomasochism, which isn't sex, it's domination. Now it's about women being smart. And part of that is living with chronic uncertainty."
Alber Elbaz, it might be recalled, was Bergé's handpicked successor for Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, and along with Dior Homme's Hedi Slimane, bears the official YSL stamp of approval.
By anybody's estimate, couture has run up against changing times, and in many ways the beginning of the end can be traced back to 9/11. On September 15, 2001, the New York Times published an op-ed by Frank Rich in which he observed, "this week's nightmare, it's now clear, has awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent decadelong dream, even as it dumps us into an uncertain future we had never bargained for."
Not four months later, Saint Laurent bowed out of couture, citing changing times and a beauty-less world. Now almost two and a half years down the road, the downturn in the fashion industry continues, effecting almost every ready-to-wear label, and more directly couture. Balmain filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this week after an Asian equity partner failed to honor an investment, putting future catwalk shows into jeopardy, while in the PPR consortium, overhauling debt-riddled Balenciaga and Stella McCartney are said to be top priority for new Gucci Group CEO, Robert Polet.
So, given the perennial gloom that enshrouds the fashion world, the fact that traditional couture is quickly dying should not come as any great shock. But what Alber has done with Lanvin Ready-to-Wear, of course, is to take a couture approach - his meticulous draping and the finesse of detail renders the resulting elegance indistinguishable from its noble roots. With Chloe Sevigny, Sheryl Crow, Kate Moss, Sarah Jessica Parker and Liv Tyler, and a dusting of stars on the red carpet of Cannes wearing Lanvin, Barney's record $700,000 order for Fall 2004 seems right on target.
While couture may be crumbling, there is certainly plenty of hope rising from the ruins.