By Eric Wilson
Updated Jul 09, 2014 @ 2:45 pm
Couture Week

Welcome to Now You Know, Eric Wilson’s column that will help you become a fashion know-it-all in one quick read. Each week, he’ll take a look at an endearing fashion influence and why it’s relevant right now. Enjoy!

If you happen to be following the couture collections taking place this week in Paris, you might have noticed two things. One: Karl Lagerfeld turned the lowliest form of sidewalk construction materials—concrete—into something worthy of an embellishment on what is ostensibly the highest form of fashion, at Chanel. And two: Raf Simons set a new standard in set design by decorating his Dior show (photo below) with something like 150,000 white orchids. Wouldn’t you have just about died to be there?

Increasingly, the entire point of those rarified collections that take place twice a year in Paris is to grab your attention with things you just can’t quite believe. For years, for decades even, designers have worried about the long-predicted death of the craft of haute couture, where outstandingly lavish, hand-sewn creations can command price tags of five to six figures for an outfit. But wealthy clients from emerging luxury markets in Asia and South America, according to those houses, have increased demand for sublimely unique designs that are so special they can’t be found in any stores or bought by just anyone. And in a modern 24/7 fashion world that requires a constant flow of new ideas and content, couture today is as much a media event as it is a form of artistic expression.

Couture Week runway
Credit: Rindoff/Dufour/French Select/Getty

As a result, however, couture has strayed a great deal from its historic function, which was to introduce new ideas, shapes, silhouettes and fabric trends at the very top of the fashion food chain that would then make their way down into the more popular ready-to-wear collections and eventually mainstream clothing. Charles Frederick Worth is generally considered the first couturier or the father of the craft, having created the court wardrobe for Empress Eugénie during the Second Empire in France, with clothing that set the tone for what fashionable women wore beginning in the 1860s.

While couture has long since become shorthand in fashion for almost anything that is custom-made, or that aspires to be seen as fancy, the word should technically only be applied to those designers who show collections that meet the exacting standards of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. The Parisian trade association protects the use of the label “Haute Couture” as a designation granted by the French Ministry of Industry. It can all sound so fusty at times, and redolent of the widening income gap between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else, that no wonder people had stopped paying attention to couture long ago. It’s worth noting that technical advancements in ready-to-wear production since the 1960s have resulted in clothing so well crafted that custom-made, for many women, seemed a rather pointless extravagance.

Now You Know

"Couture today is as much a media event as it is a form of artistic expression," says @EricWilsonSays

As for setting the look of fashion, well, that direction, too, has changed, originating as much today from street-style and celebrities as it does from high fashion. Lagerfeld, as the longest-running practitioner of couture on today’s calendar, probably understands this better than most. While the use of concrete in his couture collection this week was a nod to his theme of “Le Corbusier Goes to Versailles,” it’s hard to miss a connection to the street.

For real-time insider insights, make sure to follow Eric Wilson on Twitter (@EricWilsonSays).