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You May Be In Sweatpants, But COVID-19 Hasn't Stopped Haute Couture

An employee sews a miniature dress in Dior's sewing workshop in Paris on July 4. This year Dior created a miniature collection for its haute couture show and presented it <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxBFwqRbI8c">as a film</a>.
Francois Guillot
AFP via Getty Images
An employee sews a miniature dress in Dior's sewing workshop in Paris on July 4. This year Dior created a miniature collection for its haute couture show and presented it as a film.

No invitation cards, no shuttles to shows, no cameras clicking, no front row seats, no influencers or street style. In a first among firsts in fashion, the Autumn/Winter 2020 Haute Couture shows — normally held in Paris — were egalitarian, presented online for everyone to see.

Over these past few months, fashion has strained to see what would become of the industry in the age of COVID-19. At a time when many people are barely leaving their houses — not to mention not dressing up — can fashion maintain its relevance? This week, couture designers made the argument that the answer is yes.

Fédération de la Haute Couture de la Mode coordinates Paris Fashion Week, upholds haute couture standards and oversees the shows — and it allowed this season's couture collections to be presented digitally, rather than in their traditional in-person, in-Paris setting.

The virtual venue allowed Arab, European and Asian designers to creatively collaborate with filmmakers and digital artists to unveil their collections or offer a sneak peek into collections that will come later this year. But shows don't come cheaply; they can range anywhere between $200,000 to over $1 million. The decision of whether and how to show was weighed carefully by designers.

Lebanese couturier Georges Hobeikawas the only Arab designer to show a full collection, though fellow Lebanese designers, Maison Rabih Kayrouz and Elie Saab,showed previews.

Other couture designers like Tony Wardhad to, as he put it, "stitch priorities" and choose between keeping his staff or holding a runway show. Ward prioritized his staff. Though unable to show a collection this week, he remains hopeful. "We are trying to keep moving at our own pace and drift from the official calendars, all while getting prepared for what's coming next," he says.

Hobeika shares that sentiment. "What has always been strong with fashion is the possibility to adapt rapidly to different scenarios and follow the direction that the world is taking," Hobeika says. He put on an electrifying show from Lebanon, themed Madame President you can watch it here. The collection aims to embody the strength of the Middle Eastern woman. Mixed in were six men's pieces, all exuding masculine tailoring and retro chic.

Designer Georges Chakra, whose gowns appeared in The Devil Wears Prada, also stepped back from this season's show. He's putting his team first and not sticking to the couture calendar.

"We all have to make sacrifices and take hard decisions, but it is all for the better," Chakra says. He has a couture capsule collection coming out later in July.

The online shows provided an opportunity experiment, which is what Dior did, with a captivating film for its collection. Dior, led by artistic director Maria Grazia Chiuri, created a miniature collection for its haute couture show, displaying painstakingly crafted garments on miniature dolls rather than models. Themed, Le Mythe Dior, the collection was filmed by Italian director, Matteo Garrone.

For British couture duo Ralph & Russo, who have dressed the Duchess of Sussex, Bella Hadid and Angelina Jolie, going digital was an exhilarating experience. The pandemic caused the brand to reassess and rethink their business strategy. But it was the digital realm, particularly AI, that fascinated Tamara Ralph, co-founder and creative director of the brand.

"The current climate has cemented the importance of digital as a channel, and how critical it is for a brand to regularly be activating digitally with unique content to keep their audience engaged, which also includes finding new ways to speak to our clients," Ralph explains.

Like many industries, haute couture had to adapt — quickly — to maintain relevance when life went online. But Ward believes there is a place for couture in the age of coronavirus. "I think after these terrible moments, for charities and for events, there will be a will to overcome this," Ward says.

Ralph agrees. "The absence of major red carpet events doesn't eliminate or make couture any less relevant," she notes. "It just returns the category to its roots by taking it away from the public eye."

Come September, Paris plans to be back on the runway in real life. Women's ready-to-wear week is scheduled to begin Sept. 28.

Nina Gregory edited this story.

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Allyson Portee
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