Lingering global recession brings haute couture down a few pegs

A model presents a creation by British fashion designer John Galliano for Dior's Haute Couture Fall Winter 2009-2010 fashion collection yesterday in Paris. A model presents a creation by British fashion designer John Galliano for Dior's Haute Couture Fall Winter 2009-2010 fashion collection yesterday in Paris. (Jacques Brinon/ AP)
By Jenny Barchfield
Associated Press / July 7, 2009
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PARIS - During a recession, how do you hawk a dress that costs more than many cars?

That’s the dilemma facing the handful of luxury labels that still craft haute couture - the collections of sumptuous, wildly expensive garments made-to-measure for an elite cadre of the world’s ultra-rich.

During the bull market, labels considered couture lines and their showcases - lavish, media-saturated catwalk displays that started this week in Paris - to be headline-grabbing investments that helped bolster sales of more accessible ready-to-wear collections and accessories, perfume, and cosmetics lines.

But with the luxury industry reeling from the global financial crisis, the future of haute couture - and its $28,000 dresses - looks anything but certain.

In May, couturier Christian Lacroix launched insolvency proceedings, raising the specter that the label, whose dazzling cocktail dresses in eye-popping colors have come to epitomize couture, could close up shop.

The words “haute couture’’ are often tossed around casually, but in France there are formal, legal guidelines that define the practice, dictating a minimum number of original designs as well as a baseline number of technical workers.

There are currently only 11 full-fledged members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. With its correspondents and guests, there are two dozen designers on this week’s official schedule of catwalk shows.

Designer Ralph Rucci, an American invited to Paris as a guest in the early 2000s, has since returned to the New York catwalks, mostly for financial reasons. Rucci said he believes couture is still viable, but added that Lacroix erred by failing to balance it with ready-to-wear.

A Paris commercial court has placed Lacroix in receivership, setting a six-month observation period to see whether the label - which has never in its 22-year-long history made a profit - can turn itself around.

“For us, the crisis is like an earthquake, and some houses are going to fall,’’ said designer Stephane Rolland, who launched his eponymous haute couture line about 2 1/2 years ago. “It would be too sad if Lacroix were among those houses because what he does is pure art. I simply cannot believe he’ll be permitted to fall.’’

Still, pillars of couture have crumbled before. Elsa Schiapparelli, an extravagant Italian aristocrat who made fashion history in the 1920s and 1930s, folded following World War II, as did legendary French label Madeleine Vionnet.

Balmain, which marked the heyday of couture from the postwar period through the late 1950s, went through a period of turmoil after shedding its haute couture line, and more recently reinvented itself as a red-hot pret-a-porter label.

Other designers, like Nina Ricci and Emanuel Ungaro, continue to struggle to find their footing since shuttering their loss-making couture lines.

Though these are the most turbulent times couturiers have faced in recent years, observers have long predicted the death of haute couture.

“Rumors of couture’s demise have always been in the wind, despite growth spurts now and then,’’ said the Town & Country magazine’s editor in chief, Pamela Fiori.