Wed, Feb 02, 2011 - Page 13 News List

How the other half dress

Against all the economic odds, couture has made a comeback. And the Paris shows are displaying the poshest fashion money can buy

By Jess Cartner-Morley  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Photo: EPA

Posh is so hot right now. You must have noticed this, even if you are one of those poor ignorant souls who don’t always read the fashion pages. Two 20-somethings, who seem to be perfectly nice but not very exciting, are getting married this spring, and the nation is agog, because it means the bride gets to make the almighty leap from being very wealthy to being Really Posh. We love nothing more right now than to spend Sunday night on the sofa (Downton Abbey) or a Saturday night at the cinema (The King’s Speech) lapping up lavishly dramatized rehabilitations of the upper classes.

You don’t get much posher than the Paris haute couture shows. The clothes are obscenely expensive (US$8,000 would buy you a relatively simple cocktail dress) but really, the pricetags (or lack thereof — so vulgar, darling) are just the beginning. The couture experience is How The Other Half Live, not just in 3D but a full sensory immersion. For instance: The Dior show was held in the gardens of the Musee Rodin, which meant a rainy, cobbled courtyard for the audience to cross. When we got to the cobbles, tuxedo-clad young men appeared, one for each guest, offering an arm as support and an umbrella for shelter. Which is the kind of assistance one just doesn’t get when dashing across Oxford Street to catch a bus, I find.

The next day, arriving for the Givenchy presentation at a majestic apartment in the Place Vendome, I noticed that it smelled amazing; reading the collection notes, I discovered that “this season, the salons are scented with green almond, to complement the collection.” Well, of course they are. The thing is, these kind of gestures make complete sense, within the couture bubble.

Haute couture is a crazy, tiny, snobbish world, peopled by crazy, tiny, snobbish women with crazy, tiny dogs. (The dogs may well be snobbish too. I wouldn’t be surprised if they refuse to sleep on velvet cushions that aren’t scented with this season’s green almond.) Until recently, this was considered a barrier to couture’s success — even to its survival.

A few years back, the Sartorialist and the endless copycat street-style blogs were all anyone in the fashion industry obsessed over. But on the back of pop culture’s crush on poshness, couture has made a comeback, against all the economic odds. This season, for the first time since the recession began, Dior couture staged a blockbuster 800-seater couture show — such a size was the norm 10 years ago, but in recent years designers have favored small “salon” showcases. Why, even street style has gone haute: There were gaggles of street-style snappers and bloggers waiting outside each couture show last week. They were hardly capturing fashion at its anarchic cutting edge.

The effect this has had on couture is staggering. It is blossoming before our eyes. There is a mood of quiet confidence in the air, and it has been a spectacular season. Karl Lagerfeld said this week that “nonchalance in couture is very important … couture without nonchalance is just drag-queen attitude” and couture is all the sweeter for being a little less baroque, a little less self-aggrandizing. Hues were often watercolor-pale: pinks at Chanel and Valentino, grays at Dior. At Chanel there were simple tweed dresses, or slim trousers under tunics, all worn with little flat slippers: the luxury of having the very best version of simple things.

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