IT is couture week in Paris and I’m straining my ears, stooped behind an ornate screen in nothing but a pair of “couture knickers”. We are at the Valentinoheadquarters and sunlight is creeping through the windows of a very private room. I say “we” because, on the other side of the screen, an elusive woman whom I will never meet (one of that most rarefied of creatures, the couture customer) is being helped into a gown – I can hear her gasping and cooing. From what I can gather she likes what she sees, but even in the event she didn’t, these things could be dealt with. Behind me, dressed in a sombre uniform of black blouse and trousers, a petite woman named Antonietta deftly buttons me into a sheer floor-length dress with delicate golden ears of corn woven into the lace.
You might think a dress with a train suitable only for weddings. But according to Valentino, you’d be wrong. This particular garment is light as a feather and fits like a glove – a very expensive, floor-length glove. I, too, begin to coo and squeal spontaneously as the last button is fastened, unlocking my home screen and urging my new acquaintance to capture the moment on my camera phone. Antonietta, it transpires, may be capable of stitching together a painstaking work of art but an iPhone in her hands is a very alien concept; she blankly eyeballs the gadget for a few seconds before promptly thrusting it back in my direction. This behaviour is to be expected of someone who exists in the discreet, archaic world of couture, a world in which oversharing and Instagram have no place.
Despite its fusty reputation, and the age-old debate as to whether couture is still relevant in a modern, economically unstable world, this most luxuriously extravagant mode of dressmaking continues to surprise and inspire. And in recent years it has become a booming business once more – due, in large part, to the emergence of a new breed of young women prepared to spend their (hard-earned?) money on custom-made, hand-sewn, one-of-a-kind pieces of clothing. As Amanda Harlech, the feline muse and confidante to Karl Lagerfeld, observes: “As the high street snaps at the heels of ready-to-wear, and the internet allows us to ‘get the look’ instantly, so haute couture has become even more important.”
For women keen to dodge the Boxing Day sales, or the embarrassment of wearing the same dress as a friend to dinner, or perhaps the guilt of not knowing whether the people crafting your clothes have really been paid for their efforts, haute couture is a way of life. Literally meaning “high dressmaking”, the term rolls delectably around the mouths of the very fashionable (or, more precisely, the very rich). With couture, money can buy you style. And anonymity – the identities of who exactly might be investing in these exclusive designs, and how much they pay for them, are closely guarded secrets. The clients are so private, in fact, that often even the designers aren’t invited to meet them – an odd paradox among star designers accustomed to dealing with a world so desperate for their merchandise that most of us at some point have paid a hefty sum just to have their names emblazoned on a handbag.
“Sometimes they don’t want to see me,” Raf Simons deadpans as we navigate our way through a maze of grey-carpeted corridors that make up the offices of Dior in Paris. It’s the day after the Dior couture show and we are lost. “It’s not about me,” he explains of his relationship with his clients, “it’s about their privacy – and that’s also the beauty of couture.” He finally locates the right door and pushes it open to reveal his latest, masterful, bright collection inspired by global culture. It dangles from rails at the edges of the room expectantly – and will hang here for a few long days to provide clients with the opportunity to visit and interact with the garments at close quarters. Simons insists he is keen to change the way couture is thought of, to modernise it. Gesturing towards a hand-sewn white T-shirt, perched conspicuously between two ornate gowns, he makes a grand claim: “Couture is becoming more and more affordable.” If a dress can cost as much as a car, I wonder how much a T-shirt might set you back. A wheel’s worth?
Over at the Chanel show, Karl Lagerfeld has conjured a futuristic set staged amid the crumbling ruins of a theatre at the Grand Palais. Paris is sweltering and guests are vigorously fanning themselves with beautiful Chanel booklets; Kristen Stewart is doing her best not to wilt in leather as she takes her seat beside a sulky-mouthed Michael Pitt, and Rihanna is reportedly in here somewhere, but she is somewhat camouflaged in a sea of immaculately dressed women. The atmosphere is relaxed, or at least a lot calmer than the mad frenzy that usually surrounds the unveiling of a ready-to-wear collection – a fact that may have to do with the injection of clients among the fashionable celebrities. The most highly subjective spectators, they don’t have to love everything they see – the collection is merely a starting point for a creative collaborative process. From the designer’s perspective, it’s because couture is freer. As Harlech, who is in the audience today, declares: “This is where a designer’s imagination can find its finest articulation.”
Moments later and the Chanel models are storming towards me in knee-high boots and dresses so finely detailed it’s impossible to take it all in: after five minutes I have whiplash. I spy one dress so breathtaking that I’m already plotting how to win an Oscar, in order to justify wearing it. I’ve rarely worn couture: the first time I did was for an awards ceremony a few years ago. Valentino let me borrow a pale pink jacket and skirt plastered in tiny delicate flowers which was – rather unnervingly – flown over from Paris with its own security guard. Feeling like a million dollars and wearing a million dollars, it transpires, are mutually inclusive. However, it’s not altogether fun: I spent the entire evening cowering in a corner terrified somebody would gesture too wildly, drink in hand, and with a single splash ruin the work of art I was wearing. And I wore a tuxedo dress from Chanel couture to a presentation in Paris, in 2011, which made me very late because I dedicated so much time beforehand to taking photos of it. After the show had finished and I had handed the outfit back sadly, I emailed Chanel and asked that when I die I be buried in it. They didn’t seem to take my request seriously, but it was so perfect that (just like the women who buy couture) I wanted to own it forever.
Back in New York for the Vogue shoot, Patrick Demarchelier‘s simple no-nonsense studio has been transformed into a wonderland – not by elaborate sets or dramatic lighting, but simply because of the clothes I am wearing. Vogue‘s fashion director, Lucinda Chambers, has selected nine couture dresses from various houses, including Dior, Armani and Versace, to shoot today and I am like a kid in a sweetshop, grabbing at the rails, foaming at the mouth to try things on. For Chambers, shooting couture is a liberating experience because the clothes speak for themselves. “I think with couture you want to leave it alone because it’s so beautiful,” she says. “What’s so great is that you can do it in so many different ways, but you’re not thinking about what’s a trend. You’re thinking, how can I make these clothes magical and have a narrative that has nothing to do with fashion. You just want to celebrate the glory of them and their gorgeousness, rather than saying ‘Wear pink’ or ‘This is tweed’.”
It would be easy to get lost in the dresses, analysing them at length and taking in all the painstaking details, but once on, those details never seem to overwhelm the final effect. Our story today is inspired by Charlie Chaplin; I’m unsure how tomboyish I can make these elegant gowns appear, but decide to give it my best shot (mainly because I have no choice). I can see the men’s woollen trousers and a variety of wigs perched beside the dizzying array of sequined tulle on display, waiting for us to start. Couture requires serious dedication: it takes three people to assist a heavily beaded Armani dress up a flight of stairs – even with me bearing most of its weight – and can be hard to move in. But once I’m in position, everything comes together and my outfit makes me want to act differently, to be better. Ordinarily on a shoot the only character I play is an amped-up version of myself, but the task of channelling my inner Chaplin is made easy because the couture makes me feel different: I am transformed as soon as I put it on. I feel special; it’s a decadent experience.
Maria Grazia Chiuri – the head designer, along with Pierpaolo Piccioli, atValentino – enjoys dreaming up new couture ideas almost as much as wearing it. She considers herself very lucky to have the opportunity to own something tailor-made for her. “I feel the quality. Even if it’s a simple dress, the cut is so perfect, so clean, it’s never wrong. You feel perfect.” Harlech takes it one step further. When talking of her extensive collection of Chanel couture, she says: “It’s like a lover. You never stop having a conversation with it – both physically and spiritually. You reinhabit the story of wearing a piece each time you put it on.”
The time has come for me to reinhabit my own clothes, and I can’t say I’m happy about it. I’m having a hard time saying goodbye to the Valentino corn dress I first tried on in Paris, but I must. I pull on my trusty denim hotpants and plain white T-shirt (sadly, not the Dior one) and walk back on set to bid everyone farewell. “I almost didn’t recognise you,” the make-up artist exclaims.
I traipse off back to the East Village, back to reality, back to scrolling through my iPhone photos. And I remember clothes really do make the man, or woman. As long as many men (or women) spent hours making them specifically for you.