Quietly exclusive London boutique A La Mode recently took an order from a European customer for a couple of outfits costing £30,000. They were not in the stock that the owner, Josephine Turner, had bought from Oscar de la Renta but, she says, “The lady knew that I had a good relationship with the designer and would do my best to secure the dresses, which I did.” For Turner, chasing down such über-luxurious pieces is a challenge to relish, and the prices do not make her turn a hair. They were, she says, “extraordinary pieces of handwork; unique long-term investments”.
This is not haute couture we’re talking about, just – notionally – common or garden ready-to-wear. The finest level has detached itself from the accepted norms of seasonality and commercial quantities and become almost the new couture, without the fittings and the fuss. It’s not always without the wait, though – buyers and personal shoppers reel in high-worth customers shortly after the shows with lookbooks, delivering samples to their home to try on and arranging intimate dinners with designers. After ordering, customers expect their delivery in perhaps five months, happy in the anticipation of a beautiful and beautifully made piece, possibly customised to their demand and unavailable to anyone else.
If haute couture is on the ropes, it is perhaps due as much to the rise of super-luxe ready-to-wear as to the effects of the recession. Couture houses are dwindling to those with multiproduct companies, such as Dior, Chanel and Armani, plus a few stalwart independents, while shows are scaled back. Chanel creates super-luxe ready-to-wear for its annual Métiers d’Arts collections – intricate collectors’ pieces designed to show off craft skills, from embroidery to silk flower-making, rather than fashion trends, which are shown to clients in January and delivered in June. Simple pieces go in store but the more ambitious, like the suitably opulent embellished coats and handmade bags from this year’s Paris-Moscow range, are very limited orders, at up to £30,000, says fashion director Bruno Pavlovsky. “Certain accessories can be ordered in different colours or materials, and fittings take place in clients’ homes.”
Clients find that such ultra-luxurious ready-to-wear – often made by petites mains trained by houses that have closed their couture ateliers – is a more modern way to shop. “A client can order an outfit made with couture techniques and altered for her so it’s unique,” says A La Mode’s Turner. “Most customers at this level are standard size so they don’t need pieces specially made. But if someone wants a different fabric or colour, then the designer’s workroom will make it.” There is also the matter of price. With couture, £10,000 will not get you very much, while at Carmen Busquets’ CoutureLab website and salon it will buy you “a very special, custom-made outfit that you will be able to wear for years,” she says. “The point is to understand and take pride in the craft, creativity and love that the designer and workers have put into making it.”
Clients may extend this to a personal relationship with designers. Young Parisian designer Alexis Mabille is on the couture/luxe ready-to-wear crossover; his commercial styles are in expensive couture fabrics hand-finished on century-old machines – a graceful A-line shift dress in heavy blush silk with toning mink hem is typical. “Sometimes a client asks me to make to measure an altered ready-to-wear style, so is that couture?” he says. “I don’t make such a distinction and clients don’t worry. If they are paying this much – up to £14,000 – they feel they deserve the extra service. It works both ways: they come to the studio for fittings, or sometimes they invite me for a weekend to do fittings.”
In early summer, Mabille brought his autumn collection to CoutureLab’s gallery for appointments with a few invited customers. “They could order anything he brought and discuss alterations with him,” says Busquets. British designer Graeme Black, whose autumn range includes coats collared in hand-worked organza flowers (about £2,500), takes a similar approach, holding viewing lunches at his Chelsea studio for private clients. “It’s the way forward,” he says. “My designs are on the rails at Browns and Harrods but special items need a more personal approach – we can alter designs and, by knowing who has them, prevent any duplication in the same circle.”
Such clothes could just as well be hung on the wall as worn – at this level, clients are collectors and dresses artworks to be cherished and displayed. To join in, make friends with a trusty fashion “gallerist” who can liaise between you and the artist/designer. “I have known many customers for 20 years,” says Turner. “They know I pick the most special, delicately hand-worked pieces in small quantities, and they come to me because they like my vision.”
At Browns, established for almost 40 years, buying director Erin Mullaney says, “We have three-generation shopping families who all trust us to match them with the right designer.” Surprisingly, neither buys special pieces with a particular customer in mind. “It’s too risky,” says Mullaney. “I think of the kind of woman a special piece might suit and who will correspond to a number of customers, rather than one target. These are people we send lookbooks to, or invite to meet the designer and order from samples.” Turner says she does not order with a specific client in mind “because she might have decided to change her look that season”.
At Matches, buying and fashion director Bridget Cosgrave cautions clients against ordering on the strength of catwalk images. “The final outfit may be rather different,” she says. “It may not look on the client as she imagined. We prefer to get the sample.” The artistic director of Joseph, Alain Snege, has repositioned each of the flagship stores with a different identity – Sloane Street is “neo-couture” where, he says, “the manageress, who has been there 15 years, can match a customer with a £10,000 Rodarte dress, or introduce her to a designer like Jay Ahr, who came in with his cocktail collection for a client preview”. Increasingly, customers are eschewing catwalk pieces for greater exclusivity and less exposure – one-off items ordered direct from the sample studio of a designer with whom a store has a good relationship (such as Joseph with Alaïa or Harvey Nichols with Alexander McQueen); or, as Busquets says, they are “buying samples that prove too costly or complex to produce [in numbers] but are the unique, dramatic pieces my customers love.”
Boutiques constantly develop relationships with different designers and facilitate closer, more convivial links for the clients. Turner might gather 20 clients to show de la Renta’s glamorously embellished collections , investment-quality examples of Kinder Aggugini’s delicately crafted dresses and romantic tailoring (from £1,500), Peter Pilotto’s printed dresses (£1,200), Balmain’s tuxedos (about £3,000) or Giambattista Valli’s cocktail dresses (from £795). In Browns’ new VIP suite, serious clients can relax, get hair and make-up done and, on request, have a one-to-one with the likes of Roland Mouret or Roksanda Ilincic (from £2,500) – “designers who really understand the personal marketing concept,” says Mullaney – or this month a private preview of Jason Wu’s spring collection. Mullaney can conjure special requests even from grander houses – a £20,000 Dior fur-trimmed jacket recently arrived this way – and the boutique now showcases timeless vintage couture from the Vintage Academe website.
Vintage fabrics also equate with uniqueness. At Matches, Cosgrave has the spoils of a clever project. Fur jackets are from Hockley, whose designer Izzet Ers says, “Clients asking for furs to be remodelled made me think about old coats we have in stock, still in good condition. I redesign them to look modern, scraping away layers of structure but adding a light backing. Each is unique and good value from £1,200.”
Clements Ribeiro’s Project 3, available at CoutureLab, is one dress – a flattering V-necked, slightly wrapped, slim-skirted style – with infinite variations, each in a different mix of two vintage couture fabrics from glitter tweed to delicate embroidery or full paillettes, trimmed at the waist with grosgrain ribbon and a vintage buckle. “The fun is in the fabric mixes, which can be beautiful but conventional, or quite subversive,” says Inacio Ribeiro. “In the ultimate version, the client chooses.” Lined in toning silk and handmade in top French workshops, they are about £1,500.
Even in the less intimate setting of department stores, special orders are a growing trend. “We work from lookbooks for special requests with regular customers who are familiar with a designer and with our edit,” says Rebecca Saville, Harvey Nichols’ personal shopping manager. “We have great relationships with Balmain and Balenciaga.” The store also holds small private dinners for designers, such as the Rodarte girls or Stella McCartney, to meet stylists, “and very occasionally we can arrange a one-to-one for a top client with a designer,” says Saville. “Not all our clients want to shop, so we take items and do fittings in homes or hotels.”
Selfridges’ client and designer dinners are held round an intimate table in the personal shopping suite, which clients can access direct from the car park, and designers bring special pieces never intended for commercial production. James Servini, head of personal shopping, works closely with womenswear buyer Laura Larbalestier to feed special requests to designers and check that similar items do not go to close friends. Harrods pioneered store one-offs with its By Appointment service and extends its “anything is possible” philosophy to fashion, including made-to-measure orders with Loro Piana and J Mendel, a private preview of Balenciaga’s autumn collection and bringing the system full circle by arranging haute couture appointments at Elie Saab and Versace.
When one-off buys and personal orders are routine, can any serious shopper expect to get the best from a store by walking in off the street, or are individual appointments now de rigueur? No store will say so, but most agree that only a personal shopper can smooth access to the best and rarest items. And if emphasis is now on the unique, the handmade and the lasting investment, is a fashion system based on seasonal change redundant? Many buyers now believe catwalk shows waste their time, preferring to see designers in their showrooms. But, despite admitting she has not been to shows for years, Turner firmly believes they should continue: “They are the designers’ vocabulary to move fashion forward and show new thinking. The move to specials started with intimate catwalk shows and personal presentations.”
Seasonal trends may now be irrelevant to collectors of fashion’s most exquisite specimens, but the thought processes behind them remain as crucial as ever.