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Sep 18, 2011

Resurrecting Dead Couture Houses

Friends, when Pablo Picasso, the tremendously prolific painter who also made ceramics, sculptures, drawings, prints, and even rugs, died in 1973, that was the end; there would be no more Picassos.  There was no search for someone to take over the studio and paint Picasso-like paintings to sell to a public still hungry for more.

When legendary Broadway composer Richard Rodgers died in 1979, the estate didn't look for a new composer to create Sound of Music II: The Return of Rolf.  

Why then, are there so many fashion houses bearing the names of famous dead couturiers like Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Dior, and more recently Alexander McQueen?

Obviously many fashion houses do indeed close up shop when the founder dies.   But in this era of the global brand, it seems it's simply too profitable to stay in business, find another designer who will create in the style of the original, and pump out new fashions every season.

(If you've been following what's been happening over at Halston, it all starts to feel like a joke.  Let Halston die already!)

A lot of this relates to the public's understanding of how contemporary fashion, as opposed to, say, paintings, is created.  We know that most fashion designers are not couturiers, and that fashion companies employ huge staffs that do most of the actual design work.  Nobody imagines that Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger sketch, or pin, or baste.  Most people don't care who did the actual designing and we'll probably never find out.   It's mass fashion, albeit "designer" mass fashion.

Even back in the golden age of couture, while the couturier might have had the original vision, it was the staff who would actually execute the garments, and many houses employed staffs of hundreds, from cutters, embroiderers, and seamstresses, to models and vendeuses.  Even at its highest level, fashion was always very much a group effort.

I'm reading a fascinating book about Spanish-born couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga by Lesley Ellis Miller, and it's the best-written book -- if not the most sumptuously produced -- about couture I have ever read.

After Balenciaga's death in 1972, the business, which by this time included perfume and accessories, passed on to family members, who subsequently sold it.  It has since changed hands multiple times and is now owned by the Gucci Group, part of the French conglomerate PPR.  The creative director is the highly acclaimed young(ish) designer Nicholas Guesquière, and today Balenciaga thrives once more, albeit as a ready-to-wear house.  Guesquière has access to the Balenciaga archives, and refers to them from time to time for inspiration.

But other than the name and occasional references to some iconic silhouettes, what does this really have to do with couturier Balenciaga, except a way to cash in on his legacy? Isn't that what this really comes down to -- cash?  It's cheaper to resurrect an old brand than start up a new one, presumably, and much more profitable.  

Balenciaga represented the pinnacle of couture in the Postwar period and into the late Sixties, when he formally retired.  He set the standard for quality workmanship and innovative design.  Other couturiers revered him.  Among his protégés were Ungaro, Courrèges, and Givenchy, who went on to become hugely successful in their own right  -- and under their own names.

Now, I'm no more likely to have bought this stuff back then then I am now -- these were always clothes for the extremely well-to-do, just as they are today.  But the relentless marketing of these "luxury" brands today -- so well described in books like The End of Fashion by Teri Agins, and Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster by Dana Thomas -- can make a person cynical.

No matter how much money we do or do not have, there's something nice about knowing that someone out there is creating the best that money can buy, as opposed to the most profitable item, to be purchased by status-hungry trendsetters who don't know the difference.

At what point does the global branding of the old couture house-thing just become a big joke -- on us?

I'd be curious to know what you think about this.  Does it bother you that there's no longer a Balenciaga behind Balenciaga or do you not really care either way?  Is this, ultimately, an elitist argument against the democratization of luxury?

And now for today's Daily Ditch.

Friends, I've been hitting my closets and I'm starting small -- just some sweaters, tee shirts, running shorts: things I've owned for years and haven't worn in ages.   Time to say farewell.  

Not a Balenciaga label among them!

Have a great day, everybody!


  1. I adore old Balenciaga pieces, including his fabulous hats! But "new" Balenciaga might as well be called "Balenciaga for Target." The name represented an esthetic and a unique view of garments and looks. Now it doesn't represent much of anything. Sigh. Thank goodness we have an abundance of images from the real guy, and several impressive museum collections around the world.

    Where exactly do you ditch the Daily Ditches? Do you give them to friends or to Salvation Army? Selling them at the fleas? Do tell.

  2. I saw this quote today;
    The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore the progress of the world depends on the unreasonable man.
    George Bernard Shaw

    That would say that it's only that driven artist who just can't do things like others are doing it (and so being 'unreasonable') bring progress. But those who just step inside that artist's shell aren't bringing us anything new, they are using the name and fitting in...being reasonable can be fine, but it's not as interesting.

  3. You make so many good points. I am less concerned about consumers since I believe people can educate themselves about what they're buying, but it does sadden me that the history of great artists may be forgotten while the value of their names are diluted through this continual reincarnation of the couture houses.

    In better news, you've inspired me to do some ditching! Got rid of six bags of clothing and shoes so far, and I started on the sewing room last night. I just can't throw the fabrics in the trash, but I noticed that there are some people on Freecycle looking for fabric, so I might give it to them instead of the Goodwill.

  4. I enjoyed what Karl Lagerfield (sp?) did for Channel. He referenced the old and created new. Everyone new it wasn't Coco so there was no deceit.

    Seem to be ditching in reverse, found two end tables at a yard sale that came home.

    Love the blog.

  5. Keeping a House alive after the founder dies is not really new, after Christian Dior died in 1957 Yves St. Laurent became head designer at Dior. Even though Coco Chanel has been dead since 1971 Chanel has never stopped producing collections. But I see your point that the motivation is suspect when a House is revived decades after the founder dies, especially when they no longer produce anything. That was certainly the case with Balenciaga. At least when they brought that one back to life there are people alive today who had a connection to Cristobal Balenciaga himself. When Vionnet was revived a few years ago I found that to be an even more crass example of merchandising because Madeleine Vionnet closed her House for good in 1939 and all of her work is in museums. I read a while back that there was even talk of reviving Callot Soeurs! A House that pretty much stopped producing by 1928. Ridculous!

  6. I agree with what Phyllis said above...I also think McQueen will be a tough act to continue because he was an artist, who didn't really have a staple item like a Chanel suit or a "new look" dress, he was always evolving and changing with each collection. I don't know how they would be able to capture his style and continue with it.

  7. Well, we didn't expect John Deere to stop making tractors because John Deere died (he designed the first furrow plow). The fashion houses are just corporations, so why not keep them going.

    Congrats on the ditching. At our house we have a finite number of wooden hangers that match and that is the amount of clothes we can own. If your hangers are all full and a new garment comes in an old one must go out. It is super effective.

  8. I really don't follow the whole 'couture world' but I do understand cleaning out one's house - it is always important to start small - a drawer, a closet, a few boxes then to try and do it ALL AT ONCE! It is overwhelming to do it all at once. So planning a Daily Ditch is a great idea and a great way to clean out unwanted stuff.

  9. Very simple: Picasso painted his own paintings, Rodgers wrote his own music. Balanciaga however did not. Nor did any of the founders of couture houses (except some of the women, who did truly know how to sew). Most of them did sketches, which many unknown, unsung heroines (mostly heroines) brought into being. So it makes sense that when the sketcher dies, he can be replaced without that much fuss.

  10. I guess the question is whether Balenciaga is more akin to a tractor maker or a fine artist.

  11. I think of them as brands - not designers. It doesn't surprise me a bit that a brand lives on beyond it's originator. The brand has created trust, an image, etc. that takes years to build.

    My ditching comes in one annual pile. Our church youth group holds an annual garage sale fundraiser. I accumulate a pile throughout the year.

  12. Name sells the brand. Disney has been dead for decades, but people still see Disney movies. Ghost Writers. VC Andrews kicked the bucket years ago but her nom de plume still pops up at my local drug store.

    Movie star/musician kids who are coat tailing on their parent's names. They have no credentials and often less talent than their parents, but people still listen/watch. Need I go on?

    If someone can make a buck on an established brand, its much less work for them. The base is already there, the name is going to draw X amount of people. It makes it that much harder for all the no name talents who could rightly compete against that brand to ever succeed.

  13. interesting point, I think I'm with anonymous and see them as a brand rather than a designer.

    I also look at it in a way of keeping the designers name alive (and the legacy going?) there are many a designer who should still be talked about but because the shop died the day they did then they are more or less forgotten about!

  14. I think Balenciaga was both a tractor maker and a fine artist because haute couture is simultaneously a business model and a method of clothing design and construction.

  15. A great deal has to do with snob appeal, exclusivity and the licenses which generate a lot of money. So keeping the brand alive can be important to the owners.
    On the other hand, what does "designer" mean? Everything is designed by someone. Be it Balenciaga or Jane Doe. (Snobism?)
    Anyway my motto is " SUPPORT LIVING ARTISTS".
    I managed to ditch one cookbook and one magazine. Wow, there's so much more room!

  16. Your Daily Ditch is such a good idea, you should think about making it into something we can all follow along with too (like a sew along... but not, if you know what I mean)

  17. They've had at least 5 designers at the helm of Halston, the only one who came close to following him was Randolph Duke. Not only was Halston a genius, but he was the epitome of male glamor..... they'll never be anyone like him again! I'm a total fan of his and his work inspires me to this very day. Too many people don't realize the complexity and innovation that went into his work. He was pure American style!! I can't wait for documentary"Ultrasuede: In search of Halston" to come out on dvd.
    Both Balenciaga and Vionnet are revered in fashion history as the ultimate, even that bitch Coco Chanel (who by the way hated the idea of men designing women's clothes) had to give Balenciaga his due and she never dared talk against Vionnet the way she did her contemporary Schiaparelli. But we should discuss Coco later....the hateful, jealous shrew!!

  18. I am still dumbfounded by today's news of the run on Target, because of the Missoni "stuff" that was released yesterday. It is the ultimate example of consumerism, and really made me a bit sick thinking about the hysteria over a bunch of stuff that will be in the Goodwill bin in a year. I love couture, but loathe the fashion industry. I value technique and design; quality over quantity, and innovation above all. My favorite designers have always been the ones that chose their own path, and were truly artists. McQueen (in my opinion) was brilliant and under appreciated, until he died. They will capitalize on his name as long as they can, but they will never really be able to capture the emotion he put into his work. Charles James is another of my favs, and his life in fashion was a horrible struggle, but again, he was a genious, and an artist. More interested in the aesthetic than the bottom line. This is a topic worthy of sewists-a reminder of why we love to create, essentially. Anyone can follow trends, but few are brave enough to be themselves. Most sewists are the brave ones...

  19. Charles James was a genius on one hand and his own worse enemy on the other! Balenciaga himself admired Charles....but he was the definition of the expression "temperamental artist". Such a brilliant talent, but he just couldn't get along with others. I've seen some of his day wear and it could easily be worn today. the true mark of any great designer is timelessness!

  20. If Balenciaga designed and made by hand each individual unique garment then he was an artist, but if a fashion designer has clothes mass produced in a factory then they are corporations. Personally I am cheerig for someone to take over the Halston brand and make it cool again.

  21. But the million dollar question is who?

  22. Well, such a thing isn't anything new...
    actually, the way modern fashion houses work (one "face and name" and number of "worker bees") is closer to the way ALL art was produced throughout the history - artists worked in workshops with swarms of apprentices, working on the paintings together. It's nothing special for art historians to not be sure if a painting was done by the "name" or just produced in the workshop!

    Personally, I don't see anything weird in brands continuing after the death of the "name" - if the quality and the style stays the same, of course.

  23. Interesting point, that of why couture houses can continue after the couturier's death whereas artists studios close upon the artist's disappearance. Thinking of Damien Hirst for instance, he has legions of assistants working for him, and pieces by him come out that have never even been touched by him but produced by his studio. One might easily imagine a world in which a Gallery or business buys out the name and commissions his minions to carry on churning out 'Damien Hirsts' long after his death...

  24. I'm just laughing at the picture of Lucy and Ethel. One of my favorite episodes!!

  25. Many couturiers have been artists, but their art usually ceases when they die and others try to continue their work. What remains is a brand. There has not been anything branded "Dior" worthy of the name since M. Dior died - and yes, I'm counting YSL's efforts. St. Laurent became an artist in his own right once he stopped trying to channel Dior, but not before then. And not as great an artist as Dior. Dior's "Bar" suit in his "Corolle" collection of 1947 (dubbed the "New Look" by American fashion magazines) was more than a design; it was a technical masterpiece, with its jacket not merely sewn, but molded into shape with skilled pressing. Dior himself didn't do all that, but he caused the people in his workrooms to transcend themselves. Dior after M. Dior copied much of the technique, but that was not the same as causing it to be invented.

  26. Peter even a house motivated by greed rather than originality has to bow down to the pressures of supply and demand. People will pay for a custom made garment with a prestige name. If they don't then that business will go under. It is a shame that great design names become meaningless brands. At least we have archives to remember their original work.


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