PARIS — As Paris prepares to hold its first haute couture week since the death of Karl Lagerfeld, brands large and small are vowing to keep the art form alive by drafting a new generation of craftspeople into their specialized workshops.
All eyes will be on Virginie Viard, who succeeded Lagerfeld as artistic director of Chanel, when she presents her first solo couture collection for the house on Tuesday.
Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion and president of Chanel SAS, noted that the 57-year-old designer was intimate with every facet of the couture process. Having joined Chanel as an intern in 1987, Viard was quickly put in charge of embroidery, working directly with Lesage.
From the year 2000, she was director of the house’s creation studio, overseeing the development and production of all the haute couture, ready-to-wear and accessories collections.
“This is really her comfort zone,” Pavlovsky told WWD. “Of course there’s a certain amount of stress, because it’s her collection and not Karl’s, but she is ready. Psychologically, physically and intellectually, she is fully focused on her collection.”
Viard, who has given no interviews since Lagerfeld died, provided an insight into her creative process with her filmed testimony, broadcast as part of the “Karl For Ever” memorial celebration in Paris on June 20.
“Karl is probably the person I’ve spent the most time with in my life. To me, he was accessible. My opinion counted. Above all, he loved my energy and my ideas, and he showed it. Together, we created the most beautiful collections that we could and today, I’m trying to continue so that everything is perfect for him,” she said in the video.
Hers won’t be the only debut this week: On Monday, Daniel Roseberry will unveil his first collection for Schiaparelli since being named artistic director in April, and promises to shake things up with an approach that is less rooted in the past. Unlike his predecessor Bertrand Guyon, he will oversee both couture and ready-to-wear.
The house will host a welcome cocktail on Monday evening for the American designer, who previously spent 10 years at Thom Browne. “It’s incredibly exciting yet also challenging because it’s a new start, a different way of thinking and working,” said Delphine Bellini, chief executive officer of Schiaparelli.
“It’s not always sweetness and light. Sometimes the process is laborious, sometimes it’s painful because you have to question yourself, which is never easy, but to see the pride and emotion in people’s faces when the piece is finished and approved by the designer is incredible,” she added.
“We are ready to open a new chapter at the house, to be more daring, perhaps, with an artistic director who is able to take a more global view of our brand universe,” Bellini added.
Maria Grazia Chiuri, artistic director of women’s wear at Dior, also will show her lineup on Monday at the brand’s Avenue Montaigne store before it closes for renovations. “It’s a perfect liaison with the future,” said Pietro Beccari, ceo of Dior, adding that the outfits were inspired by founder Christian Dior’s love of architecture.
Later in the day, Chiuri will receive the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian distinction, in a ceremony at the company’s headquarters, to be followed by a party at Castel.
There are 37 shows on the official calendar. In addition to the 15 houses with the official haute couture seal — such as Chanel, Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Givenchy, Maison Margiela, Schiaparelli and Giambattista Valli — there are correspondent members such as Giorgio Armani Privé.
Guest members this season include Aelis and Ralph Rucci’s RR331 label, which kicked off the official show schedule on Sunday in the midst of a record heatwave that has gripped most of continental Europe for the last week. Thankfully, temperatures in the City of Light are expected to moderate into the high 70s and low 80s this week.
A host of designers are taking advantage of the week to introduce new brands and concepts. Julie de Libran, former creative director of Sonia Rykiel, launched her Dress by Julie de Libran label with a presentation at her Left Bank apartment on Sunday evening featuring ready-to-wear and made-to-measure gowns.
Valli, fresh off designing the dress for Charlotte Casiraghi’s religious wedding on Saturday to Dimitri Rassam, has opted out of a show and will present his collection on Monday in the form of an exhibition designed to highlight the craftsmanship behind making made-to-measure clothes for a handful of super-rich clients.
Meanwhile, Clara Daguin, a finalist for the 2016 Hyères Prize, will throw a spotlight on the intersection between fashion and technology with an installation featuring a dress incorporating LED lights that respond to sound.
In parallel, Gucci will unveil its first high jewelry collection, dubbed “Hortus Deliciarum,” on Thursday alongside its first store on Place Vendôme, while Tod’s will throw a party on Tuesday to celebrate its collaboration with Alber Elbaz on a capsule collection of accessories under the Tod’s Factory label.
Rabih Kayrouz, who heads one of the last official couture houses, plans to celebrate his label’s 20th anniversary at the expansive space that houses his store, workshop and showroom on Boulevard Raspail.
Behind the scenes, Sophie Waintraub has left her position as general manager of Jean Paul Gaultier and will be taking on the same position at Lemarié, the feather maker owned by Chanel, when Nadine Dufat retires this summer. Waintraub will report to Pavlovsky.
All these changes come at a time when houses are keen to secure their future by recruiting and training new staff to keep pace with the rapid growth of their couture divisions.
“It’s a good time for wedding dresses at Dior,” said Beccari, reporting booming demand for Chiuri’s bridal creations not just from celebrities like Chiara Ferragni and Karlie Kloss, but also couples in China and the Middle East. “There will be other stars coming up with weddings and with Dior dresses.”
Dior has hired 16 people in the last three years, many of them drawn from its in-house “école des savoir-faire” program, although some of its “petites mains,” as the seamstresses are known, have been with the house for decades.
“We try to renovate every year the atelier with new blood because people go into retirement, or because people get promoted, or because the business and the activity is growing, as it is the case for Dior,” Beccari said.
He noted that while Dior has no trouble recruiting apprentices, the same is not always true for smaller French or Italian ateliers, including shoemakers and leather goods firms. Beccari argued that more should be done to promote these unsung manual trades.
“On our Instagram, many of the most viewed films are not the ones of the celebrities, but the ones of savoir-faire. And actually, I think the record of the most-viewed film on our Instagram is a film of savoir-faire, so that tells you a lot about the interest of young people,” he added.
A video on the know-how behind the new 30 Montaigne bag has been viewed 4.4 million times since it was posted in May.
“We need to add a little bit of gasoline to this fire that is over there, so we need just to incentivize people to approach this type of métier and to want to learn. Of course, they are métiers that require a lot of sacrifice, because you can’t just cut an haute couture dress the day after you arrive, as much as you can’t cut a diamond, if you learn to cut diamonds, the day after you arrive. So it takes years, so maybe this is something that scares people away,” Beccari mused.
In the past, Dior has snapped up suppliers to guarantee their survival, for example with its 2012 acquisition of embroiderer Vermont. Chanel has taken this practice the furthest, gathering 27 specialty ateliers in its Paraffection division, including shoemaker Massaro, milliner Maison Michel and U.K. cashmere specialist Barrie.
Pavlovsly said Chanel has recruited around 50 people in the last year across its Métiers d’Art division, which is the focus of an annual collection. “We can’t afford not to have enough hands to work on these creations,” he said, noting that today’s couture customers are eager to snap up the most technically challenging pieces.
“There was a time when the couture clientele in France, the United States and elsewhere was growing older. I think there’s been a complete renewal of this group in the last 10 years, both in those countries and, of course, Asia. These clients are interested in what couture represents: the best, the most beautiful, the most unique products that a brand has to offer,” he said.
Pavlovsky believes Viard has the knack for drawing the best out of Chanel’s myriad workshops. “She has a very strong knowledge of the house of Chanel, but she also has a very solid technical grasp of couture,” he said. “Nothing is left to chance. She has a very sharp eye.”
Judging from recent red carpet looks — Viard also designed a dress for Casiraghi, this time for the reception that followed her civil wedding in Monaco — she will bring a more streamlined approach to couture. “This collection will have a nice balance between more pared-back looks and beautiful embroideries,” Pavlovsky teased.
Armani also reported brisk business for his couture division, with sales for the latest collection again exceeding expectations.
“In general, business is growing, both in already-established markets and in new countries. I’ve also recently expanded the atelier on Via Borgonuovo in Milan, which now occupies the entire first floor of the historic Palazzo Orsini,” he said.
“Haute couture is something special; it has, and must continue to have, a specific role in the world of fashion. It represents dreams, the maximum expression of the best craftsmanship, of that know-how heritage intertwined with the purest forms of creativity and imagination,” the designer added.
“For me, it’s a territory of research and discovery, which allows me to fully express my inspirations that translate into timelessly elegant tailored pieces. There are women whose life has an intense pace, punctuated by unique occasions that require special outfits and my designs are meant for them,” Armani explained.
The 84-year-old designer, a favorite with celebrities including Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman and Juliette Binoche, noted the importance of ensuring the transmission of this specialized activity.
“Haute couture is not something you can learn from manuals. Skills are passed down from generation to generation, and absorbed whilst working. I’m determined to ensure that the cycle does not break. There are high-profile clients that are increasingly inclined towards made-to-measure collections, and the concept of couture is perfectly in line with today’s fundamental propensity for customization and experience,” he said.
“There’s a growing number of young seamstresses for each première group within the atelier. We recruit through a variety of channels. It is a surprisingly dynamic market, and I believe this is a positive sign,” Armani added.
Vincent Thilloy, senior vice president, prestige designers and alternative brands at Puig, which owns the Gaultier label, said the brand’s couture business has seen double-digit growth every year since the designer decided to halt his ready-to-wear line in 2015 to focus on made-to-measure clothes and perfumes.
“Clients reacted very positively to our last show in January and we hope to reach record sales at the end of this year,” Thilloy said, noting that the business was fairly well spread between the United States, Europe and the Middle East. “We have also started developing the business in Asia, mainly with Chinese clients.”
Kicking off a world tour, Gaultier is taking his “Fashion Freak Show” revue to London, where it will play at the Southbank Centre from July 23 for 13 performances only.
“The ‘Fashion Freak Show’ will travel first in Europe, and from next year, worldwide. Meanwhile, our couture department will stage its usual showrooms in New York, Los Angeles and London in the next few months,” said Thilloy, underscoring the synergies between Gaultier’s theater show and his catwalk creations.
Of course, for most onlookers, couture is and always will be a thrilling spectator sport. The closest they will get to an actual couture dress is in a museum, via exhibitions such as “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” at the Victoria & Albert in London, or “Dior: From Paris to the World” at the Dallas Museum of Art.
“We are planning to do a couple of these exhibitions every year to bring the big dream of Dior around the world, and I think a big part of this dream is definitely the savoir-faire and the beauty of these clothes,” Beccari said.