Mention “couture” and most people think of the perfumed salons of the great Parisian couturiers – Chanel, Dior and their ilk – with images of immensely wealthy customers, grand ballgowns, intricate embroidery, hushed fitting rooms, extraordinary fabrics, discreet service and stratospheric price tags.
But the world of haute couture has changed beyond recognition. In 1946, just after the end of the second world war, there were 106 official haute-couture houses in Paris; today there are just 11, with only about four of them (Chanel, Dior, Givenchy and Jean Paul Gaultier) having any real international clout. And whereas it used to be about the cream of English, American and French society tripping off to Paris (or to the Mayfair salons of Hartnell and Hardy Amies) for their elegant gowns, today it’s mostly the pampered wives of the leaders and oligarchs from the ’stans, the Middle East and Asia who can pay the escalating sums the salons now command.
What is not widely known, however, is that there is actually a growing number of very fine couturiers outside the gilded circle of the Paris-based Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (the official French trade union that lays down the rules and regulations governing haute couture) who offer clothes that are usually less about pomp and show and more about individuality, comfort, fit and wearability, as well as much friendlier price tags – though quite what transforms bespoke clothing from mere dressmaking into couture isn’t always clear.
Anna Valentine is one of London’s most established couturiers (or dressmakers, depending on your point of view) and most famously devises quite a large part of the Duchess of Cornwall’s wardrobe (including the exquisitely appropriate dove-grey silk dress and coat the Duchess wore for her 2005 wedding to Prince Charles). Explaining the difference between haute couture in Paris and what she offers, she says, “Paris is much more about the statement pieces. I am all about making very wearable clothes that can be used in different ways. Some of my clients might well go to Paris for a dress for, say, a very large party or ball when they want something truly spectacular, but then they will come to me when they are travelling to a hot country and are looking for comfort and great quality. They want to put something on and just feel fabulous.”
Valentine’s is a very British way of doing things. Many of her clients have been with her throughout the 26 years she has been in business and she feels that she provides a more intimate, collaborative process than is on offer in Paris. “It’s not about clothes that have been on the catwalk, but about pieces that work for them. My main clients come to me to add to their existing wardrobe, so I try to create some excitement each season.” And there is always a core collection that is used as a basis for discussion. “Some buy the design exactly as it is, although, of course, we make it to fit them perfectly. Others want it adapted – longer, shorter, different sleeves and so on.”
For existing customers whose measurements she knows Valentine could probably turn around a garment in three weeks, while something more elaborate for a new client (she does do eveningwear, although primarily of an elegant, understated kind; example pictured above, £5,290) could take as long as six months. As a ballpark figure, a day dress would start at around £3,000 and a coat at about £4,500 (coat, £4,485, and dress, £3,385).
Said Cyrus is another of the less flamboyant makers of very British clothing. He was the husband of the late and much-loved Catherine Walker, whose clothes were sought after by Princess Diana, as well as by a host of professional women who want outfits that will stand them in good stead for their high-flying lives. Cyrus, who lectured at the Chelsea School of Art and Design for 10 years, and Walker met through a mutual friend, and although she was the “face” of the business, he was intensely involved in every aspect of it, including designing behind the scenes. When she died, he says, “I thought, ‘OK, I’m the memory of the company and I will carry on her work.’” There are several studios ranged in and around Chelsea’s Sydney Street, employing around 25 craftspeople, some of whom have been honing their skills for 60 years or more. “One of our strengths is that we have several men’s tailors working for us, which is unusual, so women’s coats and dresses with sharp, clean lines have become some of our distinctive silhouettes. This isn’t something you would get from most dressmakers.” Cyrus sees himself as being very different from the Paris couturiers. “We don’t offer French sexiness, but rather a gentle English sensuality with subtle, hazy palettes. When we started, we went back to the era of Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary to a time when clothes exuded a calm luxury. That’s the spirit of our handwriting. We might take, say, the hard construction of the shoulder from masculine tailoring and then attach it to the softness of a dress.”
Cyrus finds that customers are changing all the time. “Now there is a new, younger international woman – she might be French, Italian, Spanish or from the satellite countries around Russia – but then we also get customers like the one who came in last week with a coat she had bought for her daughter’s christening. The same daughter – now grown-up – wanted it altered so that she could wear it.
“Couture in the old days used to be about small salons having wonderful shows, although now houses may put on quite spectacular displays, but they’re really about selling perfume, whereas couture is all we do. We’re small and we offer a devoted, personal service. We preserve our handwriting by doing two collections a year, which we use as a starting point.” Cyrus’s prices are, he says, about half of what Paris charges, with the starting price for an evening dress being about £10,000.
Not, of course, that some of the Brits can’t do fabulous ball or wedding dresses. Bruce Oldfield is famous for being able to turn on the pizzazz and come up with something stunning for the bride, her mother, the discarded girlfriend wanting to fly the flag or any woman hoping to woo a new admirer. He does what he does beautifully, which is why he has a long line of faithful clients who come back again and again. He thinks the English way is much more pragmatic than the French and offers what he calls a “less formal, more intimate service” than the grand Parisians. “I have closer links with Savile Row than the Avenue Montaigne,” he says, “and apart from anything else, we charge a fraction of the price for equally well-made, special pieces of clothing.”
He also thinks there will always be a need for his day outfits and his evening dresses, not to mention, of course, his wedding dresses. “Our business is always in flux – it keeps us on our toes. New people come along as others bow out. It could be a woman whose husband has become a CEO or who has nabbed a prince or had a windfall. There will always be the client who needs a dress for a special occasion, as mother of the bride or for a significant anniversary. There are also the women who love the pampering and the experience of having something made for them that fits, flatters and feels fabulous. And then there are others who just can’t be bothered to shop and rely on us to provide a comprehensive wardrobe for them each season.”
Meanwhile, there are a few new players on the glam scene. There’s Nicholas Oakwell, for instance, who only launched his label around three years ago and is already making something of a name for himself with his gorgeous ballgowns. Helen Mirren and Paloma Faith wore his creations to last year’s Baftas. He’s also been picked up by Carmen Busquets of CoutureLab. “I’d always wanted to do couture,” he tells me, “but in the 1980s, when I was growing up, everybody said that it was dead and so the notion got beaten out of me. I went into millinery, which is quite a good foundation for couture – it is craft-based and needs intricate skills. Then, about three years ago, I felt the moment was right. I show in the Claridge’s ballroom and make in Britain, using local skills and as many British fabrics, including Somerset-woven silks, as I can.” His eveningwear has many of the hallmarks of the true couturier – lots of beading, feathers and paillettes, and materials such as organza, silk and satin. These are statement evening dresses loved by his youngish clientele.
“My customers come from as far afield as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the US,” he explains, “and many of them have numerous homes around the world for which they need different clothes for a range of climates and events.” His youngest to date is an 18-year‑old, but he finds that girls in their mid‑twenties to mid-thirties will start off coming to him for an evening dress or something for a wedding. Then they come for a suit. “What I love is that they will wear the jacket separately, taming it with a pair of jeans and a shirt.” He’s also found that professional women seem to have an awful lot of work‑related evening events at which they have to look the part – elegant, stylishly dressed and age‑appropriate – and they have started coming to him as well. “The higher up the ladder they go, the harder it is for them to find the right piece that really fits in among the ready‑to-wear items.” His process is very similar, he says, to the system in the Parisian houses. “It takes up to three months – longer if hand-embroideries are involved. We make a block first and there are several fittings.” Prices for a day dress start at about £7,500 and for an evening dress at £15,000.
Tamara Ralph and Michael Russo, of Ralph & Russo, are two Australians who met by chance in London, discovered a mutual love both for each other and for enterprise and in 2007 launched their own couture-focused label. They are best-known for an almost old-fashioned glamour, creating beautifully tailored daywear and floor-sweeping gowns that hark back to the 1940s and 1950s and the golden age of Hollywood. They got their big break when Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the first lady of Qatar, fell in love with their work, and since then they’ve gone from strength to strength, with Beyoncé and Angelina Jolie wearing their designs to red-carpet events. In January 2014, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture invited them to show in Paris, and in July they will be doing so again. In addition, the V&A displayed one of their ballgowns in its great Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 exhibition. Today they have workshops employing 60 people and showrooms in London and Paris, where customers can make discreet appointments to be fitted for an arresting ballgown or a more tailored day dress.
Another newcomer is Nevena Nikolova, who hails from Sofia, where she learnt to sew at her mother’s knee. She has opened a salon in Knightsbridge where she specialises in ravishingly glamorous evening and daywear, and offers the full couture service, involving a toile and at least four fittings. She also uses very luxurious fabrics and is exceedingly fond of lace, which she buys from the same source as many of the grand Parisian couturiers – to wit the Sophie Hallette factory in northern France. She is happy to bring to life any design that you have in mind. Her prices start at £2,500 for daywear; £5,000 for an evening dress.
If you have ever wondered whether couture is still relevant today, these designers make a compelling case for their craft. We are so used to seeing photographs of beautiful women wearing the latest directional clothing that it’s easy to forget that most of us aren’t a perfect shape and need a little more help than ready‑to-wear’s standard sizes give. As Oakwell put it in an interview he gave to Vogue a couple of years ago, the art of couture “is more relevant than ever – everyone buys luxury. People want something special, one-off.” And, increasingly, clients are finding exactly that in London.