The Distant Now

July 8, 2020

Laurence Benaim, journalist and author, has written several biographies including Yves Saint Laurent, Marie-Laure de Noailles and Jean-Michel Frank (Editions Grasset). She just published Yves Saint Laurent, The Impossible Collection at éditions Assouline. Lecturer at Sciences Po, in Paris, she is working on a lecture on “Art and Fashion during the crisis times”. In this text, Laurence Benaim reveals her perspective on Haute Couture nowadays.

“Fashion news, good news,” wrote Louise de Vilmorin. No sane mind could ever imagine the future that lies ahead in a world where time has stood still for so long that it’s almost slipped into oblivion. No sane mind would dare defy what these three months of lockdown have produced. We are at latitude zero, not a breath of wind. The splayed feet of a world in limbo, turned inside out and upside down. With invitations pouring silently onto the blue screens of a weightless summer. Between two worlds, a summer 2020 that is shell-shocked, dead beat, punch-drunk, but ready to deliver a season conceived with bated breath, winter 2020, a familiar unknown, the distant now. No flowers and no presents. Go and believe. Anyway. Anyhow. Despite a war being waged by all against all. Despite the defeat of the universalistic ideal known as Haute Couture beaten to a pulp by the identity police. An ideal as anachronistic by name as it is contemporary in what it makes happen, namely an urgent need for enchantment. Haute Couture is to fashion what the theatre is to the cinema. It implies a learning process, a craft, perfect knowledge of the body. Just ask Azzedine Alaïa, who spent months working on one and the same model. With Haute Couture, each season is a dive into unknown intimacy. A quest that stymies the urgency of wanting to move too fast, to imitate facility, to copy the obvious. In its own way it rhymes with the very French form of self-transcendance, a love of a job well done and well finished through which Christian Dior humbly expressed the ideal of being rated a “good doer”.  

Now that the noose of emergency is loosening, maybe it is time we rebooted this story. Without the nostalgia and without running short of breath, but with the belief that the past is useful only if we use it. Bouncing back for a clearer projection into the future. Time, maybe, to create a human dimension for a world that is too often associated with lost greatness. A craft clouded by years of overblown egos in the name of the “clean slate” principle, an illusion of modernity with which France has lost her reason to believe in beauty, in the decorative arts in general; a refusal of all that shines and radiates, the expulsion of luxury by French academia. Today, skilled crafts are recovering their nobility as witnessed by a cult for gastronomy, master chefs, gardens and flowers. But Haute Couture remains aloof, motionless, petrified. Like a grandmother wearing the hats of yesteryear, the eldest of a family that has lost its way, the Latin and Greek professor teetering amidst skateboarders.  

More’s the pity. Haute Couture reflects in its own way the most precious asset we own: a sentiment of the finite and the infinite. This “wire of fire”, to quote Victor Hugo, weaves its web like a “mysterious guide” for the use of people who, in their quest for perfection, defend the boundless dream as well as the function. The dream as much as the reality of a moving body. Passion and reason entwined in their respective threads, inviting us to share this idealized expression of time, their time.  

Haute Couture is a lesson in civilization in a world where hate is now commonplace. Never before has an age, which claims to be more and more “inclusive”, left so much room for this “call-out culture”, the principle of which is public naming and shaming. Haute Couture, exposed to every influence and every culture – from Africa, Asia, America or Russia – certainly has what it takes to stand up to trials of appropriation, because it is in and through Haute Couture that talents from around the world express their universal difference, their consideration for the human being whose love of fine apparel is a lesson in dignity. Haute Couture is an echo chamber that has the power to amplify dreams without leveling them or reducing them to a simple cut-and-paste. This Parisian “Esperanto” applies the spirit of creation to everything that transcends it. 

Haute Couture is playing the role of scout and guide, declaring winter, heralding sweet dreams, colours and inclinations when all around we hear patented soothsayers talk of nothing else but industrial layoffs and a Covidian second wave.  

This virtual timetable is surely the finest invitation to put the hands back on the clock and have them promise to keep on turning for us. Turn, turn, turn… clockwise please. Play it again. Artists are the first to reboot the agenda of our olympian uncertainties. The important thing is to play the game. Here, with “Demain est la question” (Tomorrow is the Question) is the table-tennis table created by Rirkrit Tiravanija (currently on display at the Galerie Chantal Crousel,  

Below, “Short Story”, an installation designed by the Scandinavian twosome Elmgreen & Dragset with two miniature players, one down and out, the other up and winning  ( 

Don’t let your feet grow flat, your body grow soft or your minds grow wild. Haute Couture is a sort of Mother Superior of fanciful imagination. She’s the one who says “behave yourselves, children”. She invites us not to be lulled into a sense of illusion whereby the world is cool, free of restriction and without claws, a kindly world in which we float around like green zombies, vaguely clinging onto digital lifebuoys, a resilient space shrouded in zoom gatherings and digital promises. A world with no memory and no future, overreacting in the here and now.    

I wouldn’t be writing all this if I weren’t in Paris, the capital of doubt and hope, where imagination feeds on obsessions, beliefs and questions. Paris, or the joyful melancholy of those hunters of light, of individualities that could never be reduced to just logos. Charles de Vilmorin, Imane Ayissi, Marine Serre or Kevin Germanier. Their hands are their eyes. In studios, you can actually hear the silence. Haute Couture is still a utopia at work, spared from global right-mindfulness and clear conscience delivered on prescription. Haute Couture is an invitation to stay on course. To cultivate a very special garden whose trees can only keep on growing if the roots are well tended. Haute Couture is a family where all generations converge, far from the corporatist clichés that endlessly freeze and squeeze the life out of it with oftentimes narrow protocol and obligatory exercises of style. A boredom that too many gowns conceal beneath pretentious ornaments and sauced up parodies. Between art and fashion, Haute Couture is the school of motion and technique. “We could do an exhibition of nudes,” said Olivier Saillard to Pierre Bergé talking about Yves Saint Laurent. The principals of studios and everyone who works with them must be able to continue to pass on their secrets, like for a D-Day ball. These first twenty years of the 21st century have been largely devoted to the creation of a fashion heritage. France is good at embalming the past whilst letting the present slip by. Now that all the masterpieces are wrapped and boxed, might not the time be right to care for our most precious asset? Giving budding vocations visibility and readability, prompting encounters and exchanges off the academic and conventional beaten tracks? To include its history – that of taste and style – with the teaching of History with a capital H?   

If Paris is the city of Haute Couture, it will need to project itself in directions other than celebration or experimentation. To focus on the urgent need to seriously intensify exchange, studies, explorations, encounters, revelations, recognition and the study of masters, without which the word Renaissance can never take root. To honour its difference to the same extent as the source it feeds on. An inspiring and cosmopolitan atmosphere. A new breath of beauty, with a capital B. The air that flows between the lines is maybe this perpetual invention in which Louise de Vilmorin still saw “a gift from Paris”: “Paris changes women, transforms them, wants them to be romantic or classic, dashing or sober, but without ever looking to change its own spirit…”  

Laurence Benaïm, July 2020  

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