A forever fun and exciting read about fashion, cultures and societies at the epitome of fashion - extracted from The Telegraphy, 2009
In the summer of 2009, when the world was still reeling from the impact of the banking crash, I sat next to a pretty Middle Eastern teenager at the Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture show in Paris.
I was reporting for a newspaper in the Middle East and wanted to ask her why she was there. I broke the ice by complimenting her on her ruby-encrusted iPhone cover. It turned out she was a Saudi princess, who was in town to help her sister choose several wedding dresses. Weddings in the region go on for days and need some serious frock purchases. Lucky Gaultier.
Paris Haute Couture autumn/winter 2011: What's in store at Paris Haute Couture?
The feature I had been planning to write - the supposed demise of haute couture - became one of rebirth, thanks to a new breed of couture client: younger, more fashion-conscious, hailing from emerging rich nations and, as with all couture customers, hungry for the very best clothes money can buy.
It's no secret the "currency" of couture has switched from dollars and euros to Saudi and Qatari riyals, Chinese yuans and Indian rupees. You only have to look at the volume of new names on the Paris Haute Couture schedule this season - Vietnamese Thu Nguyen and To Long-Nam, for instance - to recognise the world of French couture is changing, and so are the customers.
Arab designers have been embraced by the stuffy French governing body of couture, the Chambre Syndicale: Elie Saab (who dresses many Hollywood A-listers), Zuhair Murad, Georges Chakra, Rabih Kayrouz and Bouchra Jarrar have become regulars at couture.
This season, entire front rows - particularly at shows by Stephane Rolland, Zuhair Murad and Giorgio Armani - have comprised young Middle and Far Eastern women. From Qatar, Bobor al Thani, 21, and her sister, Maha, 23, who sat front row at Zuhair Murad, are typical of today's couture clients. "Zuhair did my wedding dress," says Maha. "I can't wait to get married so he can do mine," says Bobor. "This was my first fashion show and it was breathtaking."
Clad in Pucci, Rym el Taies, 35, from Tunisia, was at Murad to do some serious shopping; she already has several pieces by the designer. "I want to order the long black velour dress," she says, referring to an evening gown which was covered at the front, but sheer at the back, with a panel covered in embroidery. She reels off two more evening outfits she intends to bag, before speeding off to her next show.
The change in couture clientele has encouraged some younger couturiers to offer contemporary pieces. One of the reasons that Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy is in the running for the Dior job is because he has brought in so many young, super-rich clients. This is also why Karl Lagerfeld strives to keep Chanel hip, so it is not considered an atelier for grandmothers.
Saying that, there is usually something for all generations in any one collection. Anar Hitzhanova and her daughter, Akbota Tatisheva, from Kazakhstan, are both clients of StÃ©phane Rolland Couture. "I loved the long purple dress with the open back," says Akbota, who had been interning with the designer.
"I buy couture because I like to feel special," says Anar. "If I'm going to a wedding, I don't want to bump into someone wearing the same. In Kazakhstan, women love beautiful clothes. Our husbands don't have any say in what we buy. We feel these clothes are empowering."
"There will always be a customer who wants the best quality and can pay for it," says a spokesperson for Rolland, who dressed Cheryl Cole on the Cannes red carpet earlier this year. "It's a myth to say Arab or Russian customers are only interested in bling. They are fashion-savvy and they want interesting clothes." Last season, Rolland incorporated Murano glass into outfits, while his Japanese-themed show yesterday featured a bridal dress constructed of fabric knotted together in a Samurai-style silhouette. It was so heavy, the model could barely turn at the end of the runway.
At Giambattista Valli's Haute Couture debut on Monday, I asked the socialite stylist Caroline Sieber what is so special about couture that justifies its six-figure prices? "I used to wear my mother's couture, mainly Christian Lacroix. Have you ever bought couture? It's like opening Pandora's box; you can never go back."