Adjusting to newly straitened economic circumstances, a number of exclusive fashion houses are finding Middle Eastern markets the ticket to staying alive.
As the fashion world reels from the shock of the reduced circumstances of Christian Lacroix - the French couturier whose troubled house is about to be stripped down from Paris's crowning glory to a mere licensing operation - the question of the relevance of clothes that can cost upwards of $100,000 (Dh367,000) once more raises its ugly head. Whenever times are bad, haute couture suffers. At the best of times it can appear an expensive-to-produce, labour-intensive indulgence used by many designers to allow cheaper lines to bask in its exclusive, exquisite glow. But with even the super-rich starting to tighten their Alaïa belts, the thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dirhams expended on one dress seem almost obscene, while other parts of the population are facing serious issues such as lost jobs and homes (homes that could be saved with the money spent on one couture frock).
Yet if couture dies, there will be more jobs lost - including those of les petites mains, the supremely talented and dedicated craftspeople whose nimble fingers create by hand intricate and innovative embroideries, jewellery, shoes, hats and so on. With their roles will go the traditional skills and techniques that they perpetuate, in favour of machine stitching and factory production. The democratisation of luxury that has characterised the last decade - think logo fever, licensed products, diffusion lines and accessory obsession - has meant that the financial imperative of fashion is more essential than ever. That is something that Lacroix, for whom artistry was paramount, was apparently unable or unwilling to adjust to. For him, couture is an art, not a business, and les petites mains are paid accordingly - unlike many of the sweatshop workers of the main manufacturing countries.
Still, if there's one thing that the style world is good at, it's reinvention. And even as the industry is decried as an expensive anachronism, there is no shortage of young hopefuls clamouring to join the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the French organisation that awards or denies membership of the elite haute couture club. (While many designers beyond Paris inappropriately adopt the term to take advantage of its cachet, "haute couture" is in fact an appellation that can legally be used only by those whose businesses meet the stringent criteria set by the Chambre Syndicale.)
The likes of Stéphane Rolland, awarded haute couturier status last December, Alexis Mabille and Anne-Valérie Hash continue to thrive in spite of the dreadful conditions because their approach to design is less about theatrical museum pieces and more about wearable daily luxury. For Rolland, who launched his house in 2007 and whose clients include Queen Rania of Jordan and Sheikha Mozah of Qatar, couture will always have a place among those who desire unique, made-to-measure luxury, and the key to survival is adapting to modern life.
"Each 10 years we say haute couture is over, which is not true. You have new names now," he says. "Rich people will always want something exclusive made especially for them. But what is important is that haute couture has to live in a modern way. The woman of today, she has to work, she has a stressful life, even if the clients are very high-level in haute couture. Everybody works now, rich or poor, and we have to interpret these demands."
Queen Rania was pictured, during a visit by the Turkish president to Jordan, wearing a neat little shirt dress covered in Rolland's trademark shards of fabric-covered Plexiglas. The dress shows just what the designer is talking about. It's an exclusive, exquisite piece but it's also a completely practical, wearable day dress. Rania wears the dress, rather than the other way around. Rolland also has some insights on the practical running of a couture business, something that is notoriously tricky: in the 22 years that Lacroix ran his house, he never once turned a profit. Haute couture is most commonly seen as a way to attract publicity and create enough mystique and glamour to persuade shoppers that the brand's perfumes, accessories and ready-to-wear lines are worth buying, bringing in the real profits.
"Many couture designers have the perfumes and the groups behind them, so they're not treating the haute couture as something to make a profit," explains Rolland, who has no pret-a-porter line yet. "But if you have only the haute couture, as in my case... I opened my company three years ago and I have 33 people in my company, and I have an expensive place where I work in my office on the Avenue Georges V, but I pay everything, because my dresses sell well. I don't say it's easy, because I work a lot, I travel a lot, I care about my clientele; I'm very concerned about the market, prices, the strategy, the financial part, the creative part. I have control of everything. It's a huge work, but it's OK, it's fine - we are still alive, so I am the best proof that haute couture can survive."
Being a canny businessman - or, as in the case of designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino, both huge couture successes in their time, having a canny businessman as a partner - is crucial, then, for a couture company to survive. Lacroix's artistry is second to none, his passion for design unstoppable, leading him to creative enterprises such as designing ballet and opera costumes. But it seems that his view of what haute couture means - uncompromising quality, the most elaborately cut and embellished textiles, the most dramatic shapes and styles - was simply incompatible with the commercial needs of the companies that backed him (LVMH and subsequently the US-based Falic Group). For Rolland, designers need to take responsibility for their own businesses.
"There is young blood, a new generation, who are coming now, and they are just waiting for someone who wants to invest in their company. The only thing is, the new generation of designers, they have to learn how to develop their brand, they have to understand the economy, they have to develop the management, they have to learn that. And they must be a little bit commercial. Even if sometimes it's boring for an artist, this is the only way."
Although he has clients all over the world, with an increasing base in South America, Rolland's bread and butter comes from his predominantly Middle Eastern clientele, particularly in Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It seems that, as much as it may horrify the protectors of Parisian couture tradition, the Middle East may be the answer to fashion's prayers. Take Elie Saab: long before he was acknowledged by the French fashion organisation - and, indeed, it seems that there has been some resistance from the French designers to some of the Lebanese couturiers who have followed him to Paris, on the basis of inferior workmanship - Saab had a loyal clientele willing to pay handsomely for his sumptuous gowns and who were already accustomed to having their dresses made-to-measure. In fact, bespoke or made-to-order is a way of life in the region, from Gulf men ordering their khandouras to precise requirements to women going to their favourite local tailors for abayas, evening gowns and wedding dresses.
Saab splits his time between Paris and Beirut, and Rolland, too, is a regular visitor to the Middle East, travelling for a few days every month to do fittings, especially when there are big weddings taking place. "We have to understand how our clients are living," Rolland explains. "And we have to understand the rules, we have to understand the religions, we have to understand the way of life; that's why it's important. That's why I travel so much: to understand, and in a way it's a matter of respect as well. I take the time to understand what people need. I think it's not only me - all the Avenue Montaigne is like that."
And it looks as though the relationship between Paris and the Gulf may become even closer. In spite of the decision by the Paris Court of Commerce to accept the Lacroix owners' restructuring plan for the beleaguered company, hopeful eyes are still turned towards the UAE bidder Sheikh Hassan bin Ali Al Nuaimi of Ajman to rescue one of the jewels in couture's crown. Beautifully manicured fingers are being crossed from Abu Dhabi to Arles.