Barbarians Rush in Where Once the Genius of Dior and Balenciaga Ruled

By Johnson, Paul | The Spectator, January 24, 1998 | Go to article overview

Barbarians Rush in Where Once the Genius of Dior and Balenciaga Ruled


Johnson, Paul, The Spectator


The Paris haute couture trade began showing its spring collections last weekend, but the event is no longer a graceful punctuation mark in the long history of European civilisation, more a media happening. The supermodels, like Naomi Campbell and Honor Fraser, are now better known than most of the designers, and the clothes shown by, for instance, the maisons of Dior and Givenchy, both owned by the conglomerate LVMH, are more a publicity stunt for the scent, cosmetics and tights which constitute the bulk of the business than the reason for its existence, let alone works of art as they once were.

Le Monde marked the new season last Friday by a full-page article of unrelieved gloom, predicting that 1998 would be the make-or-break year in Paris's increasingly desperate attempt to beat off foreign competition. Italy now has a bigger women's fashion business than France and a more lucrative export trade. The American Calvin Klein sells more scent worldwide than the top French firms. London's St Martin's School is where the best young designers are trained. Many of the leading couturiers operating in Paris are foreigners, and the big French houses and boutiques have to compete with foreign designers and shops which have been set up there and are often better financed than the French firms. Le Monde complained that French banks were no longer prepared to give French mode the financial muscle to remain on top.

Le Monde's despair was echoed, though in a loftier tone of voice, by Hubert de Givenchy, the last of the great couturiers, who retired in 1995. He told the Daily Telegraph last week that the fashion industry was now a `total disaster'. He was particularly bitter about what had happened at his own house, and the antics of British designers, like John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, who have taken over in Paris. Much of Givenchy's complaint was the grumbling of an old man, but the gist of it that Paris fashion is no longer about art but about publicity - is valid, and comes closer to the truth than Le Monde's xenophobia. It does not matter if foreign designers and interests have huge slices of the action, any more than it mattered when foreign masters came to Paris to paint during the great age of the Ecole de Paris, 187>1914. What does matter is the quality of the product, and there is a case for saying that haute couture itself is now dead.

There is a savage irony here, what might be called the revenge of civilisation. The modern French fashion trade was created in the reign of Napoleon III and its international ascent paralleled the rise of Impressionism. But when Post-Impressionism was followed by Cubism, Surealism and the rest, painting surrendered to the ethics of the fashion trade and became no more than a series of fashions itself. And during our own times, as it degenerated still further, into the mere display of the shocking - the Royal Academy's Sensation show was a pitiful example of its aims and methods - so it reinfected the fashion trade with its own cultural virus, the pursuit of novelty for its own sake. Just as painting forgot its function, the creation of beauty in a moral context, so haute couture forgot it existed to produce clothes of the highest quality and elegance for real women to feel happy in.

The decadence of high fashion is one of the saddest events of my lifetime. When I first went to live in Paris in the early 1950s, the French trade was at the height of its glory, with masters like Balenciaga, Dior, Fath and Balmain setting the tone and young men like Givenchy coming along. …

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