Perfection is a moving target. This week, the Cut explores the allure of trying to achieve the impossible.
You would probably think that many things in fashion qualify as “perfect,” but actually, after 30 years of seeing extraordinary clothes, I can tell you that only one thing does — and that’s having a dress made for your body in Paris. It has happened to me three times.
The first was in 2000, when I played client for a story in the Times. I wanted to experience firsthand a fitting at a celebrated haute couture house — Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent — and understand, perhaps, why the few real couture clients I knew always seemed to be talking above me. I don’t mean they were snobs, far from it, but it was clear they were better informed than the women who only bought expensive ready-to-wear. They even carried themselves differently — taller, and as if more secure. That fascinated me. Beyond the fact that the absolute rock-bottom price for a couture suit back then was $15,000, what did those ladies know about fashion that I didn’t?
A great deal, as it turned out, but that wasn’t even the right question to ask. What didn’t I know about myself?
Newspapers were flush in those days, so with hardly a squeak from anyone, I got the paper to spend $9,000 for a black silk faille suit from Chanel, plus three trips to Paris for the required fittings. (Chanel charged us roughly what it would for the runway model, a common practice at the end of a season, when a house will discount what it doesn’t plan to archive.) Today, that suit would probably cost four times as much. Also, in that pre-Instagram era, couture clients ruled. Women like Nan Kempner, Lynn Wyatt, Mouna al Ayoub, and Princess Firyal of Jordan filled the front rows. With their immaculate clothes and hair, and obvious money, they were a source of curiosity. You always saw actresses at couture, but either their presence was low-key or, like Deneuve at Saint Laurent, they were considered one of the family.
It was only later that I realized that my timing was impeccable. Not only was I sincere in my quest to know more about the world that I covered, but the houses were operating in the twilight of private ownership. They were under few of the pressures that within a decade would cause people to complain that the system was “broken” — endless shows, red carpets that girdled the planet, instantly shared content, burned-out designers. The time I am referring to, between my first couture experience and my second, around 2005, when Azzedine Alaïa made me a navy wool dress, now seems relatively innocent. And though the media covers the couture shows with more intensity than ever, it has largely turned away from the technical elements — fit, cut, hand-sewn seams — that are the essence of couture. But so much of what I discovered involved those hidden elements.
Although a Saint Laurent tailleur, with its masculine lines, would have better suited my body and personality, I really wanted a Chanel. I didn’t care — or didn’t notice — that Karl Lagerfeld had designed a collection that season loaded with full skirts worn with either a cropped jacket or a longer shape, without lapels, that closed diagonally on the body and had a trapeze line. The style looked ravishing on the models, but a trapeze shape on my five-foot-seven, size-12 frame, with the extra ballast of a full, mid-calf skirt? I think not. Nonetheless, I wanted the dream of a Chanel. I wanted to walk down the Rue Cambon, and instead of entering the house through the boutique or the trade door, as I usually did when I visited Lagerfeld, I wanted to go through the door just for couture clients and then up the famous mirrored stairway to the beige-and-black salon. I wanted, in short, to be the girl I wasn’t.
The first slap of reality came in the fitting room, where, standing in my high heels, underpants, and Wonderbra, I could barely wiggle a forearm into the jacket’s wand sleeves. You really feel your shortcomings when trying to squeeze into clothes made for models and three Frenchwomen — the premieres of the ateliers and a saleswoman — are politely watching you. My Wonderbra was another demerit. The fit of couture is so exact, with five measurements just of your back, that the slightest change in your shape between the first fitting (in muslin) and the next will be detected in the garment. My Wonder boobs created two little mounds in the muslin; later, in the silk faille, my boobs looked like two crumpled Dixie Cups because for the second fitting I wore a normal bra. I guess the premieres just took it for granted that I would wear my customary undergarments to the fittings — it wasn’t a Victoria’s Secret fashion show, after all. My lack of confidence was revealed in other ways. I remember standing before the mirror in the nearly finished suit as the premieres examined their work and said, “How does it feel?” I honestly didn’t know what to say. How was it supposed to feel? And relative to what — a slouchy Armani jacket? I could barely raise my arms to a useful level, the armholes felt so small.
But in the end, the Chanel suit was a wonder of fit. Because couture fabrics are cut and sewn by hand, giving them a roundness, the suit seemed to mold to my body. By the third fitting, with more nips and tucks, it was absolutely perfect. Not only could I raise my arms, but the cut of the jacket brought my shoulders back, creating the illusion of good posture. Three weeks later the suit arrived at my house, beautifully packed in tissue paper in a giant white box marked CHANEL, 31 Rue Cambon, Paris.
I thought the suit was the height of chic, with its moyen-age cuffs lined in gold silk, its fancy skirt, and the extra oomph of a gold stickpin with a large pearl that adorned the jacket. (It was the work of the sculptor and jewelry designer Irena Borzena Ustjanowski, who had just started collaborating with Lagerfeld when she died in a helicopter crash with her husband, the Paris bread-maker Lionel Poilâne.) But, like any first experience, the suit reflected the limits of my sophistication. Its shape was unnatural for my body, and I didn’t have the confidence — really, the self-knowledge — to direct the saleswoman. And, as I would gradually discover in other fitting rooms, the reason a couture garment makes you feel pretty — or, equally, comfortable and secure — has little to do with what’s on the outside. It comes from the inside, from how the garment is constructed.
The Alaïa was an altogether different experience. I was more sure of my tastes; plus, I was slimmer. But the real difference was that Alaïa himself did the fitting. Most designers leave that part of the process to someone else. But he’s personally involved with everything, from design to pattern-making to fittings. I’d seen the dress — sleeveless, draped skirt, in navy cavalry wool — during a visit to his Paris studio, and noted the proportions, the clean lines, the bounce of the skirt despite the military weight of the wool. I asked if he would make the dress for me and he took my measurements.
Three months later, when I was in Paris again, he had the dress basted and pinned and ready for me to try on. As I stood stock-still, he and an assistant, who held some pins, went to work. Alaïa never said a word. He started with the bodice, snipping away the neckline, the armholes, smoothing the fabric and adding more pins. His movements were very quick and sure. He tugged at the grosgrain ribbon that held the waist in place and marked an adjustment. Then he went to work on the skirt’s drapery. Although it looked gathered, the effect was achieved by barely detectable darts, as well as the weight of the fabric. He checked the volume, made adjustments, and then marked the hem. With his fingers always moving across the fabric, just a few inches from his intent face, he never once asked my opinion. He never said, “How does it feel?” He was driving this car.
Although each couture experience fed my knowledge, and although Dior during the Raf Simons era would one day make me a dress that truly reflected my confidence (it was a simple style from Dior’s commercial showroom, but made to my measurements in the couture atelier), no dress quite had the impact of the Alaïa. The bodice hugged my torso; like the Chanel, it made me stand taller. The skirt was extremely feminine, and yet, thanks to the military wool, not fussy. I remember wearing the dress to a McQueen show at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris, and sitting on the edge of the stage as the other guests came in. I never felt so pretty.
A short time later, I wore the dress on a date with a man I’d been seeing. We went to a Christmas party. When we returned to his house, I changed out of the dress, leaving it on the bed, and went to the kitchen. When I came back, I saw the Alaïa sitting on top of a wastebasket. The bodice had sunk a little into the skirt, like Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids, but the stiff wool had kept the dress upright. It looked so defiant on its ugly throne that I nearly laughed.
The man had put it there as a way of voicing his preference for sexy clothes. I barely reacted to his juvenile prank; I felt almost nothing, in fact. I just fetched up the dress, and dumped the guy later. He could not have known what made that dress special, all those painstaking hours of precision from the hands of Alaïa. But I knew it, and quietly felt it, every time I put on the dress, and that’s what made it so perfect.