PARIS — Executives at Europe’s most exclusive fabric mills, where the most exquisite creations may cost more than $1,000 a yard, said the decline of couture could limit their ability to experiment with ultra-high-end fabrics and ideas.

This story first appeared in the July 13, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But they aren’t too broken up over the diminishing sector — since the mills used it in the same way many ready-to-wear houses did, more for promotions than profits.

“Couture hasn’t been a significant business since its golden age in the late Sixties and early Seventies,” said Toby Forester, co-owner and art director at Foster Rohner, a mill in St. Gallen, Switzerland, that supplies couture houses such as Christian Lacroix and Chanel.

“Balenciaga, Givenchy or Yves Saint Laurent could sell a couture dress 20, 30, even 50 times,” Forester said. “That’s unheard of today. Couture, for us, has become a fabulous experiment — an exercise to feel what the best designers in the world could need. It’s easier to have great ideas where you’re not limited by price.”

Despite the disappearance this season of Emanuel Ungaro, Versace and Givenchy — as well as the retirement of Hanae Mori — mills aren’t fretting about the future of the haute trade.

Martin Leuthold, art director at Jakob Schlaepfer, another St. Gallen mill that caters to top Paris houses, said the recent emergence of such “extraordinary” talents as John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier has given couture a shot in the arm.

“I feel that this is good for the future,” said Leuthold. “There are houses that are making a business of couture, such as [Lebanon’s] Elie Saab. And we’ve been doing a lot of business with small made-to-measure studios in London, so overall, business is stable.”

“Of course, it’s a pity that someone such as Ungaro has stopped,” said Herve Protais, commercial director at France’s Solstiss. “We do have fewer couture orders this season. But couture has long been a marketing tool, a window we use to sell our other fabrics.”

Meanwhile, Leuthold explained that more intricate and luxurious rtw collections have helped shore up top-end business.

“A lot of prêt-à-porter is almost couture now,” he said.

Nonetheless, few expect rtw fabrics to ever rival the heady summits of the couture.

“Some prêt-à-porter designers will use fabrics that cost as much as $200 or $300 a yard for exceptional pieces for their shows,” said Forster. “But the top is around $100 a yard. We can do extraordinary things at that price because, with prêt-à-porter, obviously, the volumes are bigger.”

— Robert Murphy