(International Herald Tribune) Discreetly, almost imperceptibly, haute couture has re-seeded itself, without any artificial insemination.
Across the fashion world, houses built on ready-to-wear are exploring the possibilities of, or just quietly joining, the universe of high fashion.
As the Paris couture season opens, all eyes are on the mighty house of Dior and its new designer, the Belgian Raf Simons, who shows his debut collection on Monday.
Yet the head of the new stealth tribe is not even in this city: Sarah Burton, whose wedding dress for Kate Middleton last year and the outfits for her role as Duchess of Cambridge — especially during the Jubilee celebrations — are the height of handwork.
Tucked away in the Clerkenwell area of London, Ms. Burton, between following the house designs for boutiques in Miami and Shanghai, is working on five new orders that came in recently from discreet women who want the emotion and the excitement of an original outfit.
Standing beside a pink feathered dress, which turned out to be hand-cut in layers of organza by the studio hands, the designer explained her philosophy.
“We do so many collections, and I want each one to be special,” she said. “There is always a lot done by hand, even for the pre-collection. I know this is not Paris couture, but in our humble way we are working towards it.”
Ms. Burton says that Lee Alexander McQueen, who was trained in haute couture at Givenchy in Paris, used that same technique in ready-to-wear — of being constantly surrounded by hand workers, so there was not just one idea sent off for execution to an Italian factory. (The current team makes tiny dolls to box up and send to workers in India as an embroidery guide, like the one made for a pearl-beaded dress.)
The designer says that her recent mother of pearl and coral “sea” collection, although tagged ready-to-wear, is really a crossover with couture, which is why she does not envisage introducing a separate couture line.
Yet she constantly uses the British equivalent of couture’s “petites mains” to create the inspiration, or maybe the final details of all the collections.
“We have an amazing ability to develop any collection with our technicians, with students and with people working by hand,” she said. “A lot is done in a three-dimensional way.”
The workroom is certainly much like a couture atelier, and that is how a client like the Duchess of Cambridge might be received, although the company stays mum on that issue and the slender royal body is not visibly replicated in any of the mannequins specifically for clients.
Is blurring the line between couture and high-end ready-to-wear the future for high fashion, so often seen as on its last legs?
Donatella Versace, bringing back her Atelier Versace collection to the runway at the Ritz hotel on Sunday, says that, in fact, the house has never stopped making made-to-order clothes. But now, in this era of austerity, there is bizarrely an explosion of interest, especially among Russian and Chinese customers. The demand for these special pieces is, in fact, up 32 percent, according to Ms. Versace.
“We did the H&M collaboration, but we should not forget about the high end,” said the designer, showing off not just the tarot card patterns printed on plastic and woven by hand into floaty dresses, but also new versions of Gianni Versace’s iconic metal mesh — this time used in a patchwork of crystal-embroidered pieces put together in a skinny, short dress.
“What I want to offer is an emotion for a dress you can’t find anywhere else,” said Ms. Versace, referring to her Atelier line. And her preferred customer is no longer someone looking to show off on the red carpet.
In conjunction with the couture clothes, the Versace brand is offering high jewelry. Playing with rings, at right, that included a table-cut emerald of 14 carats, a jonquil yellow diamond and other bold pieces in aquamarine, rose quartz and amethysts, the designer is hoping to prove her attraction to high fashion. Shown at the Ritz, just before it closes for a two-year renovation, and in the swimming pool area that was home to her brother’s shows, Ms. Versace described it as an emotional moment.
Who else is quietly getting ready to enter the couture salon? Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, who have privately made dresses for stars like Scarlett Johansson, are staging in Sicily, immediately after the haute couture season, a collection so private that it will be shown only to potential customers. There will be no press, no buyers and no stylists hoping to loan a dress for a celebrity to wear at an event.
If this hush-hush couture takes off, it may serve to regenerate the Paris season by putting the customers, so long chased away by show-off spectators, back in high fashion’s front row.