CHRISTIAN LACROIX ON CHRISTIAN LACROIX: THE MAKING OF AN HAUTE COUTURE DESIGNER
A companion piece to my forthcoming post on Christian Lacroix
Oddly enough, though my livelihood depends on changing tastes, I have never felt any need to disown passing fashions or condemn them as outmoded, or to dismiss once-cherished clothes as ‘frightful’ or ‘unwearable’. I tend not to pigeonhole things, perhaps especially because I have always had an almost morbid fascination for the past—which starts with every passing moment—to the extent that for me everything is imbued with an almost unhealthy degree of nostalgia. I am like the English, who, as a friend of mine used to say, have ‘a sense of period’.
For me every era has something of interest to offer, if not in its reigning fashions or general trends then in some detail or other, or a way of wearing long-forgotten clothes or of putting together accessories that have long since been consigned to oblivion.
There is only one time for which I have never felt any great warmth, and that is the years 1975 and 1976, when the virtual dictatorship of ready-to-wear ended up, predictably, by producing a sort of levelling down, with the same ‘designer clothes’ and ready-made outfits available more or less everywhere. That was the point when I felt that on the whole I’d rather go back to the flea markets. The clothes of the years immediately before this (1965-70), on the other hand, have always remained very close, even indispensable, to me, possibly because these were the fashions of my adolescence, when I started to choose my own clothes and build up my wardrobe. But I also believe very strongly that for the past twenty years we have been engaged in attempts to extract and explore different aspects of the fashions of that time, with all their radical innovations.
The seventies–considered as a style–were the age of the discovery of kitsch and all that was ‘cheap’. The materials that were used, in the form in which they reached the streets at any rate, speak for themselves: imitation leather, skinny rib-knit sweaters, plastic, vinyl with the transparent film inevitably peeling off, heavy fake-metal buckles and so on, all in aid of a style based pretty closely on that of the 1930s. I absolutely do not believe in the notion of ‘re-creating’ a particular style or look. (Marguerite Carré, one of Dior’s principal collaborators in the New Look era, once told me that she had refused to become involved in the reconstruction of one of the styles for a museum because she believed the whole enterprise to be simply impossible, as so many essential though apparently trivial ingredients–textures, body proportions, the model’s hands and her imagination, all inextricably linked, had changed: models embody the spirit of the times.)
It was also during the seventies that the element of dandyism disappeared from the world of fashion, along with the overriding desire for originality, the taste for aesthetically pleasing details, for far-fetched names and explosive combinations, and the sheer daring that people needed in order to assert their own tastes and impose their own choices, still very much a feature of the sixties.
The work of a designer like Claire McCardell in America in the 1940s, for example, at once elegant and practical, seems to me to be the embodiment of the true spirit of modernity. It also proposes a model from which many lessons remain to be drawn, displaying the same spirit which inspired the distilled furniture designs of Knoll—and which was quite different from the natty trendiness of the sixties in France. Were I to be asked today to name my main pole of attraction, to which I keep returning and in which I never cease to discover fresh complexities, clearly it would be the sixties, just as I was fascinated as a teenager by the Second Empire and the 1940s.
For twenty years of my life the fashions of Paris under the Occupation exercised an almost hypnotic power over me: fragile constructions of feathers and draped jersey, mixtures of sulphur yellow and wine red, a clandestine elegance.
And the years following the New Look represent for me in every field the apex of a certain ‘Parisian civilization’. You can of course be Parisian without having been born in Paris—sometimes it’s even an advantage. Cristobal Balenciaga is the finest example of Italian sensuality and British chic, combined with the natural grandeur of Spain. This cocktail could perhaps only have been created in Paris, and maybe the recipe is now lost. But I hope not.
People often refer to the ‘sixth sense’ of fashion designers, to their ability to anticipate new directions in taste and define them before anybody else; and indeed I believe that if anything can justify the esteem in which they are held it is this.
But it is not enough to be able to foresee these things: you also have to be able to choose the right moment at which to do so, not too early and not too late. While some designers seem to excel at this game of judging precisely the right moment, knowing exactly how best to match changes in taste with public expectations, I have a tendency to be always slightly out of step, which ultimately has the effect of ruling out certain choices for me.
When I was still at Patou, for instance, I asked the fabric manufacturer Ratti to produce some prints for me in the Pucci style, with those great swirls of vivid colour in dazzling contrasts, on jerseys or other clinging materials. Absolutely the height of ‘Italian chic’ in the sixties, they were equally absolutely out of fashion twenty years later; and when Pucci did finally come back into vogue, in 1990-91, I was already bored with them and in any case had no further use for them.
It was the same, to a lesser degree, with the style of the thirties, with which I used to fill my school notebooks. The whole area is one in which personal judgment and the subtlest of gauges are the only arbiters, where processes that are beyond the reach of intellect are at work, which ultimately we can only observe in ourselves as they take shape. It is in this mysterious process that all the excitement of the business lies; it was also at the moment when I realized that I possessed this gift, quite unconsciously and wholly outside my control, and that it might be able to earn me a living, that I really made my entrance into the world of fashion.
In choosing our moment to launch the fashion house, in contrast—at least to judge by the welcome we received—there can be no doubt that our timing was just right; we seemed to have uncovered a latent desire for a return to the luxury, playfulness and excesses of haute couture.
But of course every rose has its thorns, and we soon had to take in hand the heavy, monolithic image we became saddled with, which was both distorted and distorting. Although it gave us an identity, it also imposed its own limitations. Now I see my work as consisting of putting myself in a particular setting and changing it little by little, of directing my clients’ tastes towards new possibilities.
Gone are the arbitrary, undirected enthusiasms of the early years, the innovations for their own sake, the wild and unrestrained experimentation.
I have learned to control certain flights of fancy, when they are in danger of bringing me too close to some fashion or other, and I would like to curb still further the tendency towards a sort of ‘fashion culture’, even though I am still avid to know every detail of all the press shows and would go to every single one if I could, and read all the reviews and more. But at the same time I must confess that I do rather regret the increasingly dictatorial tone adopted by the fashion press, which is tending to usurp the designer’s role in developing and formulating new ideas. In a field where the freedom to create is already limited by pressure from buyers to repeat lines that sold well last season, this merely imposes one more limitation.
Happily the fashion house has been set up in such a way that we are not obliged to design with any particular client in mind. I still believe that the most faithful among our clientele will always find something to suit them among the designs of any given collection. Whatever the case, and largely because of the obligations that I have just outlined, it is on the level of couture as opposed to ready-to-wear that my designs have always enjoyed their greatest success.
Constraints always have their positive side, and in any case I always find the creative process tremendously exciting. I love the feeling of having to make something out of nothing, as though approaching virgin territory or a deserted spot in high summer. It is like a breath of fresh air; it gives you new life and fresh blood. For the creative process is like any other function: the cells die off, wear out and are regenerated like any others. Little by little one grows in skill, in practical expertise and in technical sophistication—which is in fact largely a question of nerve.
In becoming a public figure—and in this business one has no other choice—one is inevitably exposed to misunderstanding. People often say, for instance, that the fashions I design are heavily influenced by the eighteenth century. But the truth is that I dislike the fashions of that century, except in some of their provincial and Provençal forms, where affectation and studied prettiness give way to simplified shapes and a certain roughness…
… or in theatrical versions as worn by the turqueries, the French equivalent of the commedia dell’arte.
I much prefer the styles of the Revolution [1789-1795]…
… the Directoire [1795-1799]…
… and the Empire [1804-1815].
The side of me that is supposed to be eighteenth-century is actually inspired by the age of the Empress Eugénie [1826-1920]…
… Madame de…
… and Lola Montès…
… it comes from some bound volumes of magazines of the Second Empire that I discovered long ago in the attic at home in Arles, which I never tired of leafing through, and which are inseparable in my mind from summer afternoons with grown-ups talking about the war in Algeria, the problems of my grandfather’s health and other matters beyond my comprehension.
I have to confess to a certain weakness for all periods of transition, for those times when one order with its own aesthetic has collapsed and another has not yet risen to take its place, when civilization finds itself face to face with barbarism. The Mycenaean civilization in Crete, the fall of the Roman Empire, Byzantium, the Middle Ages, the years just before the Renaissance—symbolized by that painting which has never lost its power of fascination over me, Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage—these are some of the periods whose shapes and motifs exercise such a strong hold on my imagination.
And, at a more domestic level, when as a child I started drawing my own histories of fashion with little painted figures, I very quickly came up against two major stumbling blocks: there always seemed to be a veil of silence drawn over the years immediately before and after both World Wars. These shadowy areas, like small black holes, became all the more intriguing because they were so recent, and because I could not see any reason why they should be made so mysterious. I therefore embarked on an obstinate and determined quest to piece together the styles of those years, scrutinizing Charlie Chaplin films, for instance, or poring over prints from the time. Lartigue’s photographs were another mine of ideas.
And I cannot begin to describe the effect that My Fair Lady had on me, with its costumes by Beaton capturing the essence of Edwardian elegance…
… with their graceful silhouettes and delicate colours and the superb images of the Ascot scene.
All these immediately became fresh focal points for my obsession with the airy elegance, discreet opulence and sheer imaginative extravagance that I had already discovered in the fashions of the Second Empire.
Another set of equally strong influences, though they could not have been more different, derived from aspects of American culture (in this respect I must be fairly typical of a whole post-war generation, born at a time when Europe owed so much to American intervention). Mickey Mouse was the hero of my childhood; he took on a mythical stature to which I am not impervious even now. I religiously collected the Mickey Mouse comic, which came out every Thursday, and I can still remember my amazement when someone gave me some bound volumes of back numbers published before I was born. I could not believe my eyes, as it seemed self-evident to me that Mickey Mouse had been born at the same time as me, and more or less for my benefit; so it was impossible to imagine that he could have existed before I did. It was my first experience of time, the moment when I first became aware of the existence of history.
At the same time and running parallel to all this, we had a neighbour with modernist tastes; his house was full of the most ‘exotic’ prints, fabrics and furniture at which I gazed in wonder, and which it would have been quite impossible to imagine in the traditional interiors that I was used to. And musical comedies were another powerful influence on me right from the start, again like many others of my generation: I must have seen Banana Split [The Gang’s All Here], starring Carmen Miranda, at least ten times…
… without its charm ever wearing thin.
[In a sidebar, Lacroix also mentions Kim Novak in Bell, Book and Candle.]
Various elements from the 50s and 60s—the witty, cool gestures of fashion models in magazines; the well-bred, unapproachable allure that was admired in movies, the real-life personalities and socialites who also embodied these qualities – still influence my sketches and styles, resulting in eccentric accessories, sunglasses colours and poses.
For me America consisted of certain kinds of lighting, particularly in my parents’ bedroom, which for some inexplicable reason seemed to me to be wholly cinematographic: a film noir light diffused by a pink lampshade.
It was also encapsulated in the illustrations in the Petits livres d’or, the small, golden-spined children’s books…
… and in the Sunday newspapers sent to us occasionally from a small town with which Arles was twinned, and where I also had a pen friend. Looking back, it is impossible to convey the sense of wonder that pervaded my whole being in the presence of these objects which seemed literally to have come from another world, from a land that was more imaginary than real. In the books of my childhood I discovered the exoticism of ‘Early America’, made up of patchwork quilts…
… and in the newspapers I found photos of the lacquered ‘helmet’ hairstyles and trim suits of astronauts’ wives.
Undoubtedly countless different influences come together in the clothes I design without my even being aware of them, and this is something that is very hard to explain to anyone who is not part of the fashion world. Yet people often ask me how a collection comes into being, what the impulses are from which it springs, the processes by which it takes shape? All I can do in answer to these questions is to sketch out, as far as I am able, the principal stages in the development of a collection. The first question to be answered, at the very outset, is: couture or ready-to-wear? The former will allow more creative freedom and a looser, more ‘impressionist’, rein on the imagination; the latter needs a more commercial approach, with a shrewder eye on the market.
When that question has been answered, the next step is to picture a woman who embodies the mood of the moment, the new season’s theme, and to imagine her in movement; then to set her against a rudimentary scenario, the sketchiest outlines of a story. This imaginary scene-setting is the process which helps one to grasp and distil a kind of mysterious essence, the crystallization of a thousand different clues and signals. These come both from the outside world, in response to the mood of the times, and from my own inner world, reflecting the impulses that awaken particular associations, desires or images in me: together they make a strange and heady mixture, at once wholly abstract and enormously sensual, an alchemy which often makes me feel like the sorcerer’s apprentice.
Once my theme has emerged and the thread of the story can be traced, the next stage is to reduce it to its component parts, work out different ways of putting them back together again and explore the various possibilities. In the past I used at this point to go to the library to engage in massive operations involving sifting through tons of papers, dusty documents and ancient magazines, as if hoping to find some miracle formula to interpret my dreams. I was invariably disappointed, but in fact I needed to immerse myself in these piles of drawings and photographs in order to forget them again immediately, so that things would start to stir and fall into place in my mind, and work could begin.
It is a euphoric feeling, tinged with anxiety, as you veer between a delight in the great wealth of raw material, verging on an embarras de richesse, allied to an absolute confidence in your ability to ‘get there’ in the end, and the ever-present fear of losing your way among it all. And there is also the constant risk of allowing yourself to get sidetracked by gimmicks, by solutions that depend too much on allusion, by straight quotations, by ready-made formulae, and by reinventions of old patterns and shapes which distract you from the creation of a definitive ‘look’
I am less tempted nowadays than I used to be in the early days to seek solutions that I would now describe as rather obvious; I am less likely to turn to ethnic or oriental motifs, for example. I am certainly more open, more receptive, more aware of signs that can present themselves and of chance encounters; more accessible to unexpected ideas that may be triggered by a particular book, film or exhibition, or even a face spotted at the corner of some street.
I design much more from scratch, while still keeping the idea of using a different range of tones for each collection: characteristic Provençal shades for the ‘boutique’ collection; more classic for the mid-season ‘cruise’ collection, concentrating on a restrained selection of colours and fabrics. (Incidentally, I believe the future lies in ‘capsule’ collections such as these, based on a limited range of designs in coordinated colours and prints but presented more frequently, and so scattering ideas more liberally: a long way, in short, from the stockpiles of designs presented six months apart at the ready-to-wear shows).
As I have said before, and perhaps in reaction to the way in which people have tended to focus on what is often described as the theatrical, ‘decorative’ side of my work, I am now much more interested in concentrating on using the cut of a garment alone to define its look and proportions, rather than putting the emphasis on sensational and easily copied details. This might involve, for instance, inventing a new and rather hybrid calf-length look, somewhere between the New Look and the proportions of the eighteenth century; but I would be unable to say at this stage what shape this idea would ultimately take, what sort of journey it will have undergone between the time of writing these words, the time when they are put into print, and the time when my work finally reaches fruition.
All I know is that, while forever following the track of some mysterious Ariadne’s thread, I shall always oscillate between a chaste delight in purity of form and a rapturous intoxication with ornamentation. For couture is both these things at the same time.
I know that I shall always have a horror of empty space, and that I shall always fill it relentlessly with flowers or paintings…
…even though I have also experienced the exhilaration to be had in black and white [or, as here, in chocolate and vanilla].
I know that I shall always dot the ‘i’s of my designs with hats out of Lartigue, taken from a coloured print of ladies skating in the reign of Louis XVI which used to hang beside my bed when I was a child, or from the craziness of a New York Easter Parade, which I discovered with incredulous elation in 1961 or 1962.
I know that I shall always be a Mediterranean of the bullring, and of those processions where style mingles with show, gypsies from the banks of the Ganges with Kensington bohemians. And I know that I shall always enjoy true snobbery, when it signifies a genuine difference—sadly now disappearing in matters of elegance—just as much as the modest sequins of the fairground entertainers.
There are always successive layers of inspiration in creating a collection and I think of myself as an explorer in the world of the imaginary, who believes in combining things that are normally contrasted. A small, Goya-inspired jacket is worn over a tank top, a part of an eighteenth-century costume harmonizes with a sailor’s vest. The coat that opened the 1990/91 show was inspired by the oilskins worn by road-gangs in New York, banded with fluorescent strips.
You can also discover wrought-iron work from Toledo, the austerity of Castille, the allure of Haile Selassie or the last Kings of Africa. Whether they come from the Camargue, Benin, Sweden or Poland, I adore all those popular crafts and traditions which know spontaneously how to combine the rough with the refined, freshness with frivolity, discipline with improvisation. Such cross-breedings are the bedrock of fashion.
Today I am more rigorous than I used to be, but this does not mean that I have put all my past inspirations aside. Doubting one’s loves is still the best way of staying faithful to them. But in my current designs, the primitive simplicity of the Camargue triumphs over Provençal fancy. My Spain of today is now less the Spain of Carmen and more the Spain of Las Meninas and the Moors.
I do not deny my roots, but my design research has of late been more Romanesque, more structural.
I am now trying to develop even further the basic ingredients of my craft: shape, volume, structure and construction, especially with regard to suits. This focus on the basics has no need of impressions from the past and it tends to tone down colour.
But of course I am addicted to the past to some extent; I’m especially nostalgic about the 1960s—a decade that enjoyed the tail end of an ‘art de vivre’ of which we have lost the secret. What I especially appreciate in Jacques Demy’s movies such as Les Demoiselles de Rochefort or in Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s La Vie de château or Philippe de Broca’s Le Diable par la queue, among other examples, is their way of being modern, even ahead of their time, without losing a specifically French freshness, culture and spirit. Aping Americans is not the best way of appealing to them.
In 1960 Audrey Hepburn could only have been dressed in Paris couture, and it was the imaginativeness of that haute couture that we sought to recreate in the early 1980s. It was a golden legend from which we drew visions of absolute sophistication. The danger is of course that such a look might culminate in a completely humourless ‘Sunday best’ appearance. A real woman is not like the cover of a magazine. I dread the ‘command performance’ aspect of couture just as much as I dread conformism.
I am trying to mix basic classics with the more eccentric details–to create a balance between elegance and relaxation–to suit the women of today, who are much freer and less constrained in what they wear. Nowadays a woman can go skiing in pearls or go nightclubbing in a ballgown if she feels like it. The important thing is that she feels comfortable and at ease. The idea that being relaxed means necessarily wearing jeans and a T-shirt is absurd. Some women look more ill-at-ease in jeans than others do in crinolines.
A show is not an end in itself. Why make another collection if everything is planned in advance? It is too often said that we sell dreams. On the contrary, I believe that I start from a very realistic viewpoint by expressing in my shows what many women secretly dream about. I believe in the experimental, exploratory role of couture. And even if there is a certain time lag with my research, I am always anxious to keep a firm grasp on daily life, not in order arbitrarily to parody reality, but in order to sublimate its happier moments.
I refuse to envisage my evolution as a couturier as a series of abrupt changes. I believe that we often have only one thing to say—just as it is said that a great novelist always writes the same book—but that this one thing is constantly evolving. It is this constancy within change which determines a style. One may choose different lengths, for example, from the very short to the very long (paradoxically, I prefer the latter for summer). And there are many different silhouettes. But there is no such thing as a Lacroix uniform. I never design with any particular woman in mind, but for multi-faceted clients who are confident about fashion and can play about with whatever I propose.
My strategy is to have no strategy. For me, couture is like fresh air. I create shapes impulsively, with no preconceived plan. I have worked like this for ten years and have no intention of changing. To begin with, I extolled the virtue of eccentric, barely wearable couture. Then there was a return to legitimacy, to daily life, as if to show that we too could create the classics. Today, what more can I say? Couture will always be couture: crazy, contradictory, full of surprises and—above all—stronger than I am.
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