PARIS — Yves Saint Laurent’s retirement already has stirred debate — both about the future of couture and about who might be the next designer to bow out.

Saint Laurent is one of a generation of designers who have spearheaded the craft of couture, and all of them are approaching or are beyond retirement age. They include Karl Lagerfeld, 63; Emanuel Ungaro, 68; Oscar de la Renta, 68, and Valentino, who turns 70 this year.

Last fall, Ungaro ceded ready-to-wear duties to his artistic director, Giambattista Valli, prompting speculation this week that a July swan song might be in the offing. But an Ungaro spokeswoman Tuesday said the couturier has no plans of stopping his “passion” in life, adding his contract with the house owner, Ferragamo, allows him to continue for another five years.

Valentino is also still full of steam, said the designer’s business partner Giancarlo Giammetti, and nowhere near retiring. “Valentino still wants to be a part of the fashion scene, and has the same enthusiasm for his work as he had years ago,” Giammetti told WWD. “He enjoys his work, and there is no retirement on the horizon.”

Valentino celebrated the 40th anniversary of his fashion house in 2000.

De la Renta renewed his contract at Balmain in 2000 for another three years, but he has not indicated his intentions beyond the remaining few seasons.

Lagerfeld scoffed at the notion of retirement, saying: “There’s no reason for stopping. As long as the Wertheimers [who own Chanel] want to do couture, I will keep doing it. And I must say, I enjoy it.”

Lagerfeld pointed out that Coco Chanel herself was making dresses until she was 87 years old, meaning there’s no age limit on the profession. And he said financial constraints are not a consideration because “at Chanel, they don’t even lose money with the couture. There are clients, so again, why stop?”

But Pierre Berge, Saint Laurent’s longtime business partner, used Monday’s press conference to make an ominous declaration: “I believe absolutely in the end of haute couture. This way of life no longer exists.”

There are clearly many dissenters. Didier Grumbach, president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, predicted that couture “will live through all the next century. The only way for a trademark to transcend the times is with haute couture.”

Lagerfeld stressed that Saint Laurent’s retirement does not call into question the entire future of couture. “The beat goes on. Times have changed and the role of couture changed before his retirement,” he said. “For what couture is today, there are still enough good designers. [John] Galliano is modern couture for me.”

Lagerfeld said he refuses to ponder questions like the validity and relevancy of couture: “I am designing ‘couture’ so I think it’s still relevant for me as long as I am doing it,” he said. “It can exist on a smaller base, but it can exist as long as it is not compared to the old days of couture. I hate nothing more than ‘the good old days.’ It makes the present secondhand.”

Noting the shriveling numbers of workers employed by couture houses, Oscar de la Renta said “we would be fools” to believe that it is a growing enterprise. “How many nails can go in a coffin before the coffin is sealed?” he asked.

Grumbach insisted that couture has a bright future, given the entrance of designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and the imminent addition to the calendar of Alexander McQueen and Gianfranco Ferre.

“I think couture has never been so vital,” he said. “And you have so many designers who want to be part of haute couture.”

For decades, couture houses depended on a small, but wealthy pack of women numbering in the hundreds. Today, Grumbach said the pool of potential clients has widened to thousands of occasional clients who will go to their favorite designer for an extraordinary life event such as a wedding or anniversary. He said the desire for a special dress “will never die.”

Christian Lacroix argued that couture has become increasingly relevant at a time when a uniformity has crept into fashion worldwide.

“People need again one-of-a-kind, personal, individual clothes,” he said. “Couture is alive, but we have to take care of it, providing it with all the modern impulse without considering it like a museum. Couture is still relevant if worked with a nowadays approach, mixing it with the ready-to-wear or contemporary ways of making.”

“Above all, it’s impossible to support the financial weight of couture without profitable lines,” he said. “Nothing is predictable in this industry.”

Donna Karan said the word “couture” and “what couture is will always survive, but perhaps differently. I think it will take a different direction.”

But, she noted, “as the leader that Saint Laurent is, it’s a very strong message he’s putting out there.”

Jean Jacques Picart, a fashion consultant to Krizia, luxury giant LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton and other firms, said couture should be preserved because it “remains the only area in fashion without a marketing attitude.”

Without allowing creativity to flow freely without commercial constraints, fashion ultimately becomes only a “textile industry,” he said.

“We look to Paris, and London as well, for ideas, emotion and shock, for provocation, to shake up everyone’s brain a little, the retailers and the press, too,” he said. “We all need that.” – Miles Socha with contributions by Samantha Conti, London and Eric Wilson, New York

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