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The following article entitled 'A Snub (of Sorts) To Fancy' by Cathy Horne appeared in The New York Times online on July 8, 2009.


HAUTE couture isn’t as much about having money as it is about having the conviction that taste actually matters. Because if you don’t have money in fashion — and, at the moment, many designers do not — it helps to have something else to offer.


For at least a decade, haute couture’s prime focus has been money, registered in the opulence and uselessness of many of the clothes and then the bitter closing of yet another couture house. The emphasis on richness at the expense of more-real qualities existed at all levels in fashion; even the young designer, pumped with notions of brand building, was encouraged to pursue the so-called aspirational consumer. And why not? That’s where the money was.


But in high fashion — that is, in Paris couture where the clothes are made by hand for private clients — this sort of thinking has been destructive. Fashion executives functioned a lot like mortgage bankers: starting in the late 1990s, they handed money to people — designers — who did not have normal boundaries. They created edifices of luxury, went on trips, got high, bought contemporary art, hired chefs and personal trainers. And then, when the economy collapsed, the executives called in the note. They downsized, brought the spoiled designers to heel.


Of course the executives, like the bankers, mistook the dream. Haute couture is really about taste and aesthetic vision. It’s the kind of vision that Karl Lagerfeld showed the other night at Chanel, with clothes — dark tweed suits with long gold-lined clerical panels at the back, or dresses with spiraling armorlike flashes of embroidery — that resist being quantified as “new” or “modern.” In that sense, couture is a lot like a novel or a piece of music. It offers a very specific experience.



The best show of the couture season, which ended Wednesday night, was Christian Lacroix, and it was indeed a bittersweet triumph. Mr. Lacroix may be forced to close his house unless its owner, the Falic Group, can find a buyer. The staff has already been cut to a handful of people who can manage licenses for products like scarves and men’s shirts. For the couture show, Mr. Lacroix used fabrics he had on hand, while friends and suppliers chipped in other things. Bruno Frisoni of the shoe company Roger Vivier alerted his boss, Diego Della Valle, and they provided peau de soie pumps.


 


Yet it’s hardly a surprise that the fashion community here is generous, and anyway it’s beside the point. Mr. Lacroix’s clothes express the advantages of having taste and judgment, qualities that not only stand out when you’ve stripped away the glittery excess but that also seem morally superior.


Beginning with a midnight-blue trapeze dress in crepe with a low V-back, each of the 24 outfits looked wonderfully right. Each outfit told you something about dressing. That line and proportion have a mysterious effect. That lichen tweed and pearly silk faille are marvelous cousins. That a bit of black tulle point d’esprit spilling over the shoulders makes a lovely, melancholic frame for a woman’s face. That irony and historical references don’t matter if the models look as if they wouldn’t wear the clothes if given a choice.


François Lesage, the couture embroiderer, raised the question that was on many minds during this masterful show of everyday chic. “Why couldn’t he have done it earlier?” Mr. Lesage said in The International Herald Tribune.


Luxury tycoons like Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, used to bank on the headlines they got from couture spectacles. A famous example was the collection based on Paris hobos that John Galliano did at Dior, shortly after he was hired by Mr. Arnault to shake the bourgeois off the label.



Nowadays, however, Mr. Galliano doesn’t stray far from the company script. Instead of talking about what might be going on in the streets, something he saw with his own eyes, he refers to the “codes” of the house — to Christian Dior’s tailoring, to his favorite good-luck charms and celebrated clients.


On the one hand, this exploration of codes — the cut of a jacket or the use of underpinnings to achieve a silhouette — gives Mr. Galliano a well-marked playground in which they can’t get into too much trouble. The lingerie effects in the show didn’t really add anything to the tailoring or the cocktail dresses, but they didn’t take away anything, either. A coatdress, set off by a platter hat of crimson feathers, caught the tension between masculine and feminine elements as the lapel dissolved into soft folds near the collarbone. You could mentally erase the white lingerie frill added inside the dress’s softly rounded hem.


On the other hand, Mr. Galliano doesn’t really escape the richness he once liberally questioned. As deft and light as much of the tailoring is, these are still clothes that wear you. They’re pretty bourgeois, in fact. They don’t have a modern quality of ease, and while they might suggest other purposes, like seduction, ultimately they don’t reveal a decisive taste.


After the show, which was held in the house, Mr. Arnault said of the collection, “It’s more refined,” adding with a smile, “and it’s selling very well, which I like.” Well-fortified couture houses like Dior and Chanel don’t feel the recession nearly as badly as other companies (though Sidney Toledano, the president of Dior, said business is still tough in Europe, with some improvement in the United States).


But refinement goes beyond stylish considerations. It also involves, in Mr. Galliano’s case, stripping away certain habits and beliefs acquired in the last decade that insist on studied attitudes like rigor and allure, and not on qualities that genuinely inspire. Mr. Lagerfeld’s approach to Chanel really amounts to an aesthetic vision of Coco Chanel’s modern uniform, with the added value of his German background. Some couture collections feel as light and tempting as a meringue, others seem as heavy-going as a history volume. Either way, though, you get a very specific experience.


The key difference in the twilight-hour show he presented on Tuesday at Grand Palais was the suit or dress with a detached panel at the back. Some of the panels were long or lined in a contrasting color or pattern like leopard. But they were a theme, and at first one wished for a giant pair of scissors to emerge from behind the huge perfume bottles of the set. Snip, snip — aahhh!


But as the show moved on, the great Lagerfeld brain began to scatter around its strange and wonderful treasures: black tulle Darth Vader helmets, a loose black dress with a sequined bib outlined in what appeared to be fur, a series of slashed black chiffon dresses with the texture of feathers, and the almost three-dimensional effect of embroidered dresses in metallic hues. It was mesmerizing, with the line of the clothes essentially modern.


Was the sunset at Chanel symbolic of couture’s fading light? Maybe. A lot now rests on Mr. Lagerfeld and Mr. Galliano, and also on Jean Paul Gaultier, who proved with a Hollywood collection that you can get mileage — and laughs — out of anything if you’re not overly attached to it. Mr. Gaultier played up the siren sequins, now as overalls, as images of film legends swam over a blue background.


Riccardo Tisci’s collection for Givenchy looked heavy-handed, the Arabic references — embroidered harem trousers, veiled faces, jangling gold work — recalling a show Alexander McQueen did a number of years ago; his tailoring, too.


Alexis Mabille’s clothes were superlight and girlishly pretty, with lace-edged white blouses popped over short skirts and pale blue feathers blowing down the front of lean black evening dress. Mr. Mabille has something, but is it enough?

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