Some Like It Haute

Does a socialite's wardrobe at the Met represent the last gasp of couture?

Chances are you don't know it, and there's an even better chance you don't care, but this week is couture week in Paris. Even as you sit there in your jeans and tattered T-shirt, models—very, very skinny models (but that's a whole other discussion)—are swinging down runways at Chanel and Givenchy, accoutred in everything from feathered headdresses to gilded chain mail. Each of these confections is one of a kind, will never be sold in any store, will in fact be created (or not) for a handful of private clients.

One of those special ladies was the late Nan Kempner, who died in 2005 at 74. Kempner, whose enthusiasm for the couture was legendary, is currently the subject of "American Chic" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute (through March 4), an exhibit offering hundreds of her ensembles, which she collected so rigorously and wore so well that no less a doyenne of fashion than the immortal Diana Vreeland once conceded, "There is no such thing as a chic American woman. The one exception is Nan Kempner."

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Kempner, 2004
photo: Bruce Weber
In the dim, hushed recesses of the Costume Institute (OK, it's in the Met's basement, but great pains have been taken to disguise this fact and make the ambience as elegant as possible), Harold Koda, the show's curator, details the attributes Kempner possessed that made her the ideal couture client (see how many you have!): (1) A tall, rangy figure distinguished by extraordinarily long tibiae. She was roughly the same size and shape as the mannequins at the Met, possessing what Koda calls "the ideal contemporary fashion silhouette," and she was proud of it. "I loathe fat people," Kempner notoriously told W magazine in December 2000, setting off a fury. (2) Deep pockets. Though Yves Saint Laurent, her favorite designer by far, sometimes gave her a discount, her hobby still cost her investment banker husband Tommy plenty. (3) A 14-room Park Avenue apartment in which to store her purchases. As each of her three children moved out, she colonized their bedrooms, filling the space up with more and more garments; she even had the bathtubs covered so she could pile clothes on top. (4) Places to wear this stuff. Kempner still followed the old social calendar that you probably last encountered reading an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel in college—Gstaad for skiing, the Riviera for sunning, Scotland for shooting, etc. The locales may change—St. Barts is the new Biarritz—but the crowd remains the same.

Kempner, who Koda confides had 400 bikinis but preferred to go topless, traversed those watering holes like clockwork, and the outfits she wore for this globe-trotting are on splendid display at the Met—her Madame Grés frocks, her Saint Laurent trouser suits, even a dashing if cheerfully vulgar Versace evening jacket. But that was then. Now so many faithful haute couture customers have passed away that the institution's very survival is in question, especially since the granddaughters of these customers, today's "social girls," are more often than not only interested in couture if it has the name Juicy attached.

Which you might think is a shame, considering so many of the extraordinary items on display here. Who wouldn't want to run up a staircase, Cinderella at the ball-style, trailing Kempner's voluminous marigold silk faille Saint Laurent evening coat? Still, gazing at these lavish garments, it's hard, no matter how much you love clothes, to vanquish your nagging thoughts: Isn't the haute couture a useless indulgence of the super-rich, as dated and offensive as serfdom or indentured servitude? Isn't there something revolting about catering to the imagined needs of a tiny group of spoiled ladies, a Marie Antoinette–ish situation that reached its apotheosis when John Galliano showed his infamous clochard collection—the word means bum or hobo in French, and the tattered gowns, hand-stenciled to look filthy, trailed pots, pans, and other refuse—at the 1997 Dior haute couture show? Didn't couture long ago stop functioning as a laboratory for fashion ideas, the hackneyed justification for keeping it alive that its defenders invariably trot out? These days, new ideas in fashion come almost exclusively from the street or the mass media; a bicycle messenger or a schoolboy or a movie about a 1960s girl group has far more influence on what people actually end up wearing than whatever is on display at the loftiest couture salon.

Koda may be deadly serious when it comes to fashion theory, he may be one of the most respected thinkers in the field, but that doesn't mean he isn't a lot of fun to talk to. Over coffee in an unpretentious café a few blocks from the museum, he explains why he's still excited about the haute couture, even in this day and age. "The intensive handwork! The artisanal skills!" he says, clearly enraptured by the level of craft—even art—couture brings to mere clothing. Acknowledging that the light of the haute couture may be dimming, he sighs. "The customer base is so much smaller because people are no longer compelled to buy it—the whole structure of fashion has changed. It's so diverse now. At any given moment, if you have the confidence—you can dress any way you want—there are all these designers saying it's all right to wear short or long or wide or narrow," he explains, adding that the top-down edicts once issued by the couture and followed faithfully by the fashion flock have lost their power. "By the 1970s, ready-to-wear designers stopped mimicking the couture and started being much more aggressive about their own innovation," Koda says, citing Issey Miyake, Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, and Jean Paul Gaultier as avatars of this new wave of creativity. "So naturally women, even ultra-rich ones, began to question why they had to spend the amount the haute couture required." (This amount, by the way, according to fashion historian Caroline Milbank, can be roughly calculated to equal the price of a sedan in any given decade. For example, if a Balenciaga haute couture ball gown cost $800 in 1950, the current price of such an item would be roughly equivalent to the cost of a high-end car today, which is, believe it or not, around $50,000.)

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