If time is the greatest luxury, it follows that couture is fashion’s ultimate expression. In fact, many maisons de couture keep track of the number of hours it makes to complete a single hand-made garment. If the pandemic has allowed designers to adopt a slower rhythm, it has also restricted access to their ateliers. The resulting season might turn out to be as unique as a couture garment, tailored to the specifics of today.
In anticipation of the fall 2020 collections, we have constructed a couture kaleidoscope of sorts, composed of personal stand-out couture moments as remembered by couturiers, clients, stylists, models, and other creatives engaged with a métier that is so far from commercialism that it nears the status of art.
Certainly the couture enables traditional handcrafts to be celebrated and preserved. As Anh Duong, and others, acknowledge, it can be difficult to talk about fashion in these times of crisis. And an artist, she said, “you question [yourself]: What am I doing? Is it meaningful? It is meaningful, because you realize we need to inspire. We need to give hope, we need to show beauty, and people still want that still. We need still to believe that a human being can create with their hands, with their own feelings, and heart, and imagination.” That’s the thing about couture, its magic is handmade.Dorian Leigh in Veneziani, circa 1952.Photo: Genevieve Naylor/Corbis via Getty ImagesValentino in Rome with models in his designs, circa 1998. Photo: Pascal Chevallier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Valentino Garavani, couturier
There are so many great moments from my time working in couture: the many great women I have met, so many dresses–each one with a particularly extraordinary memory affixed to it–but I want to tell you about one special moment in my life that made me realize couture was my destiny. And it happened when I was just seven years old.
I was born in Voghera, a small city close to Milan. My cousin Lucia was a pretty and elegant girl who was working as the house model for Veneziani, which at the time was a very famous maison de couture in Milan. Every Saturday, after work, my cousin would come back to Voghera taking with her the couture dress she was borrowing from the atelier to wear to parties or events that weekend. I would beg my mother to take me to Lucia’s house to see her getting ready for the evening with her beau.
It was those moments that helped me understand the beauty and craftsmanship of couture. It was the finesse of a pleat, the lightness of a chiffon drape, the amazing color of a special fabric, the gold of brocades, and the meticulous construction of the inside of a dress that made me want to design couture. It was a combination of all those details that made me want to make it my future, to turn that fanciful dream into a reality.Yves Saint Laurent and Mounia, fall 1983 couturePhoto: Daniel Simon/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Mounia Orosemane, model, artist, philanthropist
I started modeling in Paris for Mr. Givenchy in 1976 when I was 19 years old. [After I appeared in the Givenchy couture show], Women’s Wear Daily and all the big magazines talked about Mounia, Mounia, Mounia. The second season, Mr. Yves Saint Laurent wanted to see me, so he asked Loulou de la Falaise and Mrs. [Anne-Marie] Muñoz, the ladies around him, to find me. One day I saw Loulou in a restaurant near Givenchy. (The Givenchy maison is at 3 avenue George V, and Yves Saint Laurent is 5 Avenue Marceau, so they are really close.) When Loulou saw me she called out and said, ‘Are you Mounia? Can you come with me now because Mr. Saint Laurent absolutely wants to see you?’ I replied, ‘Yes, why not?’
I went to the maison and Mr. Saint Laurent asked me, ‘Where do you come from? Who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m from Martinique. I am French.’ He [replied], ‘I thought you were American because [of your press]. Would you please try one dress for me? I want to see your walk.’ So he gave me a beautiful evening dress to try. He said, ‘Oh my God, I love your walk. I love the way you are. I love everything about you, and if you stay with me, if you do one season, I am sure you will be a star in my house.’ I told him I had no agency and he said, ‘No problem, but I absolutely want to work with you.’ So it started like that at Yves Saint Laurent.
I worked almost every day with him; he loved to create on me. He started the smoking on my body. Sometimes he called me in the night and said, ‘Mounia, can you arrive early tomorrow?’ When he had a good idea in his head he wanted to start immediately, so he needed me right away. Oh my God, this man is a genius. He was a very nice person inside, Mr. Saint Laurent, [and] he also respected me. He always respected women, he never ridiculed, never, never. He always made women look their most beautiful.
I was the first Black woman to do Chanel couture. I remember Mr. Pierre Bergé didn’t like that because I am the star, the égerié, for Yves Saint Laurent and he didn’t like that I worked for other big houses like Chanel or Emanuel Ungaro, but especially Chanel. Karl Lagerfeld told the magazines, ‘Mounia is the first Black Chanel [model]; after that he hired Iman. It’s a very important thing to remember that Iman and me, we were really the two Black girls walking together everywhere; we were the two Black models who really started to walk every haute couture. I don’t like to say myself [that I opened doors for other Black models] but a lot of people have [told me that].Pam Skaist-Levy, left, and Gela Taylor-Nash with Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel.Photographed by Robert Fairer, Vogue, April 2003
Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Nash-Taylor, Founders, Juicy Couture and Pam and Gela
The designers attended the spring 2003 couture season with Vogue; their adventures were published in the April 2003 issue of the magazine.
Gela Nash-Taylor: Going to the couture was one of the highlights of our lives. We just felt like we were spreading the LA sound all over the couture. [That trip took place] right at the time when we were selling our company. We were like, ‘Yeah, we’re happy to do this deal, but we’ve got to go. We’re going to Paris. See you later.’ For Pam and myself to be in Paris and see the couture, that level of artistry, and the work that went into all of that, and the presentation...it was just staggering. We were laughing at every show; we said we were like Willy Wonka and we won the golden ticket.
Pamela Skaist-Levy: It was our couture debut all the way. John Galliano told us that when he ran in the Juicy track pants, he would let them drag and get dirty. That’s how we love to wear them! We didn’t feel like fish out of water, it just seemed right. Going to the shows we were blown away by the passion, the love, the happiness. I mean, art and fashion was everything to us and the couture was such a brilliant spectacle. We were so enthusiastic sitting in our seats. I know there were people from the press getting upset that things weren’t starting on time, but for us it was just like we were at the greatest show on earth.
Nash-Taylor: It was funny because what we were doing at Juicy Couture was completely the opposite of haute couture. We were all about volume. Hamish Bowles [asked] how many tracksuits we made in the number of hours it takes to make a couture dress: The difference was incredible. It was funny because the couturiers were as excited to meet us and hear about our volume [as we were] to see the staggering amount of work that went into the couture.
Skaist-Levy: I think it's interesting when you look at fashion now, even in the big shows—maybe couture not so much—but the regular catwalk shows how much of what we brought to the table ended up translating into that world. I mean, Tom Ford had track suits in his show last year; and Virgil Abloh is bringing back velour, and track suits, and logos, socks and all of those things that we brought to the table.
Nash-Taylor: I think Juicy brought that casual element to the world, where you could dress in a different way. We saw the front-row ladies in Paris in cashmere tracksuits and fur coats (at the time it was real fur), and they just looked so chic. I think when people look and feel comfortable, they are extra chic; it feels great when you can combine the two. We made each of the designers a track suit with their nickname or initials on it. We made Valentino a red velour tracksuit that said ‘Vava,’ and Karl Lagerfeld’s was black and it said ‘Slim.’ We had so much fun doing that, we felt like we brought the happiness and comfort of LA to the couture.Mark Colle-designed walls of flowers for Christian Dior fall 2013 couture. Photo: Michel Dufour/WireImage
Mark Colle, florist
This Belgian is responsible for the magnificent flower walls that formed the set for Raf Simon’s debut at Christian Dior, for the fall 2012 couture season.
I never really wanted to be a florist, but I got kicked out of school at 15 and worked in a flower shop to earn some extra money and I actually quite enjoyed it. I’ve been doing it ever since. I’m obsessed with color and I like to create things that resemble something somewhat graphic. I just want to do stuff all the time [and] I also absolutely love the fact that nothing I create lasts, you always have to start again. Fashion perhaps is a bit like that too.
Years ago this guy walked in my shop and inquired about plants for his Antwerp apartment, I had no idea who he was until I told him I would come by to have a look at the space and it was only when I said, ‘shall I write down your name and phone number?’ that I realised it [was Raf Simons]. We became friends almost immediately (and I never got him the actual plants he wanted).
A short three weeks before [Raf’s Dior debut I got the commission to design the set]. Raf has an amazing way of explaining his ideas and that was of course extremely helpful. I had not seen the clothes; everything had to happen really fast. I delved into the codes of the house of Dior and quickly learned that pink and red were quite significant. And, knowing Raf, I knew I had to throw some electric blue and acid yellow in the mix.
Floor to ceiling walls of wet floral foam were constructed; we worked on it with a little over 50 people around the clock for 48 hours putting in the flowers. I never realised a phalaenopsis orchid has a scent until we filled a room with 17,000 of them! The idea in itself was already super crazy, realizing that it was actually going to happen was even crazier, and seeing the end result was super overwhelming.Simonetta Gianfelice in Thierry Mugler, fall 1995 couturePhoto: Daniel Simon/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Simonetta Gianfelici, model, talent scout
My first couture show was in 1983 when I first walked in Paris for Thierry Mugler. It was an exciting and terrifying experience. The behind-the-scenes spectacle was frantic, with all of the premieres, seamstresses, assistants, designers, the incessant rhythm of the fittings ... and then the dizzying heels, with which my 5’11’ height I was certainly not used to. I went out wearing a champagne-colored silk set, my long hair exaggerated by a wave of platinum waves and a wonderful specimen of Afghan on a leash... I remember everything waving along the catwalk, my hips, the outfit, my hair, and the long golden coat of the dog.
I don’t remember exactly how I started working with Mugler, I guess he noticed me in some of the images I had taken at the time with Helmut Newton. Our collaboration was born primarily from Thierry’s sensitivity. He knew my physicality well, but also my bearing and my character. I think he designed the entire collection thinking already of the woman who would wear that dress for him. This made you feel loved and gratified. At that point it was far from difficult to adhere to his imagination. Thierry knew of my shyness and knew my theatricality just as he knew how to recognize the ironic, provocative, irreverent, or sexy spirit in others.
The Cirque d’Hiver show to celebrate Mugler’s 20th anniversary [for fall 1995 couture] was an unforgettable event. The whole collection was something extraordinary and something that had never been seen before: James Brown sang live, dancers performed on several podiums positioned on the sides of the catwalk. The music, lights, scenography, and direction were entirely conceived by Thierry.
[Wearing the Venus dress] was an exceptional experience, and it required a lot of tests. The corolla was supported by an iron core which several welders had worked on, on the spot, during the fittings. The pearl hairstyle was heavy, but the worst thing happened when I went out on the catwalk: The too tight skirt almost prevented me from walking. There was only space to take a very few small steps. I was afraid I would look ridiculous and clumsy, so I started to turn on myself, like a dancer coming out of a music box, and miraculously I succeeded! Adrenaline is a miraculous and saving hormone in times of difficulty.
When I saw Cardi B in the dress I thought, how are you going to walk in that dress and hold up the corolla, with the irons dug into your hips with each movement?’ It was a ‘difficult’ outfit to wear on the runway, let alone in life!
Michaela Bercu in Christian Lacroix couture—and jeansPhotographed by Peter Lindbergh, Vogue, November 1988
Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele, stylist
Known for her love of color and accessories, the stylist worked at Vogue from 1985 to 1995.
One story was with Peter Lindbergh and the famous first cover of Anna [Wintour] with Michaela Berçu—the one with the jeans and the couture. So we shot a little bit around Paris; the famous picture was done on La Concorde. I didn’t want to put the skirt on Michaela [so] I put my jeans on her. Everything was easy, it was not thinking. Me, I’m like this, everything comes from inside, quick and not thinking.
Of course we laughed all the time. I bet Peter with champagne that this [shot] would not be the cover. I was staying at the Crillon [near where] we were shooting, and at the end of those two or three days shooting, I asked the hotel to bring us champagne. So the waiter came with the champagne on the Place de la Concorde with my music, Paolo Conti, we turned it up as much as we could and we were dancing. I mean, this was so wonderful, so wonderful. Happiness! Creativityness! No mal, no mal, no mal, no mal! Peter was in heaven. I think it was in July, so you have light at 11 PM in Paris, [and there we were] drinking champagne on the Place de Concorde and dancing to Paolo Coti. I will remember this all my life.Georgina Grenville in Givenchy, spring 1996 couturePhoto: Guy Marineau/Condé Nast Archive
Stephen Jones, milliner
The first season at Givenchy with John Galliano [spring 1996 couture] was [my] first major season at haute couture. It was an out-of-body experience, a semiosis of everything, not only in my professional life. When Georgina Grenville came out in a laize cloche—I had hand-stitched it myself—it made me feel every failure and every triumph. Haute couture is a mixture of amazing creativity and nightmare! You wear your heart on your sleeve and you’re hoping your passion, which you feel so strongly about, is appreciated by others, and that’s not always guaranteed. To reach the creativity that is required for haute couture you have to fly very, very close to the sun.
Fendi, fall 2020 couture white suitPhoto: Salvatore Dragone / Gorunway.com
Fendi, fall 2020 couture greenPhoto: Salvatore Dragone / Gorunway.com
Fendi, fall 2020 couturePhoto: Salvatore Dragone / Gorunway.com
Fendi, fall 2020 couturePhoto: Salvatore Dragone / Gorunway.com
Sam McKnight, hair stylist
I’ve been with Fendi for 11 years. A year ago we made 54 different color wigs for the Fendi couture show. It was a wonderful spectacle in front of the Colosseum in Rome at night. We took the cut from an old Fendi collection that Karl [Lagerfeld] had done in the 1970s, then to modernize it, we colored each wig to match or compliment the clothes. I felt that the customization of each individual wig was new couture: Hair as the new handbag!
Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s International Editor-at-Large, historian, collector
One thing that has always stayed with me was a visit with François Lesage, [head of the eponymous embroidery house], who was a fascinating convivial man, obviously steeped in the history and magic of the couture and beloved of generations of designers. At the point that I went to see him, Christian Lacroix and John Galliano were sort of preeminent amongst them.
That visit was interesting for two reasons. One, was that it was a sort of personal research assignment [more on that later], but the thing that really stayed with me, because I just thought it was so mind-blowing and really told you what was so special about the couture, is [this]. I went into one of the work rooms [where the artisans were sewing]. They work upside down, so you’re looking at the back side of the embroidery panel, and the piece is kind of stretched out on this kind of embroidery frame. They’re embroidering away, and I recognized a fully embroidered Chanel dress from that season that was being worked.
They had the tracing of the design—and let’s say for the sake of argument, that the dress had been shown on someone like Inès de La Fressange [Editor’s note: A slender model who was a Chanel muse at the time]—and the dress [in progress] was being made for a client with more zaftig proportions than Inès, which, let’s face it, is probably anyone on the planet. But what they had done was that they had scaled up the embroidery design exactly to the client’s measurements, so that when she stood there in the dress that she’d seen on the runway, and the flowers were placed in certain positions on the Inès model dress, they would be in exactly the same positions, but they would be just slightly amplified to her exact body measurements.
So it’s not just reconfiguring the toile and the pattern pieces to fit the client, but it’s even scaling up. And, you know it was a huge effort because you have this whole master grid, and this was really before the time that you could do that on the computer. It wasn’t like you could just press in plus 1.3 or whatever it is, and it just scales up. It was just all done by hand, using protractors for scaling things up. That just showed me the attention to detail of the couture. That if you wanted that dress, you wanted it to look like Inès, and you were going to look like Inès.
And then the other thing is that I had bought an embroidered evening jacket at an antiques pier show in Manhattan; it was $25. It’s made of a very pale celadon-y, seafoam silk faille and embroidered rather like the prince in the Nutcracker, with strips of cellophane, raw ivory silk thread, and some kind of rhinestones. It looked almost like an 18th-century iteration of snow fall, but using what would have very contemporary materials in the 1930s. I had a very keen idea of who had made this jacket, but I couldn’t find any references. I carried it by hand to Paris to show Msr. Lesage. He took one look at it and said, ‘Oh yes, it’s Schiaparelli, pre-collection 1937,’ and found the reference sample. That was a sort of magical thing.
On the embroidery front, the other thing that has always absolutely astounded me is that you would be doing a preview at say 10 or 11 o’clock at night, and in the middle of a fitting with the designer, a messenger from an embroidery house would arrive with all the embroidery pieces for a dress that was going to be shown the following morning. And it would all be done, it would all happen. Couture is just a magic world. It really is Cinderella’s fairy godmother tapping the wand and a dress like moonbeams suddenly appears.Marcus Schenkenberg as Icarus for Givenchy, spring 1995 couturePhoto: Pierre Verdy/AFP via Getty Images
Marcus Schenkenberg, model
The model was cast to play Icarus in Alexander McQueen’s Givenchy debut for spring 1997 couture.
I didn’t have a lot of information about the show I did for Givenchy in 1997. I was kind of baffled because I knew it was a women's show, basically there was no haute couture for men, [and] I didn’t have a fitting or anything. [But] I was glad to meet Alexander McQueen; he was up-and-coming, one of the hottest designers at that time. He had won the British Designer of the Year award in 1996.
I went of course to the show location and it was pretty much all women there; I think there were two other guys. I found out that I was going to sit like 50 feet up in the air throughout the show. I basically just had like a cloth around my midsection and two huge angel wings. They were so big, they were unbelievable. They were mounted up there and I sat like in front of the wings, so they were not actually attached to me. They were huge, enormous, very well-made wings, compared to the Victoria’s Secret wings. So I had a pretty good spot to watch the show from up there. It was a very easy gig for me.A Pierre Cardin design from 1970.Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty ImagesFor his spring 2012 ready-to-wear show, Jean Paul Gaultier revisted the old couture tradition of models carrying cards with their look numbers.Photo: Yannis Vlamos/GoRunway.com
Jean Paul Gaultier, couturier
I have seen my very first couture show in July of 1970— even better I worked on it, as I was one of Pierre Cardin’s interns. The show was in the theater that he had just bought, the music was by Pierre Henri and there were more than 300 looks. All the clothes were backstage on the racks but in no particular order. Mr.Cardin would decide almost on the spot who would wear what.
The whole show was presented with eight or nine models. Most of them were the fitting models, or mannequins cabine, but the bigger part of the collection was fitted on the very chic Maryse Gaspard, so the other models had to be the same size. It was the beginning of the industrialization of couture and also of using it as a way to garner publicity to sell something else.
As for my humble role, I was in charge of giving the models the cards with the number of the look. However, as soon as they were on the podium they would start posing and just throw the card away. I was in complete panic: I didn’t know how to get those cards back and I was very upset that the girls paid no attention to what I was doing.
Mr. Cardin attended my last couture show in January. I guess he forgave me.Jean Paul Gaultier after his last couture show for spring 2020. Photo: SAVIKO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Sherett Dahlström, client
I’ve been loving fashion from [when I was] a very little girl growing up in the Caribbean. Talking about the haute couture in Paris, a moment that I think went down in history was the final show of Jean Paul Gaultier.
I was so surprised to have received the personal invitation; I could only look forward to that date. I made sure that I was in Paris a week before! I chose my outfit very, very carefully; I wore a very colorful Yves Saint Laurent minidress with a lot of beads in three different shades [of] pink and gold that sort of meshed [together]. I’m very happy that I wore that because it was actually quite warm in the theater.
[The show was presented] in this beautiful, beautiful room that was all gilded and you just felt the history of the place. I was being escorted by Gaultier’s personal PA, Frank, to my seat with my name on it. And slowly, slowly, this place just filled up with vibrant, diverse people from all over the world. The guests entering was already a show on its own [with] the outfits people were wearing and the excitement.
Finally the show starts with this amazing music and this coffin on stage opening up; it was just mind blowing. What I loved was that Gaultier didn’t just have fashion models in his show, he included friends he has known throughout his whole career. He invited his family; he invited dancers, models, actors, singers—diversity just across the board. Boy George was there, he sang. Oh my God, it was wow!Chanle spring 2000 couture. Photo: Daniel Simon/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Vincent Darré, interior designer
I was lucky to work with Karl Lagerfeld for six years at Fendi, but also to be present during his creative process for the preparations of Chanel haute couture. This man was extraordinary because he mixed knowledge of the past while thinking of the future. Attending the fittings was a moment of lightness and great professional precision. While making puns behind his dark glasses a pin hidden between the lining and the tweed could not escape him.
The models appeared in Mademoiselle Chanel’s workshops in clouds of embroidery and delicacy. Accessorized and adorned, they stood out like fairy-tale princesses. Karl, continuing to follow the fittings, prepared the decor [as] he scribbled on a sheet of paper, while at the same time talking to Michel Gaubert about music. This man of a thousand brains reinvented Chanel each season and his shows were like happenings.
I remember one of the first sets that started a series of spectacular installations. It was a gigantic tower of Babel in a carousel, each model climbed this gigantic spiral and disappeared at its top. Before the parade, Karl had settled inside the tower and was to come out for the finale with all the models. As usual, Karl was asleep, but none of the models dared to wake him up!
Valentino, spring 2018 couturePhoto: Marcus Tondo / Indigital.tv
Michelle Elie, collector, jewelry designer, model
I’ve always dreamed of couture and my first experience was Valentino. I was completely blown away by a lingerie dress. They showed me the lace that was made for the dress and how the lace was stitched within the velvet dress. The lace was handmade and they had to cut the fabric around the lace to fit the shape of the lace within the dress. I was super, super, super impressed with the craftsmanship. To feel the fabric on the skin is one thing that’s completely luxurious, and then the making of it…. I imagined the women in Rome sitting in the atelier making these laces and [I wondered] what would inspire Pierpaolo [Piccioli] to make a simple lace dress when [many people expect] couture to be something much more opulent with volume and capes—which I love.
[Pierpaolo was] taking the couture off of the red carpet, where I normally see it worn, and [using the techniques] for [a more] everyday piece. That’s when I felt, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ Pierpaolo will put really beautiful trousers—very chic—and blouses [in his shows and those pieces] are about the simplicity of the silhouette, the way the fabric moves, and the elegance. The idea that a woman that could actually buy those simple pieces and wear them just for lunch, or to a meeting, or every day—this, for me, is pure couture. I always say to everyone if I could wear Comme des Garçons every day and then couture at night, I would do it. I mean how phenomenal would that be? So I’m saving my money to buy a couture Valentino cape.Les Clochards collection by John Galliano for Christian Dior, spring 2000 Photo: Thierry Orban/Sygma via Getty Images
Mark Walsh, collector, co-owner Mark Walsh Leslie Chin Fashion
My favorite couture memories—part one and part two—are John Galliano for Christian Dior fall 1999 couture, the Matrix [see top of page] , and the next one, Les Clochards, [for spring 2000]. I’m a diehard Galliano historical reference fan, but the Matrix was so totally different, it just knocked our socks off. You could see that in the faces of the old French people that were the couture followers at the time as it came down the runway. They were totally in shock. You have to remember that before the Matrix, there was the Surrealism show, which was pretty [and] 1930s. There was Bagatelle, which was again, pretty, and Belle Epoque. The first show had African influences and was all kind of historically based. The Matrix was the reaction. It was like, huh?
Both collections, the Matrix and Les Clochards, set new codes for Dior which lasted for the next 10 years. It was never as historical again, it became either slick and deconstructed; or, from Les Clochards [on], it was raggedy and deconstructed. I think that was like a big turning point in the house of Dior.
Most of the couture houses at that time were doing a press show and then a client show. When we were going in to Les Clochards, Mouna Ayoub [a major couture client], who had been at the press show, was walking down the stairs of the Petit Palais in one of the Matrix looks from the previous season, which was kind of cool. We were at the second show, which was more for clients, but still had celebrities; we were one row in back of Ashley Judd. They had benches going up a ramp, and of course, me being me, I knocked over six rows of benches by accident. Security ran, and I remember Ashley Judd like cracking up and saying, ‘good job!’John Galliano and Kate Moss backstage in 1993. Photo: Pool Arnal/GARCIA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Alexander Fury, journalist, historian, collector
Winter 2011 was the first time that I actually went to the couture shows. But as a kid, I was obsessed with it. Growing up in the 1990s, if you were British, all of a sudden fashion, and couture specifically, became news and newsworthy. It’s news in France and they show it on television and it’s discussed and it’s in newspapers, but it didn’t used to be like that in the UK. Certainly you didn’t have couture on television unless it was fashion television. But when I was growing up, because of Galliano going to Givenchy and then to Dior, and McQueen going to Givenchy, it became national news.
At that point in time, a really interesting thing is how much the [ready-to-wear] clothes were influenced by couture. You kind of see [this] going in waves. [There] are these moments when there are clothes that are very elaborately constructed and in amazing fabrics with really incredible details, [and] a lot of design kind of harking back to that golden age of couture of the immediate post-war. That was very much a mood of the kind of mid-to late-’90s. It’s something we saw again after Olivier Theyskens started at Rochas; we had that whole other couture thing when Nicolas Ghesquière started to do the sort of Balenciaga couture thing [in the mid -’00s]. Even recently, I think we’ve seen it with what Pierpaolo Piccioli has been doing at Valentino; that’s kind of ignited such an interest couture, I think, and in these kind of attributes that you traditionally ascribe to couture—a kind of extravagance and exuberance, a sort of joie de vivre— but in that very interesting French idea of the art of living. [Like] it’s not enough just to have a great painting, you should be sat on a great chair, and eating great food, and wearing a great dress. And I think couture is part of that, for me; and it's very French in that sort of way.Patou spring 1987 couture, designed by Christian Lacroix. Photo: Julio Donoso/Sygma via Getty Images
Christian Lacroix, couturier, costume designer
In the mid-1970s I attended a Patou show in rue Saint Florentin with its beautiful XVIII Gabriel salons. The designer at Patou was Roy Gonzales, replacing Angelo Tarlazzi who left some seasons earlier. I remember some nice evening skirts, possibly worn up on the head revealing colorful petticoats, but I was much more fascinated by the lady next to me, the wife of the French ambassador in Beirut, Lebanon. The country was then in full civil war, and she was showing her friends some heavy cuff bracelets and explaining she had made them with the copper metal cases from bullets she found in her embassy bedroom. I didn’t know I’d be the house designer just five years later!
When I arrived, in emergency, to Patou, nobody knew I was there as a new designer. I was kind of a masked couturier replacing the former designer who had suddenly ‘burnt out’ just two months before the show. I was chosen for the job thanks to my friend Inès de La Fressange, who very early one morning modeled some outfits and accessories I had designed as a freelancer in Japan and Italy for the Patou family and board.
At that time it was quite trendy to have several themes in a collection: 18th-century, Morocco, Death in Venice, etc. I was very inexperienced and with no sense of budgets and my first groups were complete, but for the last ones I had just one number and no more budget for making more, so the show in the salon was very incoherent. The then most feared fashion journalist in Paris wrote that the collection was made by both the receptionist-operator and the messenger....
For the second season I focused on just one theme: red and black. The same journalist, Pierre-Yves Guillen from the daily Quotidien de Paris, wrote something like, ‘the little dress number 26, was a fairy from Patou.’ (It was a black satin apron dress, short, with an antique gold and jeweled embroidered Lesage belt worn by Inès). I remember I cried in the bar on the rue Boissy d’Anglas where I used to have my morning water and coffee when I read that story, and all the other press cuttings which were very encouraging, even raving about the collection as a “liberation.” It was like a 1940s Hollywood scenario about a star who breaks a leg and an anonymous beginner or stand-in replaces the lead and after just one teasingly bad experience becomes a star himself.Anh Duong in Christian Lacroix, spring 1998 couturePhoto: Condé Nast ArchiveAnh Duong in Christian Lacroix, spring 1998 couturePhoto: Condé Nast ArchiveAnh Duong in Christian Lacroix, spring 1998 couturePhoto: Condé Nast Archive
Anh Duong, artist and model
My first couture show was for Lacroix. It was just before he signed with Bernard Arnault, so I guess it was his last collection at Patou, which got The New York Times cover.
I had obviously never been a couture client; [at that time] I was basically making my own clothes because I loved to go out and dress up and I didn’t have the means to buy expensive clothes, but I liked to have my own style. I guess I was 22 when I met Christian and then I was able to pick any dress I wanted; suddenly Lacroix was my wardrobe. I mean it was so incredible, it was a pure fantasy. It was like I had arrived in this fairy tale, which made it even better, more incredible.
[In 1987 I came with Lacroix] to New York. We were in every window of Bergdorf's. I remember it was my last year being officially a model. I said to Christian, ‘I want to retire.’ (It was back in the days when at 26, [your career] was over, that was it.) ‘I’m done.’ But he said, ‘No, you have to come to this show, the last show, please. I want you to be part of it.’ And I’m so glad I did, because actually it was the most incredible show. We did it downtown. I was wearing this purple dress with a little red bag and Christian asked me to do a kind of cartoonish representation of a French lady, very much inspired by the 1950s, posing and going down the runway. It was so much fun.Dr. Lisa Airan in Valentino couture at the Met gala, 2015.Photo: George Pimentel/WireImage
Dr. Lisa Airan, dermatologist, client
When Pierpaolo [Piccioli] and Maria Grazia [Chiuri] were still together at Valentino they did an all white show, because Valentino Garavani himself had done one a long time ago. They brought their Sala Bianca show to New York in December 2014 and it was an amazing. I don’t always wear couture because that’s not my life, I spend a lot of time at work, but when the “China: Through the Looking Glass” exhibition came up I didn’t really know what to wear, and then I remembered a dress [I liked]. Because it was for the Met gala it really mattered to me that it be perfect. So I contacted Valentino and asked if they were still able to produce it. Weirdly, they were coming to New York like a week later and bringing part of that show for fittings, and they said, ‘Come for an appointment.’ It was obviously meant to be. They had the sample there and it’s just a beautiful dress, you know?
If I showed you the dress, just the way it hangs... I mean, to me, those are the details of couture that matter. It’s the things the designers think about, like the weight of a fabric, how a fabric falls, how it drapes from the top to the bottom, the way it fits you, where the arm hole is…. I think you can especially see the difference when designers make things that are in classically beautiful shapes.
When you wear couture it always fits you so well, that’s one of the beauties of it—that and the fabric and the design. I think my husband really likes it when I wear couture. He’s a doctor too; he’s a plastic surgeon so he understands maybe better than a lot of people, about the way a garment is cut and how it fits because it’s the same thing when you’re thinking about a facelift. Like, how do you drape the skin; and how do you make someone look really good, but not obviously done? And to me, that’s how couture is, it really fits the people that it’s meant to fit.Maggie Rizer in Viktor & Rolf, fall 1999 couturePhoto: Condé Nast ArchiveMaggie Rizer in Viktor & Rolf, fall 1999 couturePhoto: Condé Nast ArchiveMaggie Rizer in Viktor & Rolf, fall 1999 couturePhoto: Condé Nast ArchiveMaggie Rizer in Viktor & Rolf, fall 1999 couturePhoto: Condé Nast Archive
Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, couturiers
We started showing haute couture in Paris in 1998. We didn’t fit any of the rules of the Chambre but somehow were accepted on the official calendar. After our first show Inez and Vinoodh offered to help us with casting and styling. At the time we were ignorant as to what that entailed—which had been apparent in that first show.
Without much fanfare they quietly took control of the immense process that leads up to a fashion show: doing go-sees, calling in girls they had in mind for us, guiding hair and makeup, creating the look of the show…. For four consecutive seasons they continued to help us with their vision and professionalism, but most of all their friendship, and gave us an education in the process.
The highlight was probably the Russian Doll show; Maggie Rizer was the only model. Inez and Vinoodh had cast her and Maggie forewent a Chanel couture show in order to do ours, which was unheard of. We will be eternally grateful to them for these lessons in style, grace, and friendship.
On stage, we dressed Maggie in nine consecutive layers; each new layer completing or mirroring a detail or an element on the preceding tier. This collection was predominantly made of jute embellished with Swarovski crystals, resulting in a contrast of opposites. The show had a ceremonial feeling, [and was] intended to celebrate the art of fashion. It was also meant as a comment on commercialism: Beauty can be enjoyed without the need to purchase or possess.
These interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.