Couture Designers Try to Ride Out the Recession

In the 1980s, a French haute couturier named Christian Lacroix set the fashion world on fire with a curious invention called the pouf skirt. Innovative, extravagant, and decidedly impractical, it has evolved into an iconic symbol of the era's over-the-top sartorial indulgence, an esthetic that one might assume to be obsolete given the global financial meltdown. At this season's couture shows, however, which wrapped up this week, it was clear that reports of luxury's death have been greatly exaggerated. The super-rich continue to consume products that would boggle the mind of ordinary mortals. But these days, designers of $100,000 dresses are striking a note of modesty and discretion in the way they display their wares, even though the price tags remain as precious. The strategic recalibration of their sales pitch matches the moment's mood, and enables wealthy clients to avoid an appearance of insensitivity while continuing to dress in the manner to which they're accustomed.

Nowhere was this shift clearer than in the grand salon of the storied maison of Dior. The couture house downsized its show this season, shifting from the splendor of the Musée Rodin to the place where Christian Dior presented his first collection in 1947. The fuchsia silk fantasy gowns and lime-green satin corsets were anything but understated, but the setting clearly signaled a return to a less-ostentatious context that spotlit the craftsmanship that represents couture's raison d'être. Robert Burke—CEO of an eponymous luxury consulting firm, and the former fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman—observed preshow that, "twelve years ago, when I started attending the couture, shows were intimate and client-driven. What happened over the past number of years is that they became marketing and press tools. Now it's gone back to their original roots—consumers will still buy couture but it's becoming, once again, a more intimate experience."

At Givenchy, Riccardo Tisci cloaked his collection in an aura of mystery that echoed a Middle Eastern influence, using chiffon veils, metal masks, and modest lengths—a smart choice considering where much of couture's new clientele base hails from. His show, a personal best, left no doubt that the world of couture, while diminished, still has generous reserves of creative vitality remaining. But Tisci's geographical fixation also said something about the direction in which this rarefied world is headed. Arab culture places a premium on privacy, and in countries like Saudi Arabia, these gowns would be displayed and enjoyed inside the privacy of a home without any prying eyes to ogle them.

At Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld still opted for a grand gesture in his choice of venue, staging his show at sunset beneath the glass roof of the Grand Palais, but he made concessions by lining some of his dresses with embroidery on the inside instead of on the surface, playing off the idea of only the wearer knowing her outfit's real value.

Valentino had perhaps the most mood-appropriate show. Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli's all-black collection was simultaneously sober and sumptuous. It sacrificed nothing in terms of opulence, making use of lavish materials like silk mousseline, lace, mink, and jet crystal. The conspicuous lack of daywear made it clear that these clothes were destined for gala events, but the severe palette offset a potentially frivolous perception—whoever buys these pieces is dead serious about living the good life, but they don't plan on looking like a fool while they do so.

Susan Tabak, author of Chic in Paris and a couture client herself, knows the rarefied world from the inside out. She summed the situation up, commenting that "people who bought couture are continuing to do so, it's just that people are more discreet and quiet about it. The super high-end is not going to change that much."

It's clear that the super-rich are struggling, but unlike the rest of us, it's not to pay their bills—it's to find a way to continue enjoying the good life without leaving a bad impression. Most designers are doing their best to accommodate this shift inward, but not all are faring as well in their efforts. News broke shortly before couture week began that the house of Lacroix has filed for bankruptcy, illustrating the danger of building a brand on an esthetic that doesn't easily evolve to echo the contemporary mood. Still, Lacroix managed to rally his resources and to present his collection to a tiny audience composed almost exclusively of his most loyal clients, in stark contrast to the massive show staged last season in the Centre Pompidou featuring star attractions like Catherine Deneuve and Kanye West. The show read as a funeral procession of sorts, but somber mood aside, Lacroix's wealthy women will always need new dresses. No matter the state of world markets, the show must go on.