Let them eat cake. The famous French diss was on the tip of everyone's tongue at the Paris haute couture fashion shows last week.
The theme was set early with the frothy Dior confections that opened the week.
While economies around the world crumble, the small band of couture designers snubbed such cold realities and asked their audience to suspend disbelief — to dream.
Christian Lacroix's bride combined full tulle skirts with gleaming embroidered matador jacket. For Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld explored the contradictory elements of floral overstatement and clean modern minimalism all in white. Jean Paul Gaultier's Spanish collection riffed on the sultry flamenco dancer and Picasso's sculptural cubism.
Unlike ready-to-wear collections that are shown in fashion capitals six months ahead of their season, couture shows are mounted just weeks before the time the designs are meant to be worn.
The spring/summer shows, narrowed down to just three days this season, are composed of one-of-a-kind spectacles intended only for the extremely rich. Though the market for such confections may be dwindling, they continue to pitch glamour against the economic odds.
And despite a downturn in the global economy, chances are slim that these luxurious suits and dresses will ever be discounted.
Still, they attract an audience — burlesque star Dita Von Teese, actress Mischa Barton and rapper Kanye West.
For Dior, British designer John Galliano referenced the early days of Christian Dior as well as paintings by 17th-century Dutch masters. Consider a magical mix of billowy puff sleeves, fitted torsos and magnificently giant loopy skirts.
It might seem insensitive to flaunt such excess. But it ain't called haute for nothin'.
As an institution, haute couture is in palliative care. Yet it won't lie down.
And as sure as each passing season it becomes more of an anachronism, its defenders leap to justify its existence.
They wax on about its magical, fantastical nature — how important it is to experiment with the limits of fabric and cut and drape, how important it is to escape the realities of a sometimes hard-knock world.
"Something to make people dream," said Bernard Arnault, chair and chief executive of LVMH Group and Christian Dior, after Monday's show.
While he predicted things wouldn't get better until the end of 2010, many fashion watchers lament that haute couture has been on a long, steady march toward irrelevancy for decades.
John Galliano told reporters: "There is a credit crunch, not a creative crunch. Of course, everyone is being more careful with their discretionary purchases. I am. But it's our job to make people dream, and to provide the value in quality, cut and imagination."
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