PARIS — Are couture and ready-to-wear fine bedfellows — or distant cousins who should remain separated?

It’s a question generating debate on the eve of couture week here, which kicks off Sunday night with spring rtw by Yohji Yamamoto, followed by winter couture by the likes of Givenchy and Valentino, and winter rtw by Loulou de la Falaise and Revillon.

This story first appeared in the July 2, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The Chambre Syndicale, which organizes fashion weeks in Paris, touts the variety show as a reflection of a fast-evolving industry — and retailers are applauding.

But Chanel, concerned that couture week’s hodgepodge of collections and seasons is diminishing its exclusive luster, is mulling a move to New York in January, which sets the stage for even more calendar turmoil.

“Couture must remain very exceptional and exclusive,” Chanel president Françoise Montenay said in an interview. “We are adaptable. If things are getting too sad here, we might go [to New York]. We are always challenging ourselves.”

“I agree with Chanel,” said Sidney Toledano, president of Christian Dior, although he added there are no immediate plans to show John Galliano’s Dior couture anywhere other than in the French capital. “We want to keep Paris very strong and we should keep very high standards. The press should be focused on haute couture and creativity.”

But anxious clients have begun weighing the possible ramifications of couture week with no Karl Lagerfeld —even if they still plan to come this season despite the strength of the euro and the continuing chill between the U.S. and France.

“To take Chanel away from the couture week would be disappointing. It would be a void,” said Becca Carson Thrash, a Houston socialite. “If Chanel doesn’t show in Paris, that might give people the notion of, “Why should I go?’”

Others took a positive view.

“I think it would be great to see something like that in New York,” said couture client Marjorie Raein (née Gubelmann). “I can understand, though, why all the luxury houses and others are peddling cell phones and all kinds of products during couture. It’s smart marketing.”

Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Saks, said she also would welcome a Chanel couture show stateside. “Change is what keeps our industry evolving,” she said. “Whenever people come up with a new idea, it’s a good thing.”

As for keeping couture week pure, retailers said they relish the opportunity to see as many collections as possible while they’re in Paris — made-to-order or produced in quantity.

“For me, it’s really good to be able to go around and see as many people as I can,” said Joan Kaner, senior vice president, fashion director at Neiman Marcus. “It always helps to get a leg up on the next season.”

Glenda Bailey, editor in chief of Harpers’ Bazaar, said she doesn’t mind the mix. “As journalists, we’re interested in the news,” she said. “We have to respect peoples’ right to choose when they show, whenever they are creatively ready. I’m all for people breaking the rules — so long as everyone knows what the rules are.”

Ingrid Sischy, editor in chief of Interview, disagreed, though, saying, “I’m all for mixing things up. But for me, the best thing would be to have [couture] alone under the microscope. For me, that would be the best kind of aesthetic experience.”

Chanel’s Montenay also insisted apples and oranges should be kept separate — with one exception. She noted that Chanel, Dior and Boucheron are unveiling fine jewelry collections next week. “Haute jewelry goes with haute couture, but prêt-a-porter doesn’t,” she said. “It’s the right time [for fine jewelry] because the people who know real luxury are here.”

Asked about the specter of a Chanel defection, Didier Grumbach, president of the Chambre Syndicale, said: “Each company has its own policy. Chanel is working fabulously these days. Why would you change something that works so well?”

Grumbach said he views Paris as having four runway showcases per year, which each house uses as it sees fit. “Look at Christian Lacroix,” he said. “He kept his couture slot and decided ready-to-wear doesn’t need a show.”

Grumbach said he considers Yamamoto’s controversial decision last year to start showing his top rtw line three months earlier than everyone to be a wrong one. The show is not on the Chambre’s official couture calendar, which is why Yamamoto will show off-schedule on Sunday. “Yohji is a fabulous designer and it’s a creative collection. It’s not the right season. There’s no reason to show innovation so early,” he said. “But it’s still another reason to come to Paris for couture, even if the way it’s done is irregular. You can’t come to Paris only twice a year.”

To be sure, the number of official couture houses participating in the week is shrinking, with the retirement of Yves Saint Laurent and the shuttering of his atelier. Louis Feraud recently suspended couture activity, and Balmain is skipping this couture week while it hunts for a new designer.

But next week’s calendar offers Italian couture newcomers Grimaldi Giardina, sponsored by Ungaro, along with a host of off-calendar shows by budding couturiers. “Each season, there are new names and it creates excitement,” Grumbach said. “Even if some clients don’t come, it won’t change the destiny of the industry.”

Only a few months ago, worries abounded about poor couture attendance, given the aftermath of the Iraqi conflict, anti-French sentiments in the U.S., the outbreak of SARS in Asia, a surging euro and other economic woes.

But interviewed last week, house presidents and couture directors said they have no fears, downplaying the impact of all those factors and forecasting attendance by anywhere from 100 to 400 clients next week.

“Our clients have no fear of traveling. They have private jets,” said Dior’s Toledano, chuckling.

And even if clients don’t come to Paris, the couture may come to them.

“We have had tremendous demand internationally to see our couture collections and have therefore been traveling with them,” said Emanuel Ungaro. “Couture is a concept that we are keen to take to people who would not usually be exposed to it, but who enjoy and celebrate glamour. We are actively opening up new markets in America and Asia and have plans for the fall to show in Dubai, Kazakhstan, and Los Angeles. We are taking our couture collections to a minimum of two new countries a year.”

Still, for true couture fans, there’s very little that could prevent them from going to Paris.

“Yes, I will be coming,” said Suzanne Saperstein, one of the world’s biggest couture clients. “I’ll be at Givenchy, Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Scherrer, Lacroix and Chanel.”

A devout Francophile — who’s even getting a Legion of Honor in November along with her husband David for their support of French culture and preservation of antiquities — Saperstein said she tries “not to mix politics and fashion.” Others agreed.

“It’s not like I would hold Jean Paul Gaultier responsible for any difficulties between our two countries,” said Carson Thrash. “That would not be fair.”

“At the end of the day, America needs France and France needs America,” added Lynn Wyatt, who will not attend couture shows because she is planning her annual party in the south of France. Instead, she said she would visit houses in September “at my leisure and make my selections.”

The fact that couture will cost more for American clients at current exchange doesn’t rate as a concern either — at least according to the couture houses. While the houses are notoriously loathe to talk about prices, it is believed couture suits from a major house start at about $20,000, with elaborate special occasion dresses running easily into six figures. At those prices, what’s a few thousand dollars extra?

“Rich people don’t mind about the dollar and the euro,” said Chanel’s Montenay. “When you’re spending that kind of money on a suit, 10 percent doesn’t matter.”

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