PARIS -- The demise of the haute-couture branch of the French fashion industry has been as widely heralded over the years as the death of the novel or the theater. The subject came up repeatedly during the proliferation of inventive clothes at the fall and winter showings. There was an unusual mixture of wearable styles and rather outrageous ones that could percolate down to the level of ready-to-wear.
The line between the two fashion areas seems to be blurring anyway. On July 25, the day before the showings officially began, Pierre Berge of Yves Saint Laurent introduced a new ready-to-wear collection by Robert Merloz.
Later, Pierre Cardin promised to combine his ready-to-wear shows with his couture presentations next year. But Thierry Mugler beat him to the runway. He introduced his first couture collection at the same time that he showed his ready-to-wear.
Berge said, as he did last season, "The couture will be finished by the year 2000." Nevertheless, Yves Saint Laurent received his best notices in years. The low-key elegance was tempered with midriff-baring bra tops that represented the newest fashion beat.
Also giving substance to the season were Christian Lacroix with his imaginative clothes that never repeated the same ideas; Karl Lagerfeld, who has taken Chanel to the cutting edge of fashion; and Emanuel Ungaro, with his surrealist mode. Three outstanding Italians were Gianni Versace of Milan, with his super-sexy clothes; the Rome-based internationalist Valentino, with his memories of the silver screen; and Gianfranco Ferre, who shows ready-to-wear in Milan but is getting comfortable with the opulence of Dior.
In fact, the quality of the clothes throughout the week was by no means an embarrassment. Through coverage by newspapers, magazines and television, the clothes and the fashion houses responsible for them were disseminated throughout the world. This is the major reason for the continuation of the couture: the publicity it generates.
In the showings themselves, there was a balance between short and long skirts, a renewed emphasis on pants and general agreement on the importance of black by both trendy and traditional designers.
The number of women who will buy and wear couture clothes is, of course, limited. It is not only that prices of individual styles run into five figures and that the fittings are tedious. Couture clothes always have been expensive. But in recent years, quality ready-to-wear clothes by the same designers became widely available. Even enthusiastic couture fans who sit in the front rows of fashion shows supplement their wardrobes with ready-to-wear. (The most visible fans this season from the United States included Nan Kempner, Lynn Wyatt, Joan Collins, Ivana Trump, Audrey Gruss and Lisa Salomon.)
Both Cardin and Mugler insisted it was logical to present couture and ready-to-wear collections at the same time because the same people bought them. A number of other designers agreed that their couture styles were bought mainly for special occasions, like weddings. Thus, sportswear has practically disappeared from the runways, with the exception of a few casual styles in luxury materials like suede and snakeskin.
Because of the great expense of producing couture collections with their extensive handwork and opulent materials, the number of styles by each collection was drastically reduced.
At the same time, ready-to-wear collections are being expanded, and additional lines like that of Merloz are being added.
Recognizing the need to redefine couture, a committee under the direction of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French minister of industry, has been meeting for several months. The aim is to change the rules governing the acceptance for couture membership. The purpose is to attract new blood and to make the couture more relevant.
The revisions will be announced in September, but most industry members expect they will be largely cosmetic. A reduction in the number of styles in each showing is expected; smaller workrooms are another likely result -- at least 20 workers are now required. The need for each house to stage a minimum of 45 shows a season for potential customers is likely to be eased. For several years, videos rather than live fashion shows have been used.
Once, the couture houses established the parameters of fashion. Now, the ready-to-wear producers have seized the gauntlet. A case in point is the prevalence of corsets used in outerwear.
Jean-Paul Gaultier first mined this source of inspiration in the 1980s. it was picked up by Madonna and emerged as a full-fledged trend at Chanel. Mugler built all his styles on the corset; Yves Saint Laurent did the jeweled bra with style.
The clothes at some of the old couture houses have a deja vu feeling. Ready-to-wear seems to be the place for change. Whether it will make couture obsolete remains to be seen, but it seems certain couture will not disappear overnight.