Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Paris Couture’s Unsung Masters and New Members

Left: The designer Dominique Sirop and examples of his expertly draped evening gowns that have attracted a large number of clients. Amongst them Queen Rania of Jordan, pictured here dressed in one of his creations.
Right: Setting up one’s own couture house in today’s highly competitive market is no easy feat. Emerging couturiers often find themselves wearing many hats, including sewing their own garments, while they build up their business as is the case with Stéphane Mahéas, shown working in his atelier.

Dominique Sirop

While news headlines were monopolized by the anniversary celebrations for Dior, Valentino, and Lacroix, 2007 also marked the 10th anniversary of the House of Dominique Sirop, an important milestone for a couturier who has built a successful business on his own without the help of a major conglomerate.
Although he barely receives mention by the mainstream fashion press, he is a well known and respected name within couture circles. Not only for his well executed designs, but also because he was one of the first to realize early on that the couture system itself needed to evolve to keep up with modern times.

As Sirop explained, "The big ball gown, which takes 3,000 hours to make and which has 4,000 pearls on it, is no longer in touch with reality. The future of couture is not to simply make people dream. My clients wear the clothes I make for them every day." This also applies to his price points, where as far as haute couture goes, his garments are considered surprisingly affordable. He keeps fittings to a minimum and suits go for as little as $4,000.00-$5,000.00 and evening dresses for no more than $8,000.00-$9,000.00. Indeed, Sirop sees more affordable outfits as the future of haute couture. "We are now at a turning point", he asserts.

Sirop's introduction to the world of haute couture began at an early age with his mother, who worked as a mannequin for the House of Paquin. It was through a contact of hers that he gained an apprenticeship at Yves Saint Laurent’s atelier at the age of 17; learning the craft of constructing, draping, and sewing couture garments. He stayed there for five years, rising up to the position of “premiere main qualifiee”. Yet oddly enough he never came into contact with the designer himself.

"One day, I asked to meet him to show him my work", remembers Sirop, "but my request was turned down with the words that `M. Saint Laurent does not see people who are already part of the house'." That lunchtime, he went for a stroll along Avenue George V, stopped in front of the windows of the Givenchy boutique and said to himself "After the originality of Saint Laurent, why not try the rigour of Givenchy?" He whipped up three sketches that night and by 8:00 am the next day he had been hired by the couturier. He stayed until 1989, eventually becoming director of Givenchy pret-a-porter and haute couture salons.

What is not widely known is that Sirop was Hubert de Givenchy's hand-picked choice as his successor. Although he spent 11 years at the master’s side, Bernard Arnault, the boss of LVMH who had recently acquired the label, had other ideas. He refused to even meet with Sirop, claiming that he was not famous enough, and appointed John Galliano instead.

This was the turning point in Sirop’s career. After a brief stint designing for the house of Hanae Mori, he opened his own couture house in 1996. The house, located in a dream-like alley behind the Moulin Rouge is a 19th century mansion which boasts its own mini theater.

At the time of his debut collection the International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes wrote, "Any conventional fashion-conscious woman would kill for these clothes. The bosses of couture houses now want wacky attention-grabbing shows, rather than client-pleasers. But Sirop's collection was a timely reminder that cut and class are still the high C's of haute couture."

Sirop’s Couture house was barely open for one year when he was invited to join the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture as an official member. The last designer to receive this honor was Christian Lacroix 10 years before.

Furthermore, an indication of the strong bond between client and couturier was no more apparent than when former Givenchy customers began defecting to him en masse. In the three weeks following his first collection he received over 70 orders. Joan Collins asked him to design her outfit for her daughter's wedding. French actress Judith Godreche wore one of his dresses to the Oscars and top Parisian socialites like Marie-Therese Perrin and Helene David-Weill wore his creations to major social functions.

But his biggest supporter by far was the late Nan Kempner, who was so impressed with his work that she invited him to present his collection at her Park Avenue apartment to a number of her friends. Those present included Princess Firyal of Jordan and New York socialite Anne Bass.

Since January 2000, Sirop's atelier has been at 14, rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré.

Stéphane Mahéas

Every few seasons a small couture house emerges that defies ones expectations. Entirely self financed, Stephan Mahéas is one such couturier slowly building up his business and perfecting his craft. While the big houses continue to dominate headlines during couture week, Mahéas has been quietly presenting his collections over the last few seasons as an invited member.

When asked what it takes to become a couturier today, Mahéas questioned the current system at fashion schools, which seem to produce “stylists” more so than designers who understand fabric and clothing construction. To him it is essential that one understands the rules governing “flou” (dress making) and “strict” (for suiting). This knowledge is essential to becoming a couturier, as those beginning in the business will often find themselves designing, cutting, and sewing all their outfits from start to finish. He also points out that it’s imperative that one gains experience at what he calls “les grands.” Mahéas himself worked at Dior, Christian Lacroix, the plumassier Lemarié, and even the bridal department of the Parisian department store Au Bon Marché, before launching his own house.

With little or no money available to them for advertising, young and emerging designers often have to find creative ways to get their names out there. Mahéas for example, has been supplementing his couture activities with a small ready-to-wear line as well as producing a collection of sunglasses. Recently he was also tapped by the house of Jean Patou (which closed its couture division) to create a dress that would be a tangible image of its new perfume “Sira des Indes.” The one of a kind dress was later sold at auction to benefit the Refugee Education Trust.
© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

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