Wed, Dec 09, 2009 - Page 13 News List

Zut alors: haute couture takes a hit

The shops are full of opulent clothes but no one is buying. Economic gloom has hit France’s couture houses hard, with Christian Lacroix in administration and forced to slash jobs last week

By Elizabeth Day  /  THE GUARDIAN , PARIS

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Outside the Christian Lacroix shop on Paris’ fashionable Rue du Faubourg Saint Honore, two middle-aged American tourists are debating whether to take a photograph. “It might not be here much longer,” a woman says to her husband as she takes a quick snap of the facade before moving on.

Inside, the shops are full of opulently designed clothes — a gold brocade jacket has a price tag of US$4,132 — but they are devoid of customers. Next door, a pharmacy is squeezed incongruously between the high-end designer boutiques, its window displaying boxes of Band-Aids. Looking at the shops side-by-side, one cannot help but be struck by the thought that the Lacroix label needs more than a sticking plaster to save it.

Last week, after six months in administration amid a desperate search for a buyer, the Lacroix fashion house was made to abandon its haute couture and ready-to-wear lines as part of a restructuring plan approved by the Paris commercial court. Over the 22 years during which he had been in business, Lacroix, one of France’s best-known designers, had never turned a profit. Instead he ran up losses of almost US$14.8 million and owes a further US$65 million to suppliers and the Falic Group, the duty-free retailer that bought the company in 2005. The restructuring will license out the Lacroix name for the sale of perfume and accessories, with a workforce of a dozen, reduced from 124.

“Lacroix embodied the brilliance of our country,” said France’s industry minister, Christian Estrosi, when the news was announced, and indeed Lacroix’s flamboyant designs and dazzling colors seemed to epitomize the very essence of couture. His clothes were over-the-top, indulgent and, most importantly, had the priceless cachet of being unique.

BEHIND THE LABELS

CHANEL

One of the most recognized names in haute couture, the Chanel label goes from strength to strength, with sales of perfume, cosmetics and accessories ensuring that the fashion house remains financially robust. Under Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel recently bought six haute couture workshops to keep them in business.

Celebrity fans: Nicole Kidman; Keira Knightley

GIVENCHY

The house was founded in 1952 by Hubert de Givenchy, a French aristocrat famed for making many of Audrey Hepburn’s clothes. It is now owned by the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. Riccardo Tisci is chief designer and his haute couture is inspired by gothic darkness and space-age minimalism.

Celebrity fans: Jennifer Connelly; Liv Tyler

JEAN PAUL GAULTIER

Gaultier started his haute couture line in 1997 after founding a successful ready-to-wear and perfume business and co-presenting the British television series Eurotrash. Gaultier is known for his overtly sexualized clothes; his inspiration ranges from imperial India to Hassidic Judaism.

Celebrity fans: Kylie Minogue, Rihanna

CHRISTIAN DIOR

One of the world’s top fashion houses, founded by Christian Dior in 1946 and made famous for the “New Look” style of dress. The quintessentially French label has a British chief designer in John Galliano.

Celebrity fans: Charlize Theron; Demi Moore


Although the collapse of the fashion house was greeted with sadness in the highest echelons of the couture world, it was not entirely unexpected. The demise of this once mighty establishment reflected a far deeper malaise within a highly secretive industry struggling to cope with changing times. Global recession has seen a worrying downturn in the fortunes of Paris’s haute couturiers.

The price of an haute couture dress, hand-made to a client’s specification, starts at about US$30,000. It is a luxury reserved only for the very rich and there are estimated to be fewer than 500 buyers worldwide. In recent months, with personal fortunes hemorrhaging, these customers are far less willing to spend such vast sums.

“There are fewer clients,” admits Anne Valerie Hash, one of the new generation of French haute couture designers. “When their husbands lose millions on the stock exchange, you find that women won’t buy 10 dresses, they’ll buy one.”

There are few signs, however, of belt-tightening in the headquarters of the haute couturier Stephane Rolland. In a spacious room overlooking the Avenue George V, Rolland leans back on a vast brown leather sofa and surveys his empire. We are surrounded by rails of exquisite dresses, each painstakingly hand-sewn and adorned with a final flourish of pleats or sequins. On the black-lacquered table in front of us, there is a three-tier tray of gold-wrapped biscuits for the delectation of private clients. A uniformed butler brings us glasses of iced water, placed carefully on a folded napkin to avoid marking the table.

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