Couture: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Date February 12, 2008 at 11:00 PM

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Two new books offer revealing glimpses into the world of haute couture. One celebrates the great post-war decade and the other exposes couture's decline, from a tradition of quality and superlative workmanship to the mass marketing of inferior products under designer labels. They both help point to Santa Fe as a mecca for beautiful, handcrafted clothing that reflect artisan-made standards of excellence.

In April 1970, famed fashion photographer Cecil Beaton received a note from Baroness Alain de Rothschild: "Let me know when you do come to Paris and I will show you what I have! Wonderful idea-it is all vanishing so quickly!"€ One of the many fascinating discoveries in The Golden Age of Couture Paris and London 1947-57 (V&A Publications, 2007) is that it was Beaton's idea to ask his wealthy and titled society friends to give him their couture evening gowns, cocktail dresses and tailored suits which form the core collection at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. It was not a moment too soon: many couture houses were already closing their doors.

Claire Wilcox, senior curator of twentieth century and contemporary fashion at the V&A, edited this handsome volume to accompany a recent exhibit of the same name. An absorbing behind-the-scenes look at the art, commerce and craft of couture, it also includes a chapter on the transition from magazine illustrations to fashion photography. Breaking out of the studio setting, Richard Avedon pioneered the use of Paris city streets as a backdrop in the 1940s. In the images from those years, it's startling to see the more womanly figures of the models. They possess a savoir faire missing from what we see now.

Couture struggled hard to recover from the war and survive in a fast-changing world. A chapter on the relationship between textile manufacturers and couturiers like Dior and Jacques Fath explains how the advances in synthetic fibers, for instance, affected innovations in tailoring. For those seriously interested in couture, though, the chapter on the secret inner workings of a design house makes the book especially worthwhile. Everything demanded unbelievable amounts of time, skill and attention to detail. The hierarchy of a mostly female staff worked for years, perfecting techniques in draping, cutting and fitting particular materials. The Golden Age of Couture makes you appreciate the true value of a great creative enterprise.

Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster (The Penguin Press, 2007), by Dana Thomas, delivers the bad news about the current state of what has become brand-name merchandizing run by global corporations. Reading this book is a smart investment. A Paris-based cultural and fashion writer for Newsweek, Thomas traveled everywhere from China to Buenos Aires to Milan, interviewed everyone from corporate heavyweights to factory workers and boutique clients, and presents a picture of wide-spread deception and cost-cutting practices geared towards the bottom line. It comes as no surprise, but helps if you want to know exactly what you are paying for. Take, for example, that latest hot status item, the handbag. Here's what Thomas has to say:

"Yes, luxury handbags are made in China. Top brands. Brands that you carry. Brands that deny outright that their bags are made in China"€¦. I visited a factory in Guangdong Province and held the bags in my hands. To see them, I had to promise the manufacturer that I wouldn't reveal the brand names."€

To maintain the illusion of heritage craftsmanship and still command high prices for their goods, luxury brands have compromised on integrity. One major luxury name assistant told Thomas, "I remember being in fittings [for a dress] in the mid-nineties where the CEO came in and said, "€˜Women don't really need linings.'"€ To lower the production costs of once legendary perfume formulas, luxury brands are now asking laboratories to substitute synthetic scents or even water down the perfume.

If you see a designer shoe with "Made in Italy"€ stamped on the leather sole, that part is literally true. The rest of the shoe-the most labor-intensive part-is made in China, then shipped to Italy, where the sole is attached. As Valentino CEO Michele Norsa explained to Thomas, in the United States and Japan "perceived quality is more important than real quality."€

According to Thomas, more than two hundred thousand women worldwide wore couture in the 1950s. Today, in comparison, a mere two hundred women worldwide buy haute couture. Christian Dior, the man who revived French couture in 1947, unwittingly may have also undone it. He understood that the middle class was the future of luxury (rather than couture) fashion, and was the first to license his name, starting with stockings. Licensing revolutionized the business, leaping to sportswear, lingerie, handbags, eyeglasses and gloves, and designer ready-to-wear clothing.

Most of the brands that have maintained quality have chosen to stay small. Thomas describes the Hermès workshops in France, where artisans still study the leather skins to figure out the best way to cut them and each bag is handcrafted one at a time. Other brands she calls luxury refugees: the designers, perfumers and executives disillusioned with greed and cheapness that have left the corporations and started independent businesses where they can do what they really want: create the best that money can buy.

By the same token, Santa Fe has long been a source for distinctive, handmade clothing and accessories. Origins, Karen Melfi, the Santa Fe Weaving Gallery, and many others carry on the tradition of originality and quality associated with couture. You can find custom-made leather goods and one-of-a-kind jewelry. You're not going to find the designer's name on the side of a building somewhere in Tokyo or New York. But who's looking?

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