Interview of Serge CARREIRA (Fashion and Luxury Specialist & Professor at Sciences Po Paris)
By Thomas ZYLBERMAN (Stylist & Trend Expert at Carlin Creative Trend Bureau)
THOMAS ZYLBERMAN: We were, not too long ago, in the middle of Haute Couture week and we were witnesses of incredible vitality there. Houses like Givenchy and Balmain are returning to Couture; Schiaparelli and Azzaro both boast new creative directors – Bertrand Guillon and Maxime Simoëns, respectively; or younger talents that have already managed to establish their place under the sun – think Alexis Mabille or Alexandre Vauthier. Where does this vigor come from and what is the economic model behind it?
SERGE CARREIRA: There are more reasons behind it. Above all, they understood what the true advantage of Haute Couture Maisons was. Particularly the vitality and perseverance of Chanel and Dior, as well as loyalty to HC tradition, are to be thanked for. They stood behind the idea that it is not just a vestige of the past, but that the activity, at first, was completely integrated into the identity of said house. Taking the example of Chanel, it represents a house that is tied by its essence to HC. The identity dimension is hence extremely strong. Furthermore, this HC offers a huge competitive advantage over the rest of the fashion houses, given the dimension of exception and total exclusivity. Certain houses proved that HC can have a different face as well. We have definitely come a long way since the dusty dressmakers’ salons of yesteryear. Above all, HC possesses an undoubtable dimension of timelessness. Fashion houses that are producing more and more articles at an ever-increased speed rate in order to seduce a larger and more international public are suddenly able to retrieve their balance with this activity that goes beyond time.
CHANEL COUTURE SS19 Wonderland Magazine
DIOR COUTURE SS19 Photo Sophie Carre
BALMAIN COUTURE SS19 Photo Filippo Fior
Haute Couture, which has been the metronome of fashion since forever, had been supplanted by Ready-To-Wear. It knew periods when its plain existence came into question. Today it finds meaning because it is the one that makes the link with hand-made, with tradition and with the extraordinary, but also with innovation and experimentation. This confers something truly exceptional to the brand, something that goes beyond creation or the avant-garde – something that contributes to its dream-like allure and to its aura.
Finally, with the emergence of clients from the Middle East, Russia and Asia, we are talking about a market that has started changing only recently. These new clients, generally from younger generations, explain why brands like Balmain – who had always been on the verge of HC – had taken the step, precisely to offer this dimension of exception. Balmain is playing with this balance, with the avant-gardism on one side and tradition on the other one. Thanks to HC, brands put down roots of their own universe and their own style in something more timeless, outside the rhythm of the seasons.
T.Z.: Does Haute Couture intend to become international, knowing that it is a strictly French (Parisian) distinction, with criteria defined by the Ministry? A handful of Italian houses – think Alberta Ferretti, Armani or Dutch-born Iris Van Herpen – invaded these criteria to exist. Does HC thus aim to captivate designers that are not necessarily Parisian, but rather international profiles?
S.C.: Following the peak of the Haute Couture crisis in the 1990s, when interest in it had virtually disappeared, up to Yves Saint Laurent’s last défilé in 2002, Italian fashion houses like Valentino, Versace or the Lebanese Elie Saab helped maintain the attractiveness of HC.
Since then, they have even managed to create a new clientele. Above all – and this is an undeniable strength of Paris – this has allowed to perpetuate the international influence of the French capital compared to the rest of the capitals of fashion. Milan represents Italian fashion, London is the spokesperson of British fashion, New York speaks for American fashion, but Paris is truly an international platform. It is a great advantage over its rivals, regardless of their significant power. Paris serves as a scene where international designers can come present their collections and join in on the tradition.
YVES SAINT LAURENT 2002 Photo J-P Muller
ELIE SAAB COUTURE SS19 Photo Alessandro Lucioni
T.Z.: Doesn’t this renewed interest for Haute Couture stem also the fact that we have been told that a sweatshirt with a logo represents the pinnacle of luxury – meaning that our expectations now are blown out of proportion? It evokes Olivier Rousteing’s speech on the reason why the house Balmain was destined to make HC.
S.C.: Indeed, the strong development of the Maisons in the recent years revealed a need for balance. The necessity to grow fast by obsessively embracing newness may push brands into banality – or, worse – into boredom. Haute Couture calls for positioning above and beyond simple trends. It symbolizes a way to ascend to some kind of dream territory, which is not reflected in the present. It does not hinder the brand from selling the ephemeral as well; it just makes its way into the consumers’ and fans’ imaginations, into something eternal – into the very essence of a luxury house. There is a real need for these brands to strengthen themselves and their positions by making this timelessness more tangible. The temporal dimension basically does not exist in HC anymore, because they operate on virtuosity and this dimension of uniqueness is one of the essential foundations of luxury values. Subsequently, this adds more consistency to the seasonal, rooted in heritage vocabulary. We are thus presented with a double dimension and with a need to counter-balance the very strong (and especially international) growth of the Maisons in order not to bore.
Front Row Chanel, Photo Pascal Lesegretain
T.Z.: One has the impression that there are two forces at work – traditional savoir-faireand this new energy, new dynamic. Does the red carpet phenomenon, combined with the rise of power of social media and an audience that is extremely responsive to a handful of stars from show business, hasn’t all of this help re-legitimize Haute Couture; to offer new perspectives?
S.C.: It is interesting to note that there is no opposition but a duality, or even a tandem. The objective is to play on the complementarity of these two activities. Haute Couture must embody the essence of the Maison; it cannot be considered a detached element. The stars are not the final clients either, save some rare exceptions. The red carpet silhouettes have become one of the showcases of the virtuosity of the houses. High spectator rates of a fashion show are important but the fact that a dress is seen again, worn by a celebrity, can further amplify and anchor the brand’s image – provided these personalities correspond to the Maison’s spirit.
Lady-Gaga en Valentino Couture
T.Z.: This gives a touch of pop to Couture, since it features well-known public figures, which are very mass-market. It’s the eternal paradox of luxury houses that go forever back and forth between the concept of masstige [mass + prestige] with all the derived products (e.g. cosmetics, perfumes) and on the other hand, exceptional craftsmanship.
S.C.: I agree, it is very obvious and recurring in this industry today. To continue selling the dream of a perfume requires strenuous effort yet all the brands keep going down this lane. Perfumes still make people dream and despite their mass-market distribution, they are still considered luxury goods. But yes, these are the figures of today’s culture, as well as what allows us to connect this virtuosity to the current world. And to the aspirations, of course, that can exist in relation to these figures that embody a real lifestyle, attitude, etc.
T.Z.: Currently we observe a fascination with the 1980s, which corresponds to the “Golden Age” of Haute Couture. It is striking to see that the most recently presented Couture collections come with the epoch’s iconic vocabulary as well: volume, frills, oversize knots. Back in the day, Couture did not want to endorse these aesthetic codes anymore – and here we are today, identifying them as the key elements of the 80s fashion in all their taffeta splendor and grandiose sizes.
ALEXANDRE VAUTHIER COUTURE SS19 Photo Alessandro Lucioni
S.C.: There are multiple underlying factors to be considered. The new generation that is creating Haute Couture instinctively explores the key references of The HC – starting with the 1950s and making their way to the 1980s with its glam and flamboyant dimension. Another aspect is that Ready-To-Wear (and notably luxury RTW) having been a lot in experimentation, also needs to differentiate itself from HC. Sometimes the lines between those two were very fine, hence the idea to go back to immediately recognizable references. As we live in a world of image, to create an HC show means to create a spectacle to be seen by the entire world. Through social media, the audience should be instantly able to identify the show is about HC. In reality it is a game, playing with the clichés of HC – appropriation and absorption of all the clichés that are still living in people’s imaginations, while removing the dust off these old photos. The couturiers revive the colors to affirm the difference of (new) HC. Hence the overplay of many clichés – the idea is to absorb the quintessence of what HC represents and stands for in the collective imagination.
T.Z.: Hopefully future Haute Couture designers will continue creating in this esprit. The recent partnership between the French Institute of Fashion and the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture (School of the Trade Association of High Fashion) suggests the best in terms of training and know-how is yet to come… Many thanks to Serge Carreira for his priceless insights!