Frivolity. Decadence. Indulgence. These have become dirty words in everyday conversation, so heavily influenced by the economic struggle of the “Great Recession”. As many experience deprivation, those who dare to consume conspicuously invite severe criticism. As the arbiter of all things glamorous, the fashion industry is one of the most vilified entities in such grave times, and designers have not ignored the unrest, investing their energies in ready-to-wear collections and guest-designing for budget retail brands, such as Lanvin for H&M or the upcoming Missoni for Target. Consequently, the haute couture creations on which countless designers have established their creative identities have been – more than ever – regarded as obsolete. Some say couture is dying, an unsustainable sartorial tradition that has no place in an uneasy world which runways must try to reflect. Why, then, should it endure? For the same reasons any art does.
To grasp the purpose of anything only a handful of people in the world can afford, look outside the lens of industry. Despite the extraterrestrial price tags, designers don’t produce red-carpet gowns because they make a lot of money. As one-of-a-kind, hand-made ensembles, it’s obvious that such pieces demand too much in material-cost and labor to be lucrative.
Consider the near-demise of the inimitable Christian Lacroix circa 2009, whose financial backers pulled out as he debuted yet another collection of high-concept couture for the fall season. The gowns were unfathomably expensive to make, incompatible with the wardrobes of real people, and seemed a classic example of artistic self-indulgence at odds with the frugal mood of a global recession. Lacroix feared the financial pressures threatening his survival, yet responded defiantly: In short, profit has nothing to do with artistic inspiration, and art is the essence of couture.
It’s true that fashion as an industry is a space of conflict – an enterprise in which clothes are made to be marketed, sold, and worn – but conflict is inevitable wherever business meets art. The numerous ready-to-wear collections that designers strain to turn out every season are clamored after by department stores and consumers. They are the ones executed with an aim for wearability and practicality, items that will integrate well on the street yet stand out in social settings. They are the moneymakers, the pieces that most people can at least try on if not afford to buy. Couture is in a different category: It is not produced to sell, but to exhibit and inspire.
Without haute couture, fashion would be static, a mundane tundra of fabrics, colors and templates, merely waiting to be assembled. Designers use couture as a creative laboratory, a genre of fashion where artistry comes alive. Such conceptual creations are meant to be surprising and experimental, exhibiting the highest quality craftsmanship in the world in the most innovative and signature manner. Couture is thus the monarch of all fashion castes in not only price, but – more importantly – substance. It is the magic that elevates fashion to art, and therefore as important as any museum-worthy painting or sculpture. (Why else would the late Alexander McQueen’s clothing have an exhibit at New York City’s MET Museum?) A haute couture collection is an artistic opportunity for designers, without which their true artistry dies for lack of creative opportunity.
It’s true that high fashion is luxury, affordable to a mere sliver of humanity. But ultimately, exclusivity and elitism do not define the mission of this sartorial titan, a mission far greater than major price tags. Couture is fashion’s last bastion of artistic endeavor, a genre of clothing that ignores boundaries and has the power to inspire both spectators and wearers. Indeed, it is wearable art. These are not new ideas, yet they have lost voice amidst the din of “recessionist” criticism in a bleak economy. The struggle at hand doesn’t concern class inequality or needless extravagance. The argument is that art is important, and as such, couture mustn’t be sacrificed due to its impractical nature, for what Lacroix’s investors labeled impractical, he risked his career to perpetuate.
- Eamonn Wright, Fashion Editor
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