Alexander Fury: Couture Diary As A Fictional One-Percenter
Imagine, for a second, my name isn’t Alex but Alexis. I’m the heiress to a multimillion Texan oil fortune, but married a manufacturer of, oh, let’s say, sanitary products and nuclear armaments, to bump that into the billions. He paid me off with a lavish settlement, as did my second husband, a doddering middle-European aristocrat with a sprawling estate curlicuing around a private island just outside of Salzburg. My latest collects old masters and does something with credit cards – his name is on the back of lots of them, which means mine is on the front of a carbon fibre black Amex. I like my hats big and my dresses small, dresses that are always so much younger than my face. Although, granted, said face is not exactly as God made it.
What I’m getting at is this: imagine I’m at the haute couture not just to admire, but to acquire. Which is the actual point of the whole damn thing. We’re always at a great, grand flick through the rack at a fashion show. But unlike the ready-to-wear, where the buyers are purchasing swathes of clothes for perceived niches in the market, the haute couture is more precise. You don’t see buyers at couture; you see clients. They can be cleaved, neatly, into two categories: first wives, with third husbands; or third wives, frequently accompanied by their first husband. The age gap is normally a minimum of 30 years between the types. And they’re only buying for themselves.
Viewing the shows with that mind-set, you see things differently. Bombing through the scrum outside of the Atelier Versace show (at 7.30pm, to make dinner reservations at Caviar Kaspia at 9pm), clients are fired by a purely avaricious urge. The press are mere observers, there to applaud and laud designers, some to critique, most to be entertained. For the clients, it’s a serious business. These clothes aren’t anachronistic, archaic eye fodder with unfathomable (and, always, unspoken) price tags. They are what they will be wearing next season.
Price tags are a big deal in couture. At least, they are for the uninitiated. Most casual observers can’t get over the astronomical costs, even if they can comprehend the fact that, say, the 600 hours taken to hand embroider Donatella Versace’s distressed ash-grey chiffon evening gown, will add up. Six hundred hours equals, roughly, 17 weeks’ work. The big trouble with couture is that no one wants to talk about those costs. As Alex, I called up a few, trying to nail them down: they would all let me espouse the numbers of hours spent on pieces (between 2,000 and 2,500 each for a bunch of Valentino dresses embroidered to look like pietra dura marble, for instance), but not one would tell me the bottom line. Or maybe no one could. “I just don’t know who I could ask,” said one Paris house’s representative, her exasperation equalling mine.
If I were a client, however, I wouldn’t care. For Alexis, price tags aren’t an issue. That’s the level of luxury we’re talking about when considering the clientele of haute couture: money simply doesn’t matter. That’s not to say they’re uncaring, ordering entire couture collections rather than dithering to make a decision; they’re connoisseurs, garment-based gastronomists. They would rather consume less, but better. That’s the whole idea of the couture: you could order a wardrobe filled with ready-to-wear gowns for the reputed costs of these babies. The most recent example I know of isn’t even so recent: it’s Melania Trump’s Christian Dior wedding gown, which cost around $200,000 10 years ago.
That’s Alex talking, by the way: Alexis doesn’t look at her couture bills. She thinks such a practice is vulgar.
It’s interesting to look at the shows through the surgically enhanced eyes of a client. As Alexis, for instance, I’m not sure I’d be sporting the frayed and feathered ball gowns, like cumulonimbus pile-ups of froth in baby blue and silver with bodices caged off with velvet ribbon, that the press went so wild for at Donatella Versace’s Atelier show. Afterwards, as she flicks through pictures idly snapped on her iPhone while she waits for the beluga-laden potato to show up (she’ll eat the beluga, leave the potato), Alexis is struck by an orange number scribbled with blue. Stanis, her husband, an industrialist and art collector (aren’t they all?) likes colour. She may try to buy.
It happens that quickly. If you walk through Valentino’s haute couture salon, in their newly refurbished digs in Rome’s Piazza Mignanelli, at 5.30pm the day after their show – as I did – you will witness carnage. Dresses have been tossed, mauled, flipped inside out, garment bags and jewellery strewn around. Incredulously, I ask if the appointments begin the next day – “They’ve already begun!” an aide told me. “Look at the mess!” You do. Then you walk out, onto the Spanish Steps, and try fruitlessly to hail a taxi, if you’re Alex. Alexis has her limousine purring in wait.
That’s another element of the couture puzzle that people seldom think about: the logistics of the damn stuff. Couture clients fly to Paris to see the shows – this season, a slew then went on to Italy, an unexpected additional step, to bolster the 700-plus audience at Valentino’s off-piste Romanesque show. But they have to be readily available at their chosen couture house, to select outfits with the help of a vendeuse (that nice Virginie Laubie at Chanel, who looked after them for all those years at Yves Saint Laurent, or maybe Catherine Rivière of Dior). Then measured (in case bodies have changed), fitted (in case minds have changed) and fitted again. Couture is a lengthy process for all involved. There’s a price for perfection, and it includes a suite at Le Bristol and a driver. Unless you have a home in Paris, of course. Which could easily be cheaper.
Daphne Guinness was sitting at the latest Elsa Schiaparelli show, her hair swept up and off, boldly streaked with platinum. She’s a rarely visible couture client – many duck out of the shows altogether. Versace, for instance, gets most of their customers online. They react after the show, contacting from India, Russia and Brazil, ordering ravenously. Dior and Chanel now send their haute couture collections whirring round the world, to New York and the Far East; Chanel added Dubai, Seoul and London to the list this time around. Much more convenient. “We are not trying to expand,” states Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of fashion. “We are just trying to target the right customers. If necessary, we can travel everywhere in the world to go and present the collection to these customers.”
Pavlovsky characterises them as “the happy few” – maybe because, as opposed to that oft-cited one percent, the percentage point of these women would be microscopic. They number, at best, 1,000 women worldwide. Many come from the Middle East, the oil-rich nations of the Arab Emirates – notice how Chanel added Dubai to the list of go-to designations on their couture whistle-stop tour? Those Middle Eastern clients gravitate towards Elie Saab especially, whose clothes are sympathetic to the demands of their lives, sumptuously decorated, decorous and graceful. When I – as Alex – asked if the golden headpieces in the show were crowns, the Saab contingent shook their heads violently. Their clients have their own crowns, I bet. But they still need princess dresses. Alexis knows it’s tough to embroider clothes like this – especially in such abundance. In the polished salons of the Saab salon on Avenue Raymond Poincaré, the infernal traffic that chokes the Arc de Triomphe humming, barely audible, in the background, she fingers the beadwork on a tulle dress picking out a gold Byzantine pattern. The heads of a throng of vendeuses bob eagerly, like a nodding dog in the back of a Mini Metro with buggered suspension thundering over cobbles. She’s considering it.
We’ve leapt ahead a couple of days, because Alexis is still sitting alongside Guinness in the hot, pink salon of the Hôtel d’Évreux, waiting for Bertrand Guyon’s Schiaparelli debut to begin. She smiles with her mouth, but not eyes. She’s wearing sable, in 32C-degree heat. The show is nice – better – but the real decisions will be made a day or so later, in the couture salons next door to the hotel on the Place Vendôme.
The Schiaparelli salons are frequently described as whimsical, which is a word I loathe, but in actual fact they’re just a bit offbeat. They have swirly-whirly mirrors and weirdly juxtaposed colours and a big, fat, tufted-satin couch in that Schiap pink that everyone is obsessed with. The colour showed up at Versace and Armani, too. Maybe it’s an Italian thing.
Maison Schiaparelli reminds Alexis a little of the salons of Christian Lacroix, down on the Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, with their jumble of colours and wrought-iron furniture by Garouste and Bonetti, a bit knackered towards the end. She pads around with Patricia Muller, the Schiaparelli directrice. Ex Gaultier. They know each other well. She tries a coat in turkey-red brocade, and a mink skirt with an intarsia profile. Those remind her of Lacroix, too.
But does it really matter what Alexis buys? However much houses may insist that the clients are key, the profits on couture are minuscule – few are said to make any money through the enterprise, mark-up generally being 1% or less. Couture clients stay thin so they can buy the sample, at a discount. The bridal gown from last winter’s Chanel show, in angel-skin neoprene, with its gold embroidered train, was sold on.
That why Alexis forgoes the potato that comes with her caviar.
Nevertheless, couture houses are wont to emphasise that business is now booming – Dior’s sales, for instance, jerked up 25% after the appointment of Raf Simons. He’s a moderniser, who is appealing to customers beyond mere red-carpet dressing. There are far too few of those: Mr Armani and his perfectly cut black trousers; Mr Lagerfeld, of course. But Simons is a new breed. His sweeping coats with a Flemish air, fusing tailleur and flou with pleated, inside-out reversible linings, felt fresh. Desirable.
In the grey salons of 30 Avenue Montaigne, a week after the couture show, Alexis flexes her feet impatiently in her Massaro shoes as she places her first order. She may have broken a toe (she’s on a lot of Klonopin, she’s not entirely sure), but she doesn’t care. She’s ordering Look 3, an avocado-green cashmere coat with a single ivory mink sleeve, from the winter Dior collection. It reminds her of a Cranach her husband recently bought at Sotheby’s. The dress underneath will instead be wool, cut to the knee – the prerogative of an haute couture client is collaboration, working with the house to satisfy her needs. Madame Rivière personally oversees the order. Brigitte is left with the tedious details.
Alexis will wear it to Gstaad next season.
Text by Alexander Fury, fashion editor of The Independent, The Independent on Sunday and i
Taken from Issue 55 of 10 Magazine, on newsstands now…
Photograph by Jason Lloyd-Evans, taken backstage at Christian Dior Haute Couture AW15