Readers: how many of you need a vacation? I'm sure almost all of you would answer in the affirmative, with most undergraduate "breaks" having dissipated into hours of midterm preparation and final exams and papers looming on the horizon. So this week I depart from my usual functional-product rating, and I instead invite you to take a mini-vacation in an electrifying, whimsical, artistic world: the world of haute couture.
Haute couture, literally "high sewing" in French, is the ultra-creative and ultra-showy side of the runway shows. Haute couture garments are custom-sewn and can take up to 150 hours to make. Each outfit is specifically fitted for the model or clientand the cost reflects this craftsmanship and attention to detail. Some haute couture garments can sell for more than $50,000 and only about 2,000 women in the world are customers of haute couture. Because of the high cost of production and limited numbers of customers, the haute couture market actually runs at a loss, and because of such time commitments and precision, few designers produce haute couture collections.
However, the soul of haute couture rests not in the cost or the painstaking hours of work but in the incredible creativity. Through a few items appear to be passable as "mainstream" clothing, the majority of haute couture garments are more like fantasy costumes. During the couture shows (held in fall and spring) designers let their imaginations run wild with colors, stripes, patterns, foreign inspirationsyou name it. Haute couture is a world in which any look is possible, and the body becomes the canvas for the designer to paint with fabrics.
The Spring 2004 Couture shows were held on January 19 and 20 in Paris, the capital of the fashion world. Of the eight designers who showed collections, John Galliano for Christian Dior had perhaps the most dramatic, fantastic show of allhe designed a collection of purely Egyptian-inspired clothing. Lots of gold dressesand even Egyptian-mask-like headdresseswere used. One dress evoked images of a mummy, while another was decorated with patterns like that on an Egyptian cave. Skirts flared bigger than they did in the Victorian era, and full face makeup was used for effect.
Christian Lacroix utilized bright neons, bigger hair than you've ever seen, and hot pink tights. John Paul Gaultier produced textured, detailed pieces of fur and snakeskin, and even had his models do a close-up show for a select group of viewers so that they might notice his textures up close. Emanuel Ungaro eccentrically mixed floral, stripe, and leopard prints, sexily draping them all around the body. Valentino Garavani made sweet, feminine cocktail dresses (a little more "wearable" in contrast to the creations of Dior and Lacroix) that stressed women's femininity. Karl Lagerfeld did a mix-and-match theme for Chanel, with ensembles composed of a signature boxy jacket and frilly skirt. Versace glimmered with creations of satin, jewels, lace, and frills, and Anne Valerie Hash put a ballerina's touch on the trend of menswear for women.
Haute couture shows are not only about the clothes; they are about the accompanying music and movement. They are a complete package and full experience, sort of like Cirque du Soleil, but with fashion as the focus. Haute couture embodies fashion at its essencefashion unconstrained by convention, practicality, or preconceived notion, that is only concerned with being wild and visually appealing. Never mind that my fascination with couture will never seep into my closetthe mere knowledge of its existence gives me assurance that fashion is an art form in its own right.
If I've at all managed to pique your interest about the world of haute couture, you can view slideshows from the Spring 2004 show on www.style.com and videos of the shows themselves on the websites of the designers. If not, I hope you've at least enjoyed your brief vacation into this fantasy world, untouched with worry, thought, or wearable realityand obsessed only with visual dramatic pleasure.