On July 1970, at the age of 66, Diana Vreeland flew to Paris for the couture collections. It would be her last time attending the shows as Vogue’s Editor in Chief. Although she had attended the collections for over five decades she was still enthralled by the overall spectacle of the shows and the excitement of being in Paris. In her memoirs she captures the atmosphere of those final shows which she described as “an international and cosmopolitan bazaar”. “To go into a great French fashion house with its high ceilinged room, filled with massed flowers and ferns is always an event of refreshment and excitement….There are dashing personalities of every nationality, rich merchant’s wives from Beirut and Kuwait, jewelers and diamond merchants, and the great fabric makers of Switzerland and Italy, France and England.”
As Vreeland alluded to in her memoirs, by the late 1960's and early 70’s the couture houses were receiving a welcome infusion of new customers from the Middle East and - more important - new money. Though the couture houses during this period kept such matters as shopping lists and expenses to themselves, numerous stories of lavish spending began to circulate in the press: A Saudi oil sheikh buying the same dress for his eight wives; Kuwaiti princesses ordering ball gowns by the truckload.
But by the end of the Eighties the Middle Eastern clients had become part of the couture establishment, subsequently passing their taste for haute couture along to their daughters and granddaughters.
But this sizable Middle Eastern clientele also sheds light on how venerable the industry is to any political and economic upheavals which may affect the region. This was no more apparent than at the start of 1990s, when war broke out in the Gulf after 15 years of civil war in Lebanon. The Gulf War was a catastrophe for the top end of the industry, hitting it almost as hard as the 1929 depression. According to Francois Lesage, the 77-year-old head of Paris' top embroidery house, "Haute couture was asleep. It was totally oriented around the Arab princesses. The more petrol prices went up, the more the princesses bought dresses," Lesage said at the time. "But there are fewer princesses now because of the climate with the Iraq war, the war in Lebanon and problems with Israel. It's not how it used to be." The princesses were by far the biggest buyers of haute couture during this period and there were hundreds of them.
American clients may be prominent in the front row, Deeda Blair and the Texan socialite Lynn Wyatt amongst them, but they are seldom the high rollers. Ivana Trump was feted at the couture shows last July, yet no Paris fashion house claims that she bought a single outfit. But looking carefully at Dior's client lists may tell a different story. Saudi Arabia alone provides 32 percent of Dior's clients; 18 percent come from the United States, and only 10 percent or fewer from other countries.
Yet despite the existence of a sizable Middle Eastern clientele, looking around the audience attending the Dior shows today, one would be hard pressed to find a single Arab client amongst the crowds of celebrities and journalists who generate an incredible amount of publicity for the couture houses. Out of necessity, couture has had to find other ways to sustain itself when very few can afford its otherworldly clothes. The clients who pay retail (from Kuwaiti brides-to-be to fashion-conscious socialites) don't give the brands much exposure. Furthermore these creations are meant to be seen in order to spread the houses image, which is why stars are frequently invited to the Paris shows, where they are loaned dresses.
As a result of heightened publicity at the shows, many of the regular customers from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region have opted out of attending the presentations altogether, even though the couture houses send them invitations each season. Instead clients are sent dvds of the shows or allowed access to special websites, where they can view the collections in the privacy of their own homes.
Goegrio Armani, who shows his Armani Privé couture line in Paris, has expressed displeasure with the current big show format since most of his clients do not wish to be photographed or have their dresses displayed on the front pages of newspapers the next day. For this reason he stages two shows, one for journalists and another exclusively for 200 of his clients. It is a trend seen at most of the couture houses, where Middle Eastern clients now view the collections at private showings from the intimacy of the couture salon. For customers it is the only way they can appreciate the craftsmanship that has gone into the making of each garment. Up until 2006, when Stéphane Roland designed for Jean Louis Scherrer, the house (which was one of the few profit making couture establishments), had also pulled out from staging big shows in favor of more intimate presentations for its large number of Arab customers.
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