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Le Bon Marché during the opening of it’s “Paris” exhibit
Foc Kan/Getty

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Where Does French Fashion Go after Haute Couture?

With haute couture on its last legs, the world’s oldest department store is stoking interest in artisanal fashion with a new exhibit. But whom will it help and hurt — and is it the future of French fashion?

Until October 15th, Le Bon Marché in Paris — the world’s oldest department store, founded in 1852 — is showcasing one hundred artisanal Paris-based clothing, jewelry, beauty, and stationery labels. Curated by Le Bon Marché’s style director, Jennifer Cullvier, and complemented by Christine Taconnet’s book Made in Paris, as a guide to Parisian artisanal ware, the LVMH-owned department store discovered nearly 8,000 independent fashion designers in all parts of the French capital, choosing one hundred of them to showcase in their annual exhibit. (Last year’s exhibit focused on Brooklyn-inspired fashion.)

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"We spent days, weeks in our city, trying to discover new brands," Cullvier told me recently, "and while many you cannot see from the street, behind hidden doors we discovered beautiful ateliers, beautiful spaces."

Artisanal design houses — or fashion created by a single, independent designer — have been popping up all over the French capital, especially in less august neighborhoods, from Château Rouge to Barbès to Montorgueil, where rents are cheaper and fashion designers, like painters and writers, can afford to work in relative obscurity before sharing their vision with the world.

As more and more people have been leaving their jobs to dabble in design, the number of independent designers reached a critical mass and department stores began to take notice.

Offerings from Le Bon Marché's Paris exhibition. Photo: Foc Kan/Getty

"A lot of these people were doing another job before," Cullvier said, "as bankers, in the law, and they exchanged that for more creative activities: to be designers, creative directors. In the end it became almost a joke; we’d ask, ‘what was your job before?’ and it was almost always some office work."

The selected brands — including Maison Château Rouge (minimalist streetwear: skirts and tops cut out of wax fabrics), Louise Damas (jewelry inspired by female literary characters), Aurélie Chadaine (eco-friendly leathers: bags, shoe fringes applied with vegetable tannings), Body & Clyde (lingerie bodysuits), Esquisse (laser-cut panties) — have been plucked from their relative obscurity and placed in bas-relief at Le Bon Marché in Paris’ seventh arrondissement alongside many of the store’s permanent collection of brands.

Christian Louboutin, Chloé, Jérôme Dreyfuss, Balenciaga, Dries Van Noten, Stella McCartney, and Baccarat, among others, have created exclusive items, which they’re calling "capsules," for the exhibit, including a black Balenciaga dress à la Édith Piaf, Baccarat crystal glassware with engraved images of Paris, and a starry Dries van Noten top that’s "inspired by Paris at night."

"A lot of these people were doing another job before. In the end it became almost a joke; we’d ask, ‘what was your job before?’"

Upon entering the multi-floor exhibit in Le Bon Marché, one quickly sees a stark difference between the typical luxury wares of the established brands and the sketched visions of the artisanal design-wear on show. But this diversification is a particularly welcome sight, and a rare one at that.

In many ways, department store exposure is a coup for independent artisans. In the case of Le Bon Marché, designers are gaining free publicity and space in one of the globe’s most frequented stores; they’re able to make money to hire new people and expand their vision; perhaps a few will even break out and get purchased by Richemont or LVMH.

And yet, one must ask what is lost when independent craftsmanship is put within the context of a department store?

Firstly, because artisanal designers require exposure for financial success, department stores need not pay exorbitant fees to gain access to the newest and brightest creative minds; they need only offer them window space. The trouble is that this window space, while financially vital to an artisan, has the potential to soften the potency of the designer’s vision — the very attribute that made that designer interesting to the department in the first place.

"In department stores, there’s more potential for diluting artisanal brand identity."

"In department stores, there’s more potential for diluting artisanal brand identity," Hazel Clark, the research chair of fashion at the Parsons School of Design in New York, told me recently.

But before the pitchforks come out against department stores and what they might mean for the fate of emerging independent fashion, it would be wise to look back at what today’s artisanal designers are trying to accomplish — namely, a reinvigoration of the same spirit that drove haute couture — and how department stores might help facilitate it.

In 1858, on the rue de la Paix in Paris, the Englishman Charles Frederick Worth opened a store selling made-to-measure clothing. During his shop’s near-century in business, Worth would pave the way for the staples of modern fashion: he invented the designer label; he began presenting collections by season; and he introduced runway models.

But it was Worth’s invention of haute couture that has led to his lasting name.

In 1863, a year after the Opéra Garnier had gone up next door and Worth’s business was taking off, Charles Dickens stopped by his shop, where he had difficulty believing that haute couture was not only a viable business model but was attracting the most esteemed aristocrats and Paris’ most rarefied beauties.

Le Bon Marché in 1875. Photo: Roger Viollet/Getty

"Would you believe," Dickens wrote in All Year Round, "there are bearded milliners [who take] the exact dimensions of the highest titled women in Paris — robe them, unrobe them, and make them turn backward and forward before them?"

Worth’s one-of-kind dresses along with his high-end sartorial creations — among them the hoopskirt, the bustle (the frame worn under a skirt to puff it out behind), and the leg-of-mutton sleeve (also known as the gigot sleeve) — took off in popularity, eventually reaching across the Atlantic and into the closets of Manhattan and Midwestern élites, worn by women with surnames like Guggenheim and Rubinstein.

But by the early-twentieth century, haute couture had reached its apex and had begun its decline. The made-to-measure style was later revived and modified by Christian Dior with his "New Look" in 1947; then by Coco Chanel and to a certain extent André Courrèges in the subsequent two decades; but haute couture, has not been as popular since those halcyon, Age of Innocence years.

Economically, haute couture simply does not make a profit.

While there were over two hundred haute couture houses before World War II, today only about a dozen remain. In his book, The Fashion Conspiracy, Nicholas Coleridge estimates that there are only thirty haute couture clients worldwide (although with new prosperity in Asia, some put this number closer to 4,000).

The explanation for haute couture’s decline is both economic and social. Economically, haute couture simply does not make a profit. The late-Jean-Louis Scherrer — a former ballerina, a pupil of Christian Dior, and an haute couture designer — revealed his price structure in 2010 for his haute couture line. One example outfit of his was made up of over a half mile of gold thread, had 18,000 sequins, and took hundreds of hours of hand-stitching. Scherrer estimated that a fair price for it might have been $65,000; he was eventually able to only get $45,000 for it.

Similarly, Jean-Paul Gaultier, when reporting record sales to journalists recently, said with haute couture "we don't make any money out of it." Or Jean-Jacques Picart, who told The Telegraph, "No matter how successful you are, you can't make a profit from couture."

But haute couture’s decline is also social. The style has become so detached from the fashion industry that it suggests not a trend to be bought and imitated but rather a theatrical possibility (think: Lady Gaga in Versace haute couture), which only bolsters its economic implausibility.

There remains a deep desire to connect with one’s clothes and their designer, a sentiment that is also at that heart of artisanal ware

And yet, even amidst its socioeconomic decline, haute couture has left an imprint on the fashion consumer. There remains a deep desire to connect with one’s clothes and their designer, a sentiment that is also at that heart of artisanal ware, which is slowly emerging as an emotionally similar (but much cheaper) alternative.

"The interesting thing about artisanal ware is that it’s responding to a desire for individuality, like haute couture," Clark said. "With artisanal ware, there’s something more particular and related to the wearer, who can’t afford haute couture but still wants to have a special relationship with their clothes and whoever is designing and making their clothes."

Perhaps then haute couture is not dying exactly; perhaps it is only being reinvented.

And perhaps its reinvention requires the kind of capital and publicity that only an LVMH-type conglomerate or a Le Bon Marché-esque department store can provide.

In both artisanal fashion and haute couture there is a singular desire for a connection with one’s clothes. But whether artisanal ware is indeed the future of fashion depends on how seriously the existing fashion powerhouses and department stores want to take it.

More offerings and scenes from the opening of Le Bon Marché's Paris exhibition. Photo: Foc Kan/Getty

It’s a delicate balance for the department store: ignore artisanal designers entirely and they will likely continue to toil in obscurity; but embrace them fully, sell them in your stores, and buy up their labels and that singular, independent vision that made them so interesting in the first place could disappear.

A month-long exhibit, therefore, is a smart place to start: whet the palette of the consumer for the new, the unique, the independent; but don't saturate it.

One can imagine Dickens dropping by an artisanal shop in Pigalle in northern Paris, having a look at button-up dress shirts made of fine silk and designed by a former lawyer. It wouldn't be quite the same as Worth’s haute couture shop, but I think Dickens would find it agreeable.

"The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again," he wrote in Nicholas Nickleby. Artisanal ware will never be the same as haute couture nor will it attract the exact same buyers, but by tapping into the same sartorial and emotional desires, artisanal ware might be haute couture’s spiritual reincarnation — old desires meeting again.

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