TIME | KATE BETTS
It's not every day that the Orangerie at Versailles is transformed into a bal des artistes complete with flamenco dancers, a gospel choir and a guest list that includes supermodel Gisele Bündchen, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar and hedge-fund billionaire Steve Schwarzman. But this was the 60th anniversary of the house of Dior, and the resident designer, John Galliano, was putting on the glitz, while his boss, LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault, ensured that the fabled French house's high-end image was telegraphed around the world with all the rat-a-tat-tat of a flamenco beat.
Although Galliano, 47, was celebrating only his 10th anniversary at Dior, there were other, more poignant and symbolic anniversaries at the fall 2007 haute couture shows in Paris and Rome this past week, including Valentino's 45th, where, it had been rumored, he would announce his retirement. Like Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino, 75, is part of a generation of designers in or nearing their 70s. And the questions hovering over the runways concern not trends or silhouettes but rather the end of a golden era in fashion that has been defined by a handful of visionary designers.
"When all these grands mâitres disappear, this world of hypersophistication will disappear too," says Jean-Jacques Picart, a Paris-based consultant who for many years helped Christian Lacroix build his business. "It will become a niche business. The world is changing, and appearance is less important than before." Certainly the kind of appearance that requires deep pockets and two or three fittings in a Paris haute couture salon will eventually disappear. Indeed, much of the pageantry at places like Versailles is for image and also, to a certain extent, to influence more accessible markets like ready-to-wear and even the fast-fashion labels. The pale blue of Galliano's Renoir-inspired Dior couture dress might inspire a trend for blue in the house's ready-to-wear collection next season or a dress that will show up on the racks at H&M next summer or even an eye shadow on the cosmetics counter at Macy's.
But, in many ways, the same marketing machine that has taken fashion global and made luxury titans like Arnault rich has also made it impossible for a younger generation of designers to build their reputations and brands the way their predecessors did. Galliano, for example, has had to rely on the name recognition that comes with working for an international powerhouse like Dior to bolster his eponymous label, which is also backed by Arnault.
"Today it's a very different way of creating businesses than 30 or 40 years ago," says Robert Burke, a luxury consultant. "Back then designers were able to take their time and to focus on the high end, but today it's increasingly difficult to make money on the high end. You have to diversify and license your product very quickly."
And yet the business model needs star power to drive the marketing machine and inspire the creativity that influences fashion at every price point. There would be fewer eye-catching options at the local mall without the high end to inform them. And the high end in turn demands the vision of a personality or a point of view. "Miuccia Prada's personality permeates every bit of that brand," says Tom Ford. Unlike the brands of most other new-generation designers, his menswear line is funded entirely with his own money. "It helps to have a personality to latch onto as a brand. It absolutely matters not only as a public face of the brand but also for the creation of the product."
But not everyone agrees with Ford. Gucci Group CEO Robert Polet has long insisted that the brands are the stars now, and his strategy of hiring lesser-known designers, including a few of Ford's former design assistants, seems to have paid off: sales at Gucci have soared to $2.1 billion. "Brands can survive without the namesake designer if you have a team and staff who understand the DNA of the brand," says Dana Telsey of the New York City--based retail-research firm Telsey Advisory Group . "Most of these brands that are global now could never have gotten to where they are with just one person anyway."
Ultimately, fashion is a keen reflection of the times. And if the golden era of couture ends with this generation, perhaps that is inevitable. Says Lagerfeld, who, like Valentino, started as an assistant in Paris' couture houses 50 years ago: "Times are what they are, and you have to find your niche in the moment and not dwell on the good old days."