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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."
photo: Bruce Weber
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 Mether 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 Antoinetteish situation that reached its apotheosis when John Galliano showed his infamous clochard collectionthe word means bum or hobo in French, and the tattered gowns, hand-stenciled to look filthy, trailed pots, pans, and other refuseat 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 crafteven artcouture 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 itthe whole structure of fashion has changed. It's so diverse now. At any given moment, if you have the confidenceyou can dress any way you wantthere 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.)
Striking gold: Nan Kempner's Yves Saint Laurent evening cloak
photo: Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
And if it all went away tomorrow, if the last of the petit mainswhich means little hands and is the name given to the army of beaders, embroiderers, seamstresses, and other anonymous toilers who work on these garmentsdied off, if the last couture customer took her money to Zara or Banana Republic instead (and this could happen), how upset would he be?
Koda looks crestfallen. Then he tries one more time to explain what he thinks is so marvelous about the haute couture, and suddenly it is possible, if only for a moment, to appreciate couture solely through his practiced eye. "I love it because it is breathtakingly beautiful. It is beyond anything you see in your life! It's like Vermeer versus the Washington Square art show."