The XX Factor

Why is Haute Couture “Toning Down”?

The Paris haute couture shows have come to a close. The reviews are in and there’s discussion going on about how luxury is being “toned down” for these “hard times,” how “fancy” is being “snubbed.”

In the case of the officially bankrupt house of Christian Lacroix this makes sense. He was forced to make do with bolts and scraps of fabric he already had lying around his studio. He drastically cut back on his color-happy, pouf-loving aesthetic as a result. It was the equivalent of Matisse having his pigments confiscated and being forced to complete a canvass with nothing but a stick of graphite.

But this post isn’t even about the “toned down” clothes as it applies to other couture houses. Why do professional fashion critics (and editors) feel the need to defend luxury’s right to exist by framing it in terms that emphasize polite inconspicuousness? It begs the question that applies to all branches of journalism concerned with the topics of luxury and consumption: What is being “toned down”-and for whom? The foreclosed masses? The Madoffed?

Haute couture used to draw its clients from the ranks of the upper middle class. Then, in the 1960s, the cost of labor went up in France, ready-to-wear in funky boutiques became hip, and custom clothes became very costly and available only to the rich. And since this time haute couture has grown increasingly costly, until, finally, it morphed into the fantasy stage production that it is today-and only available to the richest people at the top of the greatest wealth bubble that ever existed. But these haute couture businesses, with the notable exception of Chanel, operate at a loss. The richest people don’t subsidize the glitter. Instead, the spectacle is financed by the perfume-and-purse buying hoi polloi, as Dana Thomas recently discussed in her book, Deluxe .

So, what I am wondering after reading the fashion show coverage is this: has the haute couture been “toned down” for the uber-rich clients? Presumably the world’s richest people can continue to consume as they did before October 2008. And, in my opinion, shouldn’t “tone down” their aesthetic in deference to the hoi polloi; what are aristocrats for if not cultivated excess? Or (as I sniff my perfume-drenched wrist…) is haute couture “toned down” so as to not offend the perfume-and-purse buying hoi polloi who pay for the glitter?

I wish fashion critics would take a few risks these days and sink their teeth into matters having to do less with industry gossip-is Elbaz leaving Lanvin to replace the Kaiser at Chanel?, for example-and more about matters of class. Isn’t that what fashion and luxury are largely about anyway?

Photograph of model at Christian Lacroix show by Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images.