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?
I'm a native New Yorker and sewing fanatic! I started sewing in 2009 and today make all my own clothes using vintage sewing machines and vintage patterns, in addition to sewing for private clients. Welcome to the warm and whimsical world of Male Pattern Boldness, where the conversation is sewing, style, fashion, fabric, and more!