Declaration: The Death of Couture!?

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

by Josip Majer

For months, we’ve witnessed a change in the fashion world. Actually, it is not so much a change, as a silent collective scream, bellowing from the top offices of notable fashion institutions like LVMH's Bernard Arnault, or Kering's François-Henri Pinault. There is clearly cause for concern, and the need for luxury is crashing as quickly as our economy and the notion of selling fashion merchandise in this climate is absurd. Welcome to the “New Normal.”

Surpluses have left fashion houses overstocked with merchandise, but how long can they hold out for better days?

The approach of scaling down legendary fashion "maisons" to a broader audience and implementing street style as a norm literally destroyed the imagination of designers and left fashion overloaded and without profit. In other words, the fashion pyramid collapsed under the heaviness of unfortunate events, who handicapped shopping power. A reminder of what happens when an artistic approach is sacrificed for capitalism.

Haute couture, the highest-quality made-to-measure clothing strictly regulated by the French government, should have been dead a long time ago, according to the holders of French fashion maisons. But this was not the first time that couture was laid out under the guillotine. The industry-based almost entirely in France was nearly obliterated during the Second World War.

Interestingly, the Nazis tried to relocate it from Paris to Berlin but failed. Then came the rise of ready-to-wear, youth culture, and the miniskirt, which threatened to topple it again in the 1960s. But somehow it remained indestructible. Even after the British magazine Queen even pronounced the death of couture in a 1964 issue, running fake obituaries of designers Givenchy and Balenciaga; or when French starlet Brigitte Bardot, then the sexiest woman in the world, snubbed Coco Chanel's invitation to dress her, insisting that couture was "for grannies." Decades later Pierre Bergé, the business and life partner of Yves Saint Laurent, declared haute couture was finally dead with the passing of the great designer in 2008.

Was Mr. Bergé, right? Perhaps he was.

Perhaps the final creative flame for Haute couture really extinguished with the untimely departure of Alexander McQueen. One of the last couturiers who did not sacrifice his own identity and imagination, as creative director of Givenchy he oversaw every aspect of the process. The pressure of the work under the weight of his own demons led him down a horrific path of destruction.

Naomi Campbell at Givenchy 1997 Spring-Summer Couture show

Another notable victim of fashion’s "new order" is John Galliano. A romantic, who created, with his creative director and muse Amanda Harlech, an epic display of fashion narratives. His most significant collection from the Spring/Summer 1994, was inspired by the 19th century and Russian tsarinas. Galliano's fashion fairytale with the historic underlying narrative gave us the imagery of young Romanov tsarinas leaving Winter Palace during the revolution and ending up in Scotland.

Fashion fairytale was inspired in part by a Vanity Fair article on the Romanovs and lost Princess Anastasia, Lev Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Jane Campion's The Piano, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Madeleine Vionnet's 1920s bias cut. As it was expected later on from Galliano, a narrative was firmly in place from the beginning to the middle to the end. The models became actresses, and clothes were used as costumes in dramatic play, guiding the audience through a fantastic odyssey of romance and history. Back then, in a sea of laissez-faire grunge and Margielaesque deconstruction, Galliano took us back to an old-world skill and technique. He created a moment of pulsating originality, beauty and heartfelt sincerity, with all of the frills included.

John Galliano Spring-Summer 1994

After that, everything went into historical archives of fashion, including the outburst and antisemitic remarks of John Galliano. He quickly became a fashion outcast, and the scandal was the last drop. It came to the LVMH group as a blessing in disguise. Because Galliano couldn't handle the market pressure, and Dior was obviously not having the same influence in fashion; so it was time for John's departure.

John Galliano for Christian Dior Spring-Summer 2003 Haute Couture

The reason is more than obvious - the need for money and "new fashion order" in which we witness that influencers, bloggers, and a separate category altogether - the Kardashians- dictate what is in, and what is out. This new generation of designers is mostly a collection of "wannabe" celebrities. Designing aside, their main function is fangirling around influential names and promoting fashion Maisons through mediocre designs that lack inspiration. A good number of them don't even know how to use a sewing machine. Yes, they've proven themselves to be market visionaries.

When Raf Simons took over Dior, after Galliano's departure, we were able to see that he was a minimalist who didn't sketch, sew! He was creating a concept of recycling Dior's DNA. But the pressure was unbearable for him. Not playing a beautiful tune of market need fired him out of this legendary fashion house. Chapter of Maria Grazia Chiuri is pretty impressive. First, she was a first woman designer who took creative rains of Dior. Second, she capitalized on a feministic movement when #metoo came to the scene (year more or less). The point is that the couture of today is more streetwear and less imagination. Gone is the creativity, spectacle, and storytelling.

Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior Haute Couture Fall 2019

But as we witnessed a new fashion wind in the early 2000s, I am positively sure that this trend will also dim. The fashion industry, especially couture, will be back to its origins soon enough, ushering in a new era of art and inspiration, reminding us again what true couture represents.

John Galliano’s Spring-Summer 2017 couture collection for Maison Martin Margiela

If you are still searching for that beacon of couture hope, a new revolution lays yet again in the hands of "Galliano The Great," who took the reins of Maison Margiela in 2014. Now overseeing the brand's menswear, womenswear, and accessories, and creating its Artisanal couture collection, Galliano continues to push the envelope. Perhaps he, more than anyone, gives us hope that couture is not dead. Revenue has doubled under his tenure, with accessories making up 60% of the label's total profits. But most importantly, he stayed true to himself by utilizing his most essential skills - imagination and creativity.


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