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Vive le Haute Couture!

Vintage Haute Couture Drawing

Haute Couture is here, and it’s a uniquely Parisian event (whereas Prêt-à-Porter, a.k.a. Ready-to-Wear, has shows in Milan, New York, London, and Paris). Here’s some cocktail party chatter for you: Haute Couture isn’t just a cool French phrase used to describe expensive French clothing (although expensive it is, yes indeed). Haute Couture is created by Grands Couturiers, and to get this illustrious title bestowed upon you, there are certain conditions set by the fashion union in Paris that must be met.

What Makes Haute Couture so Special? You would need to employ at least 20 people to work in your own studio, and you need to present your collection in Paris at both the Spring-Summer shows in January and Autumn-Winter shows in July. The collection needs to have at least 75 creations and three live models to wear them. Finally, you must present these collections at least 45 times a year to your clientele at your fashion house, or in special places made for this purpose. And then, of course, you have to be approved by the union. This is one of the ways Haute Couture retains its exclusivity and respect.

Get a Glimpse If you haven’t been able to procure yourself a pass for any of the shows, never fear, the web is full of instant coverage. Elle.comFashion TV (if you can’t get it on your cable network), and Fashion Live are sure bets for most of the well-known designers. There is usually some great gossip on Elle, and FTV has a good archived list of complete shows from the past few years.

The Fashionista Fair If you’re in Paris and want to get into the Haute Couture spirit, you could head out to where all of the fashionistas and their entourage of models and designers hang out between shows. Café Marly (attached to the Louvre next to the Pyramid) and Angélina (226, rue de Rivoli, Metro Tuilleries) are two fashionable salons du thé. For lunch or dinner, head to Terrence Conran’s Alcazar (2, rue Mazarine, Metro Odéon) or the classic Brasserie Lipp (151, blvd St. Germain, Metro Odéon). If you hope to get near Naomi on the dancefloor, or Galiano at the bar, try your luck getting into the V.I.P. Room (dance club at 76, ave. Champs Elysées, take a taxi) or the Buddha Bar (8, rue Boissy-d’Anglas, Metro Concorde). Finally, if you don’t spot any of your stars, you could always catch them on their way in or out of the Hotel Crillon (10, Place de la Concorde), the Hotel Raphaël (17, ave. Kléber, Metro Kléber), or the Ritz (15, Place Vendôme). The bars at these hotels are usually gorgeous and expensive, a plus even if you see no one at all. No matter where you go, this is the chance to wear those killer outfits that cost you a fortune but never leave your closet.

A Taste of the Action Another way to get into the spirit of Haute Couture all year long is to go to one of the weekly fashion shows put on at Galeries Lafayette, the Paris department store. All you have to do is drop in or e-mail to sign up. Drop off your coat at the vestière on the lower floor, and relax with free beverages and munchies as clothes from the current season are presented just like at a real fashion show (you may even recognize some of the models). Sure, it’s Prêt-a-Porter, not Haute Couture, but at least you can indulge in a little guilt-free shopping afterwards. The great thing about this is that you get a little guide that tells you who the designer is, where in the store it’s located, and the price. It’s especially nice if you’re shopping-weary feet need a break, and the clothes look much better on the models than they do on a hanger.

And last but not least, I have a very important announcement: the sales have begun! Known as les soldes in Paris, they only happen twice a year (yes, hard to believe, but true), in January/February and July/August. The discounts are unbelievable, but not so much as the frenzied crowds of women trying to get the last size small Agnès b. tee-shirt at 50% off. If you can brave the pandemonium, and not get suckered into buying too many things you don’t need, then this is simply the best time to shop in Paris. The more expensive clothing stores are worth checking out. That Thierry Mugler gown that usually runs 9000ff may be knocked down to 6000ff, and the crowds will behave themselves better than at Zara or H&M.; It’s also fun to see the long lines of fashionistas in front of the Avenue Montaigne boutiques. Wear your battle gear!

Here are some good addresses:

Agnès b., men, women and children’s clothes; 2-10 rue du Jour, Metro Les Halles

A.P.C., all the basics; 3, rue Fleurus, Metro St. Placide

Colette, always on top of the trends; 213, rue Saint Honoré, Metro Palais Royale

Kiliwatch, “flea-market” fashions; 64, rue Tiquetonne, Metro Etienne-Marcel

L’Eclaireur, trendy and original; 3 ter, rue des Rosiers, Metro Saint Paul

Le Shop, the latest streetwear; 3, rue d’Argout, Metro Etienne-Marcel

Zampa, creations from around the world; 10rue Hérold, Metro Etienne-Marcel.

November 2019 Update

It’s still next to impossible getting a seat at a real Haute Couture show if you’re not a regular client, but with the proliferation of fashion bloggers and street style Instagram accounts you can follow the fashionista circus 24/7 worldwide from your smartphone. Despite many people predicting its demise, the Haute Couture (and the dedicated Fashion Weeks in January and July) are still thriving in 2019. I can’t say the same for the soldes (the historic twice-annual sales, which have been diluted with more regular sales throughout the year), or the popularity of places like the Buddha Bar and Alcazar. 😉

This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’m publishing them all here, one by one, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” 

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