For anyone lucky enough to catch it on the Sundance Channel, the documentary Yves Saint Laurent: 5 Avenue Marceau 75116 Paris offers a crystal-clear window into the intensity, the sky-high level of craft, and the painstaking labor poured into a single couture creation. As he readies his spring 2002 collection, the last of his storied 40-year career, Saint Laurent holds court from a table in his atelier while his senior staffers and petites mains swirl around him. After working together for so long (decades, in some cases), Saint Laurent’s team members are expert at articulating the boss’s vision. While the clock ticks and the pressure mounts, they never lose their cool as they build each look from sketch to toile to finished garment. And as Saint Laurent heaps on the praise between drags on his ever present cigarette—there are many a “merveilleuse” and “sensationnelle” peppering the film’s soundtrack—the pride of the old-school couture makers is palpable.
Somehow, viewed against this backdrop, a $48 bum-skimming number from Whore Couture—with cutouts, no less—doesn’t conjure up quite the same lofty image.
No, it’s not your imagination—the entire world has gone positively “couture” cuckoo. What started as a slow creep has become a full-on avalanche. A recent scan of trademarks issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office revealed more than 1,000 bearing some variation on the word “couture.” And fashion is the least of it. All manner of merch is now available at the (alleged) couture level, from light- switch covers and saddle pads to rosé wine, doggie nail lacquer and hairspray. Retailers have hopped on the bandwagon too, creating special sale areas for some of their priciest (although not technically couture) duds. Even Zappos, the popular online store, has a “couture” site-within-a-site featuring high-end shoes and clothes. While it’s stocked with plenty of Jean Paul Gaultier and a smattering of Alexander McQueen, none of it is actually couture.
Although the term “haute couture” is still precisely defined by France’s Chambre Syndicale—reserved for custom-fitted clothing created by only a handful of firms meeting strict guidelines—the word “couture” itself has been utterly hijacked. When that moniker is attached to pretty much anything else, products are positioned as a cut above the herd, regardless of whether there is anything even remotely handcrafted about them.
Of course, it’s pretty easy to connect the dots between the vaunted past of the word “couture” and its decidedly alarming present; indeed, it’s hard not to blame two sunny So-Cal gals in particular. And as it turns out, Gela Nash-Taylor and Pamela Skaist-Levy are happy to take the heat. In the mid-Nineties, back when all those velour tracksuits were just a twinkle in their eyes, “couture” was still cloistered behind the gated walls of the fashion community. But after pairing it with “Juicy,” the best buds and business partners just knew they’d hit on the perfect name for their happy, cozy Cali togs. “The idea was a spoof on couture,” says Nash-Taylor. “Because we’re really the opposite of couture, which is sort of 80 hours to make one dress versus 80 hours to make 8,000 T-shirts.”