Me, Paris, & The £75K Dress
Armed with one question, I travelled to Paris to forge a millennial's connection to haute couture: Can fashion be art? It's complicated.
"You can touch it," I was told, as I ran my fingers across the metallic scales of an evening jacket worth five figures. Yuck, I thought. My hands are oily. I can't. "Go on. Touch it!"
It’s hard to put into words the literal shock that a piece of haute couture sends up your spine. It’s electrifying, delivering a jolt to your core. Travelling thousands of miles to visit the House of Schiaparelli in Paris, my 5-day quest was to experience, learn, and examine, as a 25-year-old man, the world of couture. What better moment to say fuck it than now? So I did. I touched it. If I wanted to exhaustively educate myself on the history of high fashion I had to become immersed; let it consume me.
Chantal and I discussing how a fabric is cut from the toile and prepared for embroidery (L); the bodice of a jacket being measured to be fitted with arms (R).
I know I’m not exactly the target demographic of haute couture. I love fashion but I’m not rich, my social calendar doesn’t call for it, and couture isn't even sold in America. But that made me all the more curious to seek out what lies beyond the red carpet moments and lavish fashion shows — and, hopefully, come home with a plan for how millennials can forge a relationship with something, statistically, we don’t have access to. Though it’s said that by 2025 our spending power will account for 45% of the global personal luxury goods market, I don’t know anyone who isn’t reared on fast-fashion or putting their hard-earned coins toward precious, one-of-a-kind clothing that's meant to last forever. Are we even wired to appreciate the artistry and the skill?
"Clients today are not the clients of yesterday," begins Bertrand Guyon, Schiaparelli’s design director and veteran of Valentino, Givenchy, and Christian Lacroix. He says this dressed in a Uniqlo shirt adorned with sketches of Mickey Mouse in his office on the top floor of 21 Place Vendôme. "They've changed. They want the clothes very quickly, too, more than before. But it's because the world has changed. They want emotion, but they're very exigent about the quality." With an estimate of less than 2,000 female clients globally, haute couture, despite the weight it carries in reputation, is not really that profitable. Common figures put individual pieces in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands range, with some clients buying entire collections. Still, it's a massive expense that causes a brand to either break even or lose money.
On the top floor of 21 Place Vendôme, design director Bertrand Guyon and members of his atelier fit outfits to a model.
"The rules of haute couture say that you're not allowed to sell more than three to seven pieces in the world," Schiaparelli's bubbly communications director Cédric Edon begins. I ask why. "I'm sorry, but that's the rule." It’s this type of piece-by-piece, vestiary law and order that not only adds to its exclusivity, but its downfall, as well. That is, if we’re still comparing haute couture to the more readily accessible ready-to-wear or fast-fashion. By definition, haute couture is not sustainable. The fact that there’s literally not enough to go around (and geographical, zoning laws like the aforementioned statute) is what’s forcing some houses, like Schiaparelli, to find an in-between.
After two seasons, Guyon tried something called "prêt-à-couture" — a sort of demi-couture, or elevated, version of ready-to-wear — but it was short-lived. "It was a test. We don't want to do ready-to-wear during fashion week because there are too many things. It's too much," he says. For now, a revival of the ubiquitous Zodiac jacket, plus a few accessories, are purchasable in the salon at its Place Vendôme headquarters. (Walk-ins are welcome.) Guyon reveals that Schiaparelli will relaunch genuine ready-to-wear this September with a full collection, but declines to comment any further.
In hindsight, I don’t know why a jacket — as opposed to what else was up for the taking, like a ball gown whose skirt should come with its own wide-load permit — seduced me so. It was more beguiling than anything. And comically out of my price range. But, not even two dazzling days into my trip, I was already sold: This is a valid and vibrant art form unto itself, as essential as the Van Goghs hanging nearby in the Louvre, serving no other purpose than as an object of astounding beauty and craftsmanship. And I’m cool with that.
In her day, Elsa Schiaparelli was the most famous designer in the world. Between the World Wars, she designed clothes that were an escape for women, as opposed to the other couturiers of her time who thought fashion should reflect the Interwar period of significant political and social change, like Christian Dior’s firm New Look or the stereotypically feminine designs of Jeanne Lanvin. Born in Rome, Schiaparelli (“She had a life before fashion,” one acolyte told me) was a world traveller and purveyor of the arts. She immersed herself in the Dada and Surrealist scenes of New York before her divorce from a con artist led her to Paris to found her own house in 1927.
Schiaparelli was famously "unattractive" but it also meant she understood the intimate, titillating details of women's bodies from a female perspective in a way that, as hard as they may try, men never could. She also knew that even then-unpopular figures — those bodaciously round, pear-shaped, and petite — deserved a place in high-fashion. That she defied the norms helped her stand out in the Big Bang era of haute couture in Paris; that people bought it proved a wave of freethinking rabble-rousers were ready for a fashion revolution. It’s why, today, the refurbishing of her most iconic designs are attracting another era of women who see fashion as a sojourn from the colourless moments of everyday life.
Of all things, a collection of knitwear propelled her cometlike rise. From 1927 to 1929, she sold sweaters that featured a double-layered stitching technique developed by Armenian émigrés and trompe l'œil motifs (like the pussy bow), still used in Schiaparelli collections today. Her designs graduated from knitwear to evening gowns, of which she was the first — on the haute couture level — to fasten with zippers. And they got more inventive from there. She collaborated with her artist friends on pieces like the lobster dress (Salvador Dalí), the fur bracelet (Méret Oppenheim), the aspirin necklace (Elsa Triolet), and perfume bottles (Jean-Michel Frank). She would later create prototypes of the newspaper dress, expand her line of witty accessories (like the telephone purse), and make the first pair of culottes, for tennis player Lili Alvarez in 1931, which caused a fracas among sports fans.
In 1934, she appeared on the cover of Time. The magazine placed Schiaparelli in a league of houses “now at or near the peak of their power as arbiters of the ultra-modern haute couture.” She dressed famous, still-iconic women like Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, and more. But she made one enemy along the way.
It’s not impossible to talk about Schiaparelli without mentioning her widely written about, tense rivalry with Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, but it makes for a much edgier story. Chanel, who referred to Schiaparelli as "that Italian artist who makes clothes,” once lit Schiaparelli’s dress on fire at a party by luring her to dance and then pushing Schiap into a chandelier ablaze with candles. (The designer retold the story in her autobiography Shocking Life.) But, in the face of a market dominated by even more modernity, and Chanel’s status continuing to surge as she surrounded herself with leading men, Schiaparelli’s flame would burn out. Following a cultural and commercial peak in the '30s and '40s (and volunteering as a nurse’s aid with the American Red Cross while Chanel played the role of a Nazi agent during WWII), she filed for bankruptcy and closed her doors in 1954. She retired and split her time between Paris and a home she bought in Hammamet, Tunisia. Schiaparelli died in 1973; the doors of her acclaimed house welded shut.
Guyon during a fitting 10 days ahead of the fall 2018 show.
In 2012, after nearly 60 years of dormancy, Italian businessman Diego Della Valle financed the reopening of Schiaparelli. Della Valle, who also owns Tod’s and Roger Vivier, repurchased 21 Place Vendôme (the designer's original atelier) and hired designer Marco Zanini, a Versace and Dolce & Gabbana veteran who also revived Halston and Rochas. Della Valle’s appointment of a male design head didn’t do much to quell fashion’s woman problem, and, in 2014, Zanini left after just one year and two painfully literal, and at times completely unwearable, couture collections. Months later, Guyon signed on. His vision, not a total departure from Schiaparelli’s quirk but a plan to build on it, wasn’t any more unique than Zanini’s. But, with his long apprenticeship in haute couture, he came highly recommended. In order to revive and revamp one of French fashion's oldest couture houses, Guyon scoured the brand's archives, too, the bulk of which is stored at Maison Lesage, an embroidery laboratory that sits right outside of Paris, in Pantin. If embroidery is the DNA of haute couture, then the beads, feathers, silk, and other precious matter are the molecules.
Moreso of haute couture than ready-to-wear (and especially fast-fashion), it’s easy to let the price tag of a piece of clothing distract you from its artistry. It reflects a long, complicated timeline of production that, intrinsically, puts the ‘haute’ in ‘haute couture’ and renders it the antithesis of anything else. In most cases, the bulk work of a garment is made at Lesage according to a designer’s instructions. It's there that Schiaparelli's iconic Phoebus cape was made, that the original lobster lives, and cabinets of other iconic Schiaparelli embroideries are kept tucked away only to be pulled out when Guyon, or even a client, needs a reference point. “For an embroidery at Lesage, we say it’s a success if it’s as beautiful on both sides. It’s the final test,” I’m told by a press agent.
Although most fashion houses don't disclose their professional relationship with Lesage due to the supposedly taboo fact that many of them have their collections produced under the same roof, the Pantin facility serves as a kind of museum of fashion’s most elegant, must-see-up-close moments. There are more than 75,000 samples of embroidery (some of it over 100 years old). And the archive, which is temperature and humidity controlled, and fireproof, is fashion fantasia. Want to see some of the first Chanel tweed samples ever made? And then go upstairs to see someone making a new one? They've got drawers stacked floor-to-ceiling of it. Givenchy? Valentino? Dior? Balmain? All of fashion's greatest couturiers have worked with Lesage (founded in 1858) and still do. Until she closed her business, Schiaparelli gave Lesage all of her embroidery work. For context: The only house that refused to work with Lesage was Chanel, due to Gabrielle and Elsa's rivalry (that changed when Karl Lagerfeld took over, in 1983).
The Lesage school at 13 Rue de la Grange Batelière, in Paris.
Guyon's decades-long relationship with Lesage maître d' Murielle Lemoine is undeniably cute. As Lemoine opens a box of vintage Schiaparelli embroidery, she walks me through their partnership. Once Guyon submits a sketch to Lemoine, a sample is made. This happens in three steps: le piquage, a sort of tattooing method done by a motorised mechanism that's used to stitch a design onto a thin, waxy paper; le poinçage, or sanding, of the canvas, which makes the dots visible by powder, and thus, traceable; and the embroidery of the matières, which includes a legend that shows which materials go where. Lastly, it's reviewed by Guyon, and, if there aren't any edits, the production begins. It's with this blueprint that the item can be reproduced as many times as mistakes are made. But if any missteps are made in the aforementioned process, there will be a flaw in the garment, too. The final result is sent to 21 Place Vendôme and upholstered to the toile, or the 3D framework of a sketch that’s later used to sculpt the fabric, by the atelier. This process, for an average couture collection, can be repeated dozens and dozens of times.
Don't forget that every step in the aforementioned supply chain is not done by a machine, but a real person, and sometimes multiple petites mains work on a single look. That's several salaries, including the costs of the textiles themselves (which, depending on what you're using, can be rare or generic), and may include additional work — like dying or a novelty finessing technique — that needs to be outsourced to an expert. Though I'd heard an entire collection could be whipped up in a few weeks, a single look can take hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to make. But such exclusivity comes with its own exceptions, such as an optional additional fee a client can pay to have the piece to themselves, or, on very rare occasions, clients can customise a look seen on the runway. "Couture is a service," Edon says. "It's not just about selling. It's about how you welcome people and what you can offer them, too; how you can make the entire experience really their moment."
A pair of gloves being traced and cut out by hand (L); Lesage embroidery ready to be upholstered to a jacket (R).
It's this laser focus on the customer that haute couture defines itself. But it's the stuff you don't see that remains largely undocumented (and inexplicable). That discretion is part of the one-of-a-kind, fascinating selling point of couture, but knowing what makes the multi-billion dollar business so globally unaffordable felt like insider information. And it's why no one could answer me when I asked for an average of how much an outfit costs: it's completely, and purposely, unpredictable.
For Schiaparelli especially, finding a customer willing to not just admire but buy has been harder than the other storied fashion houses with more household name recognition, like her nemesis Chanel, and others like Nina Ricci and Cristobal Balenciaga. "It's challenging because it's the rebirth of a house,” says Guyon. “It wasn't like Dior or Givenchy or Saint Laurent, which have never closed. For 60 years, there's been nothing — at all." But that doesn’t mean Della Valle’s project was done in vain.
Publicist Edon echoes his boss' statement, this time with force: "Maybe the name 'Schiaparelli' evokes something for some American women, but the reality is: Today, we have clients all over the US. These women are young and mature, they work and they're just well-off — but they do have active lives. There's this cliché of the couture client, that she's an Arab princess who lives in a palace and that's it. In our case, we have a few of those but very few. Even our clients from Europe and the Middle East are not the typical couture client." When it comes to celebrity dressing, Edon alleges they don’t offer — celebrities from Céline Dion to Kendall Jenner have to come to them. While there’s no way to prove this, it’s, for all intents and purposes, some of their only (good) publicity.
Of the business before Guyon's arrival, Edon says those clients "didn't know anything about Schiaparelli. They could barely pronounce the name.” Word of mouth, he says, was crucial. Since Guyon's debut, sales have increased by the double digits and orders were five times higher than average with his first season. But increases are always inflated when you start from scratch than when you've been around for decades. Regardless, his designs are working.
Guyon is careful with the inspiration behind his collections — which, are mostly inspired by Schiaparelli's past and are often, still, not enough his own. But, like any well-oiled machine, he's only as good as his team. And I was ready to meet them. "It was funny because they were almost the most difficult part of reviving the house, to seduce the people of the atelier," Edon tells me. When I head upstairs to greet the rest of the team, I'm engulfed by a wave of heat. It's in the low 80s in Paris, but on the tiny top floor of the atelier — where a dozen pros quarantine themselves with couture — it's hotter.
They're mousy, no one speaking too loud or out of turn (at least in front of me); they're all smiles; of varying ages and expertise; and they're of different backgrounds, from all over the world. Admittedly, I didn’t know what to expect outside of what I’d read in magazines or seen in Phantom Thread: a dozen elderly French women hunched over, needles and thimbles in hand, peering at me over the tops of their glasses, dead silent beyond the murmur of a Bonjour.
An atelier worker tweaks the zipper of a dress.
There's Alain, the head of the atelier. Sandrine, who's French. Hanane, Syrian. Huyla, who's Kurdish. Joel, the 60-year old grand-père of the atelier, who has worked for just about every haute couture maison there is. Chantal, who's from the West Indies. Céline, who is 23 (younger than me), and Benjamin, who's hiding behind a bodice of gargantuan tulle but looks to be in his mid-30s. If I missed any, it’s because they’d tucked themselves into the crannies of the six-floor bunker. It's this incredible array of experts, who have devoted their lives to embroidery and tailoring — that could have easily chosen to work for a more established house for their own financial security or personal reasons — who trust Guyon's vision. And, even though I was there for just a visit, puncturing a barrier of access that is seldom, if ever, breached, I was flattered that they trusted me. When I left, I missed them instantly.
For an in-house team that’s so heterogeneous, it'd seem that would influence Guyon's vision and onto the runway. But the designer has come under fire for his references. Last season, his homage to Schiaparelli's notable Pagan collection saw Guyon cull techniques and patterns from faraway African cultures. Of the cultural appropriation-versus-appreciation case, he told WWD, "I'm very sensitive to the cultural identity of every country and region, not just those seen as exotic, such as Africa, but also cultural identities within a country, like France." He later added: "I remember some people talked about the cultural appropriation of the embroidery inspired from Africa. It's very boring for me. It's really boring. I'm a citizen of the world: I come from Brittany. If somebody wants to use Brittan symbols or embroideries in their collection, that's okay to me. I don't understand the problem. For me, it's not a problem. I don't care."
Schiaparelli fall 2018 haute couture.
That nonchalant, possibly problematic answer aside, Guyon is making good on his promise to make Schiaparelli great again. For his fall 2018 delivery — shown for the first time at the Palais Garnier opera house — I'd somehow snuck myself into a fitting where he expanded on his choice to revisit Elsa's look yet again. "I started from her personal style. Not her collections as much, but really, how she got dressed — her own wardrobe, her style, and her life. Every time I try to have dresses that are directly attached to moments of her life." This explains why all of his collections contain at least one gown in full 'shocking' pink, why last season saw a dress made of plastic bags ("I love to work with materials that are not necessarily noble, but raw. So did she. Never real fur, though. Like that, it's a little political"), and before, the butterfly gown, the sun dress — the list goes on. He's introduced some new motifs, like hats by Stephen Jones, but, like most things in his very cloistered life, he's perfecting his pace.
"It's always very difficult to try to find a good balance between the past and the present, between the archives and today, between the reality and the distance you have from the heritage. If it's too literal, it's not good; if it's too far off, it's not good." His latest, which includes an interpretation of one of my favourite Schiaparelli tales — a young Elsa apparently went to sleep with seeds in her mouth, ears, and nose, in hopes that she'd wake up covered in flowers that made her beautiful (but almost suffocated her) — felt verbatim. A white dress dripping with endless flora featured a Jones-made helmet (à la Valentino) that suggested dozens of daisies and carnations sprouted out of the model’s head.
While Schiaparelli, after being closed for an entire generation worth of couture clients, may actually need a signature style (and the press), Edon, the communications director, believes the clothes speak for themselves. "We continue with no press for clients and it works, actually, in the sense that clients are very happy to see something that is done in a limited edition, only-in-Paris way."
A rainbow of spools line a wall of the atelier.
At this point in my journey, I'm overwhelmed. As I leave 21 Place Vendôme for the last time and head back to the Paris metro, I notice I'm walking on my toes — bouncing down Rue des Capucines as if I'm waiting for someone to ask me to tell them the history of Schiaparelli, because I probably could. Perhaps feeling a little homesick, or going through grease withdrawals, I'm pining for a slice of pizza. In Paris, the dollar slice doesn't exist, so I settle for a savoury crêpe instead.
Everything is a little more expensive in the 1st arrondissement. In fact, the closer you get to the centre of Paris, near the Eiffel Tower, you can expect to pay nearly double what you would anywhere else in the city. And then it hits me: Was I really debating the price difference of eating now versus later?
With so much misery in the world, any trivial moment (be it an internal debate about an overpriced crêpe or admiring a £75,000 gown) feels incredibly fraught. And yet my experience here had more than a touch of the spiritual. For someone who couldn't afford a crumb of couture, it was one of the most exhilarating, cathartic releases I've ever had. Even though I'm not a part of this ridiculously frivolous and amazing operation, I was lucky enough to get a taste of it. That there should be heaven after hell (or heaven amidst hell) is a luxurious and vital idea. And, even if it comes in the form of a handbag or a dress, fashion — especially something as unstable as haute couture — can feel like a living, breathing thing that you're allowed to have emotional reactions to.
The client facing room of Elsa Schiaparelli's original salon at 21 Place Vendôme.
Maybe it's because it triggers a memory and a mood in a way that fast-fashion never could. I'm not ashamed to admit to tearing up as I saw how much joy the intensive craft of making clothes brought to everyone at 21 Place Vendôme.
I remember being told by someone on my trip that fashion can't be art. "At the end of the day, they are dresses — they are meant to be lived in. They're precious, but they're clothes. They're not works of art." But much of what I learned that week in Paris proved otherwise. There will always be those who prefer to live and operate as Schiaparelli did — in a different headspace, a world where fashion and art can coexist on a magical, cerebral level, where a small-but-vibrant community of artists, designers, artisans, craftsmen, merchants, writers, patrons, and customers happily create and collaborate.
Who knows what the future holds for the business of haute couture. And who knows how many porte-monnaies sur pattes, or "walking purses," as haute couture clients are jocosely referred to, will continue to spend their disposable income on indispensable clothes. But if ready-to-wear has lost its brilliance, then haute couture seeks more and more opulence. And that should be enough to attract future generations who are bewitched by anything that runs counter to current customs.