Haute couture looks toward the next generation

Haute couture is the showcase for everything designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier can do. It is the melting pot, the distillation of dreams.

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Just before Paris haute couture week, I found myself sitting in a classroom talking about its importance to a group of 16-18-year-old fashion wannabees. I had already drawn a triangle (known as the "fashion pyramid"), to demonstrate how haute couture is positioned at the pointy top end. Although it represents the tiniest proportion of customers, I explained, it remains spectacularly important in the grand scheme of things.

Haute couture is the showcase for everything designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier can do. It is the melting pot, the distillation of dreams. It allows designers to go wild, pulling on resources from the highly skilled workers in ateliers whose job it is to literally turn dreams into reality using rare fabrics and age-old techniques. What John Galliano does in his haute couture show will then have a trickle-down effect that will impact on everything sold under the Christian Dior brand. So the first to feel the trickle effect would be the prêt-à-porter designs located on the tier below, followed by accessories, make-up, cosmetics and, very importantly, perfume - which for most people will probably be the only Dior item they will ever "wear".

It was hard to get my message across to the teenagers dressed mainly in Topshop, so I tried another tack. Fashion is an ecosystem filled with exotic creatures, all of which are necessary and play a role. And I told them about how haute couture was virtually written off a few years ago because its clientele - who belonged to a bygone, class-obsessed era anyway - were becoming extinct. Having reported from the twice-yearly haute couture shows throughout the 1990s, I'd have to say I never warmed to the birdlike customers who inhabited that rarefied world. Certain of these ladies, their big hair stiff with Elnett hairspray, rather creepily never aged, smiled or, by the looks of it, even ate.

Although they all looked around 40, I was told their real ages were more like 80. They spoke only to congratulate Karl or John and wobbled on unsteady legs. I'm not sure what shocked me most: women who bought (impeccable) dresses costing more than a Jackson Pollock painting not because of status but out of habit, or the extraordinary haute couture clothes themselves. Wow. When I recently returned to the Paris couture shows after a gap of a few years I was shocked once more.

The dinosaurs had all gone, replaced by an entirely new audience. Let's just say dollars were no longer the currency of couture. I told the class of students how I'd sat among teenage girls wearing Topshop just like them during the shows in July last year. Only unlike them, their jackets were couture Givenchy, Gaultier or Galliano. It's a given that, for several decades now, the haute couture coffers - many, though not all, of which operate at a deficit - are greatly swelled by dirhams, riyals and dinars.

Will this week see the younger Middle Eastern clientele fast-tracked to the front row (even if their mothers and aunts prefer to remain at home awaiting a private visit from "le premier", the representatives from haute couture houses who spend most of their time flying $100,000 gowns to clients on private jets around the world)? Will yet more customers attending shows be from nations coming under the umbrella term of "Bric"? (The "emerging" nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China are bristling with wives and daughters of oligarchs with hundreds of thousands of reals, rubles, rupees and yuans burning a hole in their pocket.)

And finally, will the Worth presentation on Tuesday prove the hottest ticket? The second collection since the quiet relaunch of the house of the forefather of haute couture, Charles Frederick Worth (who established the first ever atelier in Paris in 1857), famous for his frothy crinolines and petticoats, is under the ownership of Dilesh Mehta, an entrepreneurial British Asian with a $250 million (Dh918m) global empire and 25 years experience of the international fragrance and cosmetic market.

With his understanding of the young, sophisticated, super-rich global customer, could this prove the model for a 21st-century haute couture house? Mehta's strategy to involve the legendary Lemarié feather atelier under the direction of the Italian designer, Giovanni Bedin, a former assistant to Karl Lagerfeld, resulted last season in exquisite corsets and tutus with clouds of tulle and antique lace and has already led to Scarlett Johansson, Kylie Minogue and Charlize Theron pledging their loyalty. At this point I drew my lecture to a close. My student's eyes were on stalks. The penny had dropped.