The renaissance of haute couture

A compelling coterie of designers is expanding the circle of couture houses, reimagining the genre for the modern age and appealing to a new generation of clients. Lucia van der Post reports

Daphne Guinness in the couture silk organza Lunar Dress by Deborah Milner, price on request
Daphne Guinness in the couture silk organza Lunar Dress by Deborah Milner, price on request

For almost as long as I’ve been a journalist (a mighty long time), fashion writers have been heralding the death of haute couture. As regularly as the weather reports would come doom-laden stories about the dwindling band of clients who had both the lifestyles and the deep pockets that the grand couture houses needed if they were to survive. “Ah me,” the pundits would wail, “what will happen to the skills, the crafts, the ateliers, the jobs and [of course] the bank balances of the couture houses?” But it occurred to me recently that I hadn’t read such a story for quite some time.

Couture, it seems, is thriving. It has changed, of course. It’s no longer the preserve of European grand aristocracy and old money. Fortune magazine tells me that in the US alone, 1,700 millionaires are created every day, while according to Investopedia, a new billionaire is made every other day around the world. Of course, not all new money is likely to gravitate towards couture, but there’s enough wealth to keep the couture houses going and enough individuals happy to pay for something unique, made just for them. All this means that a host of new names is joining some of the grandest of the grand couture houses.

Peter Dundas embroidered silk‑georgette gown, £3,860
Peter Dundas embroidered silk‑georgette gown, £3,860

Haute couture, as we all know, is not the same thing as couture or custom made. To qualify as an haute couture house, an appellation the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture guards as closely as if it were protecting the Holy Grail, a maison has to fulfil a number of demanding criteria. Today there are 14 members (among the most famous of which are Dior and Chanel), but there are also a number of “guest members”, who are invited to show in Paris at Haute Couture Fashion Week.

At the same time, there’s a changing of the guard at many of the big fashion names. At Givenchy, Clare Waight  Keller, designer of Meghan Markle’s dress for her wedding to Prince Harry in May, has taken the reins as the first female artistic director, and in January produced her first ever haute couture collection (price on request), which received a rapturous reception from the press. “…rigorous, intelligent and smart,” wrote the Financial Times’ fashion editor Jo Ellison. “To find her spare aesthetic, she had revisited many of the 1950s couture shapes first developed by the house’s founder Hubert de Givenchy before ‘chopping them up and reimagining’ them. Floating chiffon skirts were toughened up with sharp tailoring and rollneck sweaters, a silvery beaded gown shimmered under an oversized coat: the equilibrium between tailleur and flou was perfectly tempered.”

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Other fashion houses outside the haute couture circle also see a future for couture. At Céline, new artistic director Hedi Slimane has announced that he’ll be adding couture to the repertoire, and Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing – whose ready-to-wear collections are driven by what has been called a “couture spirit”, with attention to hand-wrought detailing – launched a demi-couture range for spring/summer. Meanwhile, the wonderfully cerebral Dutch designer Iris van Herpen dropped ready-to-wear back in 2016 to focus only on her extraordinarily avant-garde interpretation of couture (price on request).

At the same time in the UK, Giles Deacon also turned his business into couture only (price on request). “When the arrangement I had with licensees for my ready-to-wear business in Italy ran out, I decided I would concentrate on the things I love doing, which is showpieces, bridal dresses, special bespoke designs,” he says. “We make everything in London, using silk from Suffolk, horsehair from Somerset and so on. My aesthetic is much honed by the British tradition and inspired by people such as Norman Hartnell. I love tailoring and evening dresses.”

Givenchy knitted silk top and handpainted organza skirt, both price on request
Givenchy knitted silk top and handpainted organza skirt, both price on request

Another London-based couturier, Deborah Milner, who for many years worked with Alexander McQueen and since 2004 has been a consultant with the house, opened her own small studio a couple of years ago in London’s Pimlico, where she makes exquisite pieces (from about £5,000) for her band of faithful clients. Milner believes the new wave of fashion designers and talented graduates keen to work in couture are key factors in its revival, along with their enthusiasm for reimagining couture for the modern age. “They are interested in the craft, they want to learn how to do it and to make beautiful things,” she says. “It’s not just about the sketches – they want to learn all about pattern making, the cut, the finishing details.”

As for couture’s appeal to its new generation of clients, Milner says, “It’s about showcasing the artistry of couture. Being able to have something unique that can’t be easily copied. The high-end, ready-to-wear designs are imitated so quickly and cheaply by high-street chains. Our challenge is to adapt designs and make them relevant to today’s world.”

Giles Deacon duchess silk and ostrich feather dress, price on request
Giles Deacon duchess silk and ostrich feather dress, price on request

Milner started out working with Philip Treacy at the late Isabella Blow’s house and there she was introduced to women who became her clients; many are still with her today. Perhaps the best known is Daphne Guinness, who has been a fan for over 20 years. “She is one of the few people I know who actually understands how a piece of clothing should be made,” says Guinness. “She is an architect. She is one of a kind, an artist. She’s up there with Vionnet, Madame Grès and McQueen.”

Her clients come to her mostly for suits, jackets, tailcoats (she’s made an extraordinary one covered in sequins for Guinness) or evening dresses and she has a host of specialist artisans she turns to for the embroidery, beading and handmade lace (including traditional craftspeople in Slovenia who make very unusual pieces).

Celia Kritharioti silk organza dress, designs from £10,000
Celia Kritharioti silk organza dress, designs from £10,000

Another McQueen protégé, Lee Paton, started out in ready-to-wear and still offers what he calls high-end luxury ready-to-wear. However, he found that “more and more women were asking me for special one-off pieces. It was demand that set me up. What I like about couture is that there is no limit on budget, so I can create truly beautiful pieces.” His clients come to him for all sorts of items. “One woman wanted a truly lovely bespoke tailored jacket, and for £25,000 that’s what she got,” recalls Paton. “I encrusted it with sequins and embroideries. There was a huge hand-embroidered rose on the back. She told me the jacket had made her feel like a princess for the first time in her life.”

Paton, too, thinks the fact that couture has lost its old-fashioned, stuffy associations has made it much more appealing to a new breed of customer. “I now make embellished T-shirts that become wearable art.” His clients can become immersed in the process in his studio as he creates everything in-house. He uses wools and tweeds from Yorkshire and the Highlands, while silk, lace and cotton come from France. Paton considers his aesthetic a “mixture of traditional British elegance and tailoring with detailed hand finishing inspired by the couture techniques of the early Parisian ateliers”.

Ulyana Sergeenko satin and net dress, €26,000
Ulyana Sergeenko satin and net dress, €26,000

Peter Dundas, former artistic director at Roberto Cavalli, recently launched what he calls a “couture ideology in ready-to-wear”, which he showed during Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week and sells on Matchesfashion.com and Moda Operandi (£3,860). But just like Deacon, Milner and Paton, Dundas also designs couture for a select group of clients, relishing the opportunity to create spectacular one-off designs (from €14,500). He describes his work as being “much more for the night”, which is to say he is best known for very glamorous, very sexy eveningwear (he created Beyoncé’s 2017 Grammys performance dress and, under the Emilio Pucci name, Poppy Delevingne’s wedding dress).

Meanwhile, designer Osman Yousefzada – who made his name with a strong, sculptural, almost architectural approach to clothing – opened the new Osman townhouse in March in London’s Fitzrovia. For his many clients (such as Helen Mirren, Charlize Theron, Felicity Jones and Livia Firth) there is an atelier for consultations, but, in addition, it’s also a cultural space with an art gallery, bookshop and ready-to-wear boutique. “The idea,” he says, “is to fill the gap and offer clothes that aren’t available in the ready-to-wear line. I don’t dress shrinking violets. My customers come to me for my strong tailoring, where the cut and fit are terribly important. My couture clothing has much the same aesthetic, but it means I can make pieces that are more fun, more special and really beautiful.”

Livia Firth at the 2017 Fashion Awards wearing an Osman marble jacquard viscose/silk-mix dress, price on request
Livia Firth at the 2017 Fashion Awards wearing an Osman marble jacquard viscose/silk-mix dress, price on request

Jet Shenkman’s Eponine label has long been a well-kept secret among the inhabitants of London’s W8 and W11 districts, but ever since the Duchess of Cambridge was photographed in one of Eponine’s signature tweed outfits, the rest of the world has come calling. Last year Shenkman opened a showroom-cum-studio in Kensington, where she has a selection of her most popular designs (from £1,900). Her speciality is incorporating rare tribal textiles into her bespoke dresses. She also has a cache of vintage kimonos, which she works into her one-off frocks, and this summer she cut vintage Russian Cossack blouses into her designs.

Celia Kritharioti is based in the Plaka district of Athens, where her family owns the oldest Greek fashion house (designs from £10,000). It opened its doors in 1906 (which makes it older than Chanel), and Kritharioti grew up immersed in the world of couture. She believes the revival of couture is a reaction to the negative effects of globalisation. “You find the same shoes, handbags and labels on every high street in every country,” she says. “The people who come to me don’t want to look like all their friends. They want something different.” She presented her first couture collection in Paris (at the Ritz hotel) during Haute Couture Fashion Week a year ago and this January she returned for the second time, showing a glorious confection of feminine dresses for grand occasions. She’s mostly known for her elaborate ball and wedding gowns, with lots of lace, embroidery and sequins, but also beautiful bias-cut gowns with dramatic bows and draping.

Iris van Herpen leather, liquid fabric and mylar gown, price on request
Iris van Herpen leather, liquid fabric and mylar gown, price on request

Over the past 18 months, Kritharioti has been coming regularly to London for one-on-one appointments with a growing number of clients. Her designs are true red-carpet statements, creations only a couture house could make, sought after by many a star of stage and screen. Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow are among her fans.

Finally, Russian designer Ulyana Sergeenko, who in 2012 was invited to present in Paris by the Chambre Syndicale and has done so ever since, visits the UK several times a year either to see clients in their own homes or to host trunk shows (such as those at Moda Operandi’s Knightsbridge showroom). Sergeenko says her clients look to couture because they “want to dream – they want something that is truly beautiful.” She finds some customers look to her for a complete wardrobe. She has created over 300 designs for one very high-profile family alone. All her work (dresses from about €14,000) is heavily inspired by Russian fairytales and artisanal skills. “I use lace makers whose craft dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries. I like to bring these beautiful things from the past into the modern world.”

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Haute couture, far from being in its death throes, is off the critical list and thriving. Led by some of the world’s most talented designers, couture in the 21st century is making itself fit for the modern world and for the contemporary lifestyles of its well-heeled customers. 

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