Couture is not dead; it's merely gone incognito. At the haute couture shows in Paris in January, a few hours after Chanel staged a winter-white spectacular featuring 40 top models and hundreds of guests in a grand former bank on Rue Cambon, a little-known dressmaker named Dominique Sirop crammed 50 or 60 journalists and photographers into his tiny atelier off Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where three unknown models posed in turns on a makeshift, rotating pedestal inelegantly draped with black cloth. There was no trace of grandeur in the air—the carpet was worn in patches, no waiters passed flutes of champagne—yet each of the looks that Sirop sent out, fashioned primarily from intricately draped chiffon, made as much of an impression as the marvels of elaborate embroidery that Karl Lagerfeld had unleashed at Chanel.
Though the atmosphere at la maison de Sirop is decidedly less grandiose than at Dior, Gaultier or Valentino, the level of esthetic accomplishment is no less impressive. He has been granted admission to the elite Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, the French trade union of high fashion, which sets the rigorous design criteria by which houses are formally accredited as haute couturiers. The main differences between his customers and Chanel's are that his are received in a humble atelier by a tiny staff, instead of in a gilded mansion served by a small army of attendants. And when, at society galas, the women are asked, "Who are you wearing?" the answer is likely to draw a blank. Perhaps most significantly, an evening dress from the house of Sirop will cost in the tens of thousands of euros—a small fraction of the cost of a gown from Chanel, where the most heavily embellished styles can stretch past €200,000.
In haute couture's smaller-scaled parallel universe, designers have only their handicraft to help them make their mark on an industry blinded by brand names. Lacking advertising budgets, they fail to attract much editorial attention, and consequently their client base can only grow via word of mouth. But given the state of the world economy, their leaner operations, smaller overhead and more accessible price points leave them better positioned than ever to survive. Controlling costs is a key element of their success. "The price of the final piece is a result of the reputation of the house, but also the hours spent on the piece," says Stêphane Rolland, another small couturier. His atelier has adopted a more efficient approach, in which he sketches and drapes very quickly and then uses innovative cutting techniques, which allow him "to keep the same quality, of course, but to be more modern in the realization." Becca Cason Thrash, a prominent Houston socialite and one of haute couture's most visible clients, is an ardent supporter of smaller couturiers. "They're the future," she says. "In addition to the lower price points, many of these emerging talents offer a fresh new take, and they're trying a lot harder than some of the older designers."
Besides Sirop and Rolland, the roster of unsung talent includes Franck Sorbier, Adeline André and Maurizio Galante, most of whom have gained formal status as haute couturiers in the past decade. Younger guest members include Christopher Josse and Alexis Mabille, relative newcomers to the craft of couture who show strong promise. Their prices are much lower than their larger competitors': Rolland's begin at about €20,000, with an average price around €35,000; Sorbier's and Josse's begin at €8,000, with an average about €15,000. These prices compare favorably with designer ready-to-wear, which at its highest end can cost almost the same—without the added value of a custom fit. Considering that a couture dress from Dior or Chanel tends to begin around €100,000, buying from the smaller houses looks like a relative bargain.
While couture houses across the board generally posted respectable growth in 2008, the gains among the second-string couturiers were especially strong. Sorbier's sales have increased approximately 10 percent each year since 2005, Josse's approximately 35 percent per year since then, and Rolland's sales grew 30 percent from 2007 to 2008. Perhaps the most successful member of haute couture's next generation, Rolland counts among his clients a number of Middle Eastern royals, while Josse and Sorbier have earned the support of social heavyweights like Ivana Trump.
Although the large houses have at their command enormous support staffs and marketing machines—in addition to production budgets that would make designers like Rolland blush—the smaller ateliers believe they have unique advantages, both strategic and philosophical. "The bigger you are, the more difficult and dangerous it is," says Rolland. "We are a small family—it's just the beginning and there's a fresh ambience. The difficulty when you grow up is to keep this mentality. I want to keep this house human." Nicolas Brouet, the business director for Christopher Josse, says the brand aims to appeal to a different kind of couture consumer. "We cannot compare to Chanel or Dior," he says. "It's totally different. I believe that in this world that there is a need for differentiation. Everyone wants to be special, and the way to be special is to buy a haute couture dress. One way to be even more special is to visit those creators that are a little less-known." Of course, as Didier Grumbach, president of the Federation Française de la Couture—and the gatekeeper to the hallowed grounds of the haute couture—points out, even the greatest houses had to begin somewhere. "Young designers like Dior and Balenciaga in the '50s competed with Worth and Lanvin," he says. "When Balenciaga opened in 1937, it was with only a few people. Ungaro started with four sewers. All the big names have started out as small ones."
For the lesser-known couturiers, competition comes not only from heavyweight French and Italian houses, but also from unaccredited designers, like George Hobieka of Lebanon, who label themselves "haute couturiers." They have cultivated a Middle Eastern clientele that appreciates their even lower price points and doesn't mind their lack of pedigree, and potentially lower level of technical finish. In this sense, the small Parisian houses are fighting on two fronts. But they also benefit from the less constrained approach to couture. Middle Easterners, Russians and, to a lesser degree, Chinese, Indians and South Americans have largely eclipsed American and French clients as the backbone of the haute couture's customer base. They attach less importance to buying exclusively from the biggest French names or projecting a cutting-edge style. Still relatively flush with new money, they're more interested in making an immediate impression, which draws them to the flashier "Dynasty"-era esthetic of the smaller houses.
The very existence of below-the-radar houses is a fitting antidote to the perennial stories heralding the demise of couture. They might not have as impressive a pedigree as Yves Saint Laurent, but at least these couturiers are still standing. Their creations may not be as glossy-friendly as one of Galliano's fantastical gowns for Dior—but who needs Vogue when you've got a handful of Saudi royals placing million-dollar orders? And although their designs are sometimes conspicuously old-fashioned, they might represent the best hope for the tradition's future. No one will be surprised if the coming years see the further winnowing of the great houses, but these small-scale ateliers are poised to endure. The haute couture is dead. Long live the haute couture.