PARIS: The Beginning and the End of Fashion
We will know twenty years from now what fashion is in Paris. Right now, there is general confusion. --Karl Lagerfeld, April 24, 1998
The stock market crash of October 19, 1987, left the world in stunned suspension, as millions of people pondered how their lives would inevitably change after nearly a decade of fast fortunes, high living, and conspicuous consumption. Just days after the big bombshell, New York's financial district erupted again-but this time for a glorious celebration inside the World Financial Center, the gleaming new office towers that were the home of American Express, Merrill Lynch, and Dow Jones and Co., the publisher of The Wall Street Journal. On the evening of October 28, New York's social glitterati headed downtown to pay homage to Christian Lacroix, French fashion's it man of the moment.
Except for the unlucky timing, the venue was perfect. Overlooking the Hudson River in lower Manhattan, with a distant view of the Statue of Liberty, the World Financial Center's glass-covered public courtyard provided a glamorous backdrop for a fashion-show stage and dozens of candlelit tables arranged around the sixteen live palm trees that rose forty-five feet from its marble floors. Partygoers would long remember the Lacroix gala, which concluded with a fireworks show as exuberant, excessive, and eerily off-key. It was an event where over-the-top fashion mirrored Wall Street, on the verge of collapse.
To the fashion establishment, the arrival of Lacroix had been like the second coming. With his dark, slicked-back hair and cherubic face, he was an extraordinary talent with a heavy-handed flair for the baroque. He had come to save haute couture, the pinnacle of French fashion, whose legendary practitioners included Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, and Emanuel Ungaro. Lacroix had burst on the scene initially as the couturier of the house of Patou in the early 1980s, when haute couture was suddenly back in style for the first time in years. Luxurious suits and party frocks that cost as much as suburban homes became the badge of wealthy Arab ladies, nouveau riche trophy wives, and international socialites, who delighted in supporting high fashion's noblest tradition. "The fact is that fashion needs Lacroix-needs somebody new to bring along the next generation of couture customers, Holly Brubach raved in The New Yorker.
Serving as chairwoman of the Lacroix benefit, Blaine Trump, the beautiful, blond sister-in-law of real estate mogul Donald Trump, decked herself in a purple brocade Lacroix confection, in keeping with the fairytale frippery Lacroix sent down the runway that night: enormous fichu portrait collars, bustles, farthingales, pouf overskirts and underskirts--in a riot of vibrant colors, festooned with embroidery and jeweled trimmings. Balancing strange headdresses atop their tightly coiffed updos, the models moved gingerly down the catwalk. Also laboring under the weight of Lacroix luxe--and suffering gladly through the night were a number of guests, such as millionairess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, who was done up in a black bustle number. Sitting next to Donald Trump, she whispered: "You know, you can't go to the bathroom in these dresses."
Lacroix took his runway bow to a shower of bravos and red carnations. No one was prouder than Lacroix's French benefactor, Bernard Arnault, a thirty-seven-year-old mogul on the rise. With the help of investment bank Lazard Freres in 1984, Arnault had acquired the bankrupt Agache Willot, whose most valuable asset was the Christian Dior fashion house. A couple of years later, he bankrolled the House of Lacroix, with an initial 88 million commitment. Over the next years, Arnault would become the luxury world's most active predator, creating, through a series of hostile takeovers and buyouts, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world's largest luxury-goods empire. By 1998, the $8-billion-a-year LVMH had amassed a formidable lineup, including Hennessy Cognac, Moi~t and Dom Perignon champagne, airport Duty Free Shops, as well as other fashion houses: Louis Vuitton, Celine, Givenchy, Loewe, and Kenzo. But Lacroix was Arnault's favored son, the only enterprise he had started from scratch. From the start, Arnault held high hopes, especially after Lacroix garnered so much breathless publicity for his signature pouf gown. He was destined to become the next Yves Saint Laurent.
But despite his triumphant debut, Lacroix would turn out to be the souffle that refused to rise. No one had expected that there would be a run on $40,000 Lacroix ballgowns. But even Lacroix's earliest enthusiasts got cold feet-and cooled on the couturier. Georgette Mosbacher, the red-headed wife of U.S. Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, admitted that she felt forced to buy a Lacroix dress, but never wore it, and ended up donating it to a museum. Likewise, the retail collections Lacroix created were fanciful eye-candy--but flops on the sales floor. The definitive proof that there was no more helium left in the pouf came when Lacroix brought out his first signature perfume, C'est La Vie, in 1994. Despite its Calvin Klein-size $40 million marketing sendoff, C'est La Vie retailed so poorly that Lacroix pulled the fragrance from the market.
During its first five years of business, the house of Lacroix waded in red ink-more than $37 million in losses. Profits were still elusive in 1997 when Lacroix, at forty-six, celebrated ten years in business, having run through almost as many managing directors.
Unapologetic, the earnest couturier vowed never to surrender to commercial pressures. He wrote in his fashion show program in July 1997: .11 believe I have not given in to systems whatever they might be.... A Lacroix style has been born and even if it doesn't appeal to everyone, so much the better. The barefooted, jewelry-less woman, skimpily dressed in worn-out togs, creates a ghost-like vision that only satisfies the most pessimistic, of which I am not one ......
Bernard Arnault wasn't so much pessimistic as he was frustrated by the couturier who couldn't be king of French fashion. By the end of the 1990s, Arnault would be forced to face the naked truth: that Lacroix was the end of fashion.