Every season, I look forward to the haute couture fashion shows. Haute couture is the closest fashion can get to art and I really enjoy the intricate garments come to live and how all the tiniest details come together at the shows to form a “Gesamtkunstwerk”. I would love to travel in time and be able to experience the early shows – at the Maison Dior in the 1950s, for example, when the mannequins walked slowly in front of a select group of customers holding a number in their hand. After the show, the customers informed the Maison which garments they would like to order and they were then made-to-measure. Until today, the couture houses not only have the exact measurements of their clients, they have a sewing torso representing the measurements. If the client gains or loses weight, the torso is adjusted.
In the realm of haute couture, every single detail is planned and executed to perfection. Until today, the majority of the process is done by hand. Needless to say, these creations are insanely expensive (6 figures are nothing out of the ordinary for one garment) given their nature and the allure of the brands. The target group of potential clients who can afford these creations is very, very small. According to Vogue Business, there are only about 4,000 haute couture clients worldwide. I remember one interview with Demna, the creative director of Balenciaga, where he reasoned that he could only create haute couture by financing it via selling thousands of ready-to-wear sneakers to the masses. (In this post, I refrain from talking about the current state of Balenciaga and my views on the brand; this would be enough material for an entire separate post.) But Demna’s comment illustrates the state of haute couture: it is extremely costly and in many cases not financially feasible anymore. Like with the case of Dior: in the 1960s, the brand had to democratise itself and entered the ready-to-wear market to survive. Similarly, many houses have recently decided to stop it entirely, like Jean Paul Gaultier in 2020. And given the current economic environment and what may lie ahead, the future of haute couture is uncertain.
In light of this overall climate, it may be understandable that designers try to approach haute couture differently, maybe even by applying marketing methods which are usually dedicated to the ready-to-wear segments. What do I mean by it? Sensationalism and viral hype/outcries.
The most recent example are the shows by labels Schiaparelli and Viktor and Rolf. The latter was all over the internet, not as much as Schiaparelli but I had the feeling it was also very present – less because of their designs but more because they made some of the models “wearing” gowns upside down or sideways. I cannot recall any specific designs, I just remember cringing because the upside-down dresses just looked like the plastic dolls McDonalds gave as gifts in their Happy Meals when I was a child. As far as I remember – haute couture celebrated craftsmanship, not some strange figures which look “interesting” on Instagram. But, obviously, the desired outcome was achieved: the show was all over the internet…
By now you may have heard of the Schiaparelli show and the surrounding controversy: Creative director Daniel Roseberry sent down three models with faux animal heads. But this was only the stepping stone for the (online) outcry. The brand hired Kylie Jenner who was photographed in a gown with a fake lion head. At first, the controversy was around the fact that the designs may glorify hunting for exotic animals. (Rosebery justified them by saying the show and collection were inspired by Dante’s “Inferno”.) But when the Jenner image appeared, people were similarly outraged – or to an even bigger extent. I understand, the Kardashians/Jenners are nothing out of the ordinary in fashion anymore, but in the case of Schiaparelli, it is indeed interesting to discuss.
This show – and the social media strategy around it – is a typical example of how desperate some brands seem to catch media attention. They even willingly sacrifice an otherwise beautiful collection – and to a certain degree, their brand DNA and “mystique”. Frankly, I did not see any link to Dante’s “Inferno” in any of the clothes, but I do not think it was needed. The garments spoke for themselves. Unfortunately, one single picture of Kylie Jenner was enough to draw the attention from all that beauty. And I cannot keep but ask myself: Does Schiaparelli really need the “Kylie-sensationalism”? Do the people who buy haute couture want to be associated with a woman who is “famous for being famous”, who also stands for fast-fashion by encouraging her followers to buy as much as they can? I doubt it. I think more potential clients were ridiculed by it rather than enticed. But it seems to play in line with the current strategy of the brand: democratise the name “Schiaparelli”. Let’s be honest, up until recently, mostly people with a keen interest in fashion and its history knew about Schiaparelli. Elsa Schiaparelli was one of the most innovative designers ever but for a long time, but for many years, the brand seemed to be in a kind of slumber. For over ten years, the current owner of the brand, Diego Della Valle (the chairman of Tod’s group) has been trying to awaken the brand. Three designers have tried until Roseberry brought Schiaparelli back at the fashion stage. It seems that Della Valle’s goal is to compete with the strategy Bernard Arnault has been successfully using for his LVMH conglomerate. Schiaparelli obviously aims at being the next Louis Vuitton, Gucci or Dior. Anyone should know the brand. (This also means sponsoring quite a few outfits for the third season of the Netflix show “Emily in Paris” and heavily pushing influencer collaborations.)
In the end, fashion is a business. But haute couture was always the link to art as well. I find it difficult to observe that yet another part of the fashion industry has given in to the social media frenzy and influencers who do not stand for much other than consumerism. The saddest part is when an entire collection and the hard work put in by so many people behind the scenes was sacrificed for a few moments of (social) media hype. I would love to say that I hope that in the case of Schiaparelli it was worth it for them. But I am sure it was not – all for “15 minutes of fame” how Andy Warhol put it so nicely, or even less than that. Today we may say all for a few “swipes”, “comments” and “likes” on Instagram.