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How designers brought the antiquated craft of haute couture into the future at the shows in Paris

Mon, Jul 1, 2024 8:24pmGrey Clock 3 min

“Nobody really needs couture, to be honest,” said Demna after his Balenciaga haute couture show this week in Paris. No, most people do not need a bespoke gown that costs six figures and takes highly trained petites mains thousands of hours to make by hand. And yet.

Partaking in the official haute couture fashion week in Paris—which is rife with arcane rules about how the clothes are made—can pay off handsomely for the few designers left in the club. For the 15 or so brands that invest in the game, including Dior and Chanel, couture can multiply press and red-carpet opportunities, and have a trickle-down effect on sales of ready-to-wear and beauty and fragrance.

Then there are the orders, which can total in the millions for a single client. Wealthy couture diehards fly in for the shows and then quickly convene in cosseted showrooms to make their selections while munching macarons. Competition can be fierce, especially when a stylist nabs a gown early on for, say, Cardi B. When you’re paying this much to look unique, no one wants a duplicate.

Couture is famously over-the-top, and this season was no exception, with rampant feathered capes, obscuring hoods and trailing trains. But philanthropist, creative director and avid couture client Fredrik Robertsson told me he found the looks very wearable this season: “less PR showstoppers and more things people actually want.” He pointed to the calmer suits and cocktail dresses at Schiaparelli, which has in the past paraded out looks such as one bearing a faux lion’s head .

Couture can sag somewhat under the weight of its history. Craftsmanship, fashion’s favourite buzzword, can be a burden too, with designers feeling the need to embellish every gown with hand-embroidered butterflies and panoplies of pearls. But the following five looks show how a range of designers are making couture relevant today.

Balenciaga’s Sculptural Chaos

Demna, who goes by a mononym, is perhaps the contemporary designer most intent on bringing couture into the future. While he’s never far from Cristóbal Balenciaga’s archive—with its dramatic shapes and volumes—he’s also a student of streetwear. So the subcultures he reveres, from goth to skate kids, were present in his deceptively casual designs. Would the founder of the house turn in his grave at metal-band T-shirts masquerading as couture? Maybe not once he realised they were in fact hand-painted over a period of several days.

This top and skirt ensemble is made from unstitched cotton-jersey elements, which are then assembled and sewn together, and knotted on the model. It is a wearable sculpture, with the casual look of a pile of T-shirts.

Chanel’s Sublime Sweatsuit

Chanel, which is between creative directors after the departure of Virginie Viard, showed its haute couture collection at the Opéra Garnier. While many of the looks echoed the vibe of the classic theatre—including a sumptuous pink silk opera coat—some of the most successful moments were surprisingly dressed down. Robertsson, the Swedish couture client, exclaimed, “Chanel even had sweatpants!”

Shown on model-du-jour Amelia Gray Hamlin, the black Chanel sweatsuit was not technically a sweatsuit. It was a wool crepe jersey set trimmed in duchesse satin ruffles and organza. It was also shown in cream, and it will sell.

Dior’s Deceptively Simple Column

Maria Grazia Chiuri, one of the only female designers making couture, showed an elegantly restrained collection in a room filled with shimmering artwork by Faith Ringgold, who died earlier this year. Nodding to an Olympic year without being too heavy-handed, Chiuri presented Grecian-inspired draped dresses, flat lace-up sandals, and sporty tanks and bodysuits.

This long asymmetrical dress in cream-coloured silk jersey over a tank top is almost sporty, and a refreshing break from some of the more hobbling ensembles on display this past week. But that’s no ordinary tank top: It’s embroidered with silver-coloured micro-tube beads that have hematite-clawed jewels on them.

Schiaparelli’s Faux Feathers

Daniel Roseberry, the charming Texan who’s revamped a dusty Parisian couture house, is a true believer in the art of couture. But he’s also savvy about its press potential, so this season, the show didn’t start until paparazzi magnets Kylie Jenner and Doja Cat had arrived.

The house’s founder, Elsa Schiaparelli, was a surrealist innovator who collaborated with her friend Salvador Dalí on one of the first trompe l’oeil garments . Roseberry continues his predecessor’s taste for trickery in his work. This jacket is embroidered all over with what appear to be small white feathers, but are in fact 10,500 silk-organza snippets. Because each “feather” is handmade, the jacket takes over 7,000 hours of work to create. Worn over a pair of smart black cropped pants, it’s almost work appropriate.

Jean Paul Gaultier’s Undressed Dress

Jean Paul Gaultier, which maintains a healthy and bustling couture business, has adopted the clever strategy of inviting buzzy non-couture designers to collaborate on its collections. Simone Rocha, Glenn Martens, Olivier Rousteing and Chitose Abe of Sacai have all worked it out on the remix with Gaultier. Nicolas Di Felice, the artistic director behind Courrèges’s Pinault-backed renaissance, was up this season.

Di Felice, whose friends span Paris’s creative industries, brought his cool-kid approach to Gaultier. Many pieces featured couture details like rows of hook-and-eye closures, and partially hidden tulle corsets. But there were Di Felice signatures, too: koala-pouch front pockets, narrow trousers, tiny party dresses. This cheeky gown is carefully constructed to look like the top slip is falling away to reveal a bustier.


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The S&P 500 index has been crushing private-equity returns in the past year, and Blackstone ’s second-quarter results illustrate that trend.

As part of its earnings release early Thursday Blackstone said its corporate private-equity returns in the year ending in June were 11.3%. That compares with a 24.5% total return for the S&P 500.

In the prior year ending in June 2023, the S&P 500 topped Blackstone with a 19.4% return against 9.7% for the firm’s corporate private-equity business, which has $145 billion of assets and remains one of its most important areas along with real estate.

Blackstone is the leading alternatives firm with over $1 trillion in assets under management and has the largest market value of any public investment firm at more than $160 billion.

Driven by Nvidia , Microsoft , Apple , Amazon and other big technology stocks, the S&P 500 has handily topped most asset classes in the past several years.

Another sign of more difficult times for private equity came earlier this week from Calpers, the $503 billion California pension fund, when it reported it s preliminary returns for its fiscal year ending in June . Calpers is one of the first major endowments or pension funds to report results for the June fiscal year. undefined The pension fund, a major player in private equity, said its private-equity investments gained 10.9% net of fees—although that figure is lagged one quarter. Calpers’ public-equity investments were up 17.5% in the year ended June—its strongest asset class. Private equity remains a favorite of many pension funds and leading university endowments like those of Harvard and Yale. Their view is that private equity can beat public-market returns over the long term.

But the private-equity business has gotten tougher in recent years due to keen competition for deals, higher interest rates and a less receptive IPO market, which has made exits tougher.

And private-equity portfolios of firms like Blackstone look nothing like the S&P 500, given their investments in small to midsize companies.

Blackstone, for instance, bought a majority stake in Emerson’s climate technologies business last year and more recently purchased Tropical Smoothie, a franchiser of fast-casual cafes. It also holds a stake in Bumble, the publicly traded online dating site, and it’s an investor in actress Reese Witherspoon’s media company, Hello Sunshine. Blackstone’s corporate private-equity business runs $145 billion and has 82 investments, according to the firm’s website.

Blackstone’s private-equity business has strong long-term returns including a gain of over 50% in the year ended in June 2021 when it handily topped the S&P 500 index.

But the S&P 500 index has become difficult to beat more recently and it’s dominated by some of the best companies in the world. It carries less risk than private equity, given the cash-rich balance sheets of its leading companies like Apple , Microsoft and Alphabet .

Private-equity firms, by contrast, often use considerable leverage to boost returns. Investors can get exposure to the S&P 500 through index funds that charge 0.1% or less in annual fees and with immediate liquidity.

A key risk with the S&P 500 is its vulnerability to a selloff in the leading tech firms that now make up over 40% of the index. The recent rotation into smaller companies illustrates that.

Blackstone shares gained 1.1% to $136.31 Thursday in the wake of its earnings news as investors focused on rising investment deployments and positive management comments on the firm’s outlook.

The firm’s nearly $40 billion of inflows and $34 billion of capital deployment during the second quarter marked “the highest level of investment activity in two years,” Chief Executive Officer Stephen Schwarzman said in a statement.

Citi analyst Christopher Allen wrote in a note to clients on Thursday that while Blackstone’s overall performance was mixed, the outlook appears to be improving given fund-raising and deployment trends.

Investors also were heartened by Blackstone President Jon Gray’s comments about a bottoming in commercial real estate and strong capital deployment in that area.

But ultimately, the game for Blackstone and its alternatives peers is about performance—particularly beating low-fee public investments like the S&P 500. That seems to be getting more difficult.