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Sometimes you have to wake up and smell the couture

As the haute couture spring/summer 14 season approaches, i-D Editor Holly Shackleton explores the presence of an antiquated art in a modern world.

Dior Haute Couture, Paris, 1st July 2013. The lights dim, flowers explode across floor-to-ceiling screens opposite the audience’s seat. The music booms, the flowers flash to photographs of the girls backstage and the first model hits the runway.

Life is art and art is life, but nowhere more so than the magical world of Haute Couture. Twice a year, the seventeen luxury houses that belong to the Syndical Chamber for Haute Couture in Paris showcase the very best that can be created by hand. Haute Couture literally translates as "high sewing’ or “high fashion”. For the ateliers it is a chance to design without limits; no limit on imagination, costs, materials, or the amount of time a garment takes to develop. Each house must employ at least 20 people, and show a minimum of 75 new designs a year. Sewing and craftsmanship are impeccable, using the world’s finest materials and techniques to maintain couture’s reputation as “the Grand Prix of fashion”.

The ateliers - affectionately known as “les petite mains” (“small hands”) - spend hundreds of hours laboriously embroidering, beading, pleating, draping and stitching garments. It’s a time consuming process that results in the price of garments often racking up to tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds. Historically, designers traded heavily in fantasy, spinning elaborate gowns more suited to a fairy-tale princess than a contemporary clientele, but times have changed, and today the ateliers are determined to reposition Haute Couture for the modern world.

“My aim was to bring a sense of reality back to haute couture. The collection is about focusing on the woman herself, her culture and personality; it is not the reality of just wearing the clothes but how a woman chooses to wear them; the liberation of choice and reflecting who she actually is." Raf Simons

For autumn/winter 13, Raf Simons reflected the boom in digital technology by inviting photographers Willy Vanderperre, Terry Richardson, Paolo Roversi and Patrick Demarchelier to photograph the models backstage before the show. The resulting images were projected across digital screens either side of the runway, creating a multi-sensory experience that immersed you head first in to Raf’s world. With slicked back hair and pin sharp stilettos, Raf’s models hit the runway to Plastikman’s Ping Pong with self-assured swagger. The cosmopolitan collection that unfurled was bold, bright and brilliant. Standout pieces included a red, black and green bandeau dress teased and puckered into points using the traditional Japanese art of shibori, that looked more like a caterpillar’s cocoon than a garment. An elegant Grecian gown, with a cascade of gems, paid homage to Mike Kelley, one of Raf’s favourite artists. While a multi-tiered feather dress in blue and red rippled down the runway like a tropical bird of paradise. The focus was texture. And lots of it. These were clothes you wanted to feel, touch and get up close to. “My aim was to bring a sense of reality back to haute couture,” Raf explained after the show. “The collection is about focusing on the woman herself, her culture and personality; it is not the reality of just wearing the clothes but how a woman chooses to wear them; the liberation of choice and reflecting who she actually is.” Splitting the show into continents - Europe, Asia, The Americas and Africa - Raf presented four different women of the world, with four very different tastes and personalities. "The collection wasn't just about a Dior that's Parisian or French,” he continued, “but about a Dior confronted with the entire world, and how these fashion cultures can serve to influence both the house and me.” Dior described it as “A fashion show of inner voyages, with a veritable world tour of inspirations.”

The meeting of old and new worlds was also explored by Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. Presented amongst a bombed out city, set against a futuristic skyline, Karl described the collection as "tradition with future". Tweed skirt suits, 3D effect dresses and lavish gowns offered a nod to the new prosperity of Asia – also reflected in the glistening skyscrapers - while the stripped back wearability appealed to the younger, wealthy generation. Maison Martin Margiela too married the past with the future, sourcing old, disused garments and transforming them in the atelier into lavish, glittering works of art. Remarkably it was also the first time we’ve seen denim on the Couture runway. Vintage jeans came rolled up over PVC knee high boots with Swarovski crystal spurs. A white T-shirt and blue jeans were remodeled in latex and a polka dot prom dress came masterfully reworked into an elegant evening coat. At Versace, Donatella’s evening and cocktail dresses, accessorised with lavish white diamond cuffs and necklaces, were inspired by our current fascination with Hollywood and the red carpet. The atelier described the collection as, “the ultimate expression of the designer’s art. Exclusive, glamorous, the most precious as goddesses require.”

Historically, if you had the money to invest in Couture you wanted the world to know about it. After all, with prices astronomically high, why wouldn’t you want bang for your buck? But times change, and luxury in 2013 isn’t nearly as ostentatious. Today Couture customers seek subtle yet beautiful details, masterfully fine materials, and a one-on-one service that enables you to not only be part of an incredibly creative experience, but an enchantingly intimate one too. For many of the luxury houses, Couture is seen as a window to their world: a lab of creativity that filters ideas, silhouettes and techniques down to their ready-to-wear collections. "Haute couture is what gives our business its essential essence of luxury," Bernard Arnault, the head of LVMH, recently told The Telegraph. "The cash it soaks up is largely irrelevant. Set against the money we lose has to be the value of the image Couture gives us. Look at the attention the collections attract. It is where you get noticed. You have to be there. It's where we set our ideas in motion." The idea of Couture as a smorgasbord for the season ahead is an interesting one, but with the prices of ready-to-wear creeping up to match, whether there will be a demand for both industries in the future remains to be seen. Until then, as Dior and Margiela so artfully proved, if you want to stay ahead of the curve, you have to push things forward.