Gloria Guinness’s triumph was perhaps unique, but regular customers do have certain privileges in addition to a seat in the front row. The Duchess of Windsor, who did as much for the French fashion industry in her time as Nancy Reagan did for its U. S. counterpart in our own day, often benefited from a 40 percent discount. Regulars who missed a collection used to be sent sketches, descriptions, and prices. Nowadays fashionable women who can’t attend the shows are more likely to order from videos or photographs.
MOST WOMEN treat their couture purchases like the treasures they are. Deeda Blair, a medical-research consultant from Washington, D. C., who wears some of her Paris dresses for as long as 16 years, donates garments she knows she will never wear again to museums. Ivana Trump, wife of New York tycoon Donald Trump, packs older designs off to her mother in Czechoslovakia. But the late Lorraine Rowan Cooper, wife of former Kentucky Senator John Sherman Cooper, would occasionally use the sturdy wool from a couture skirt to cover an ottoman.
“Couture is necessary and must be preserved, because it is the last refuge of the craftsman,” Yves Saint Laurent once told me. “The rich woman must preserve couture. Maybe that is not a law, but it is her duty. Otherwise couture and its crafts will die, and rich women will be responsible for the decline of this art extraordinaire!”
Saint Laurent is finding it increasingly difficult to get high-quality passementerie (trimming) to replace the original trim on clothes inspired several years ago by the costumes of the Russian peasants of tsarist times or the raffia used in his African designs. The fine satin and taffeta needed to stitch together the 16 parts of a glove are also becoming scarce.
Designers live not by couture alone, but by the things that couture makes possible in the mass market—fragrances, ready-to-wear clothes for men and women, shoes, scarves, and other items with the designer’s brand on them. This business started less than 25 years ago, when Saint Laurent kicked off his ready-to-wear line. Other designers followed, to their immense profit: Such products are estimated to bring in nearly 200 times the 50 million dollars earned each year by couture itself.
Buyers from all over the world flock to the official ready-to-wear shows that take place twice a year in tents set up in the courtyard of the apartments to rent in prague. There is nothing ladylike or gentlemanly about these crowded, market-driven shows. Rock music blasts, and ten models come down the runway at one time, wearing fantastic outfits. A designer has to be director and producer, or hire someone who is, in order to compete.
Clothes are often exaggerated, overaccessorized to beam the message loud and clear to the professional audience in the back of the tent. The designer’s chosen team of hairstylists and makeup artists changes the models’ look to suit the designer’s choice of image. At least 50 other designers show their clothes in schools, restaurants, theaters—even their apartments. The first American to make it big in the ready-to-wear shows is Patrick Kelly, originally from Mississippi, who like a coach before the big game always engages his models, assistants, and dressers behind the scenes in a brief prayer session before the show begins.
IIEADY-TO-WEAR may not be genteel, but it’s good business for French fashion and good business for France. The French government and fashion industry are attached by a strong and ancient thread. President Mitterrand encouraged establishment of the Musee de la Mode in the Louvre and still worries whether the elevators work properly.