Literally speaking, couture is French for sewing. But in Paris in July, it translated into spangles and a pink ostrich headdress at Christian Dior, a beaded tweed dress wrapped in ermine at Chanel, and a fox-trimmed crocodile bolero at Gaultier. All short for the glorious tradition, dating back centuries, of made-to-measure women's clothing generously hand-embellished with embroidery, beadwork, and lace. Paris is still the couture capital, but you don't need to book transatlantic passage—or snag an engraved invitation—to experience the craft's discreet charms. New York has always produced its own couturiers: Mainbocher (a favorite of Wallis Simpson before and after she became the Duchess of Windsor), Hattie Carnegie, Charles James. And today, a maverick group of New York design talents is carrying the centuries-old art into the next millennium, injecting couture with a modern, no-nonsense spirit.
This is not old, staid couture," declares John Anthony, who opened the doors of his atelier in 1986. "We aim to make it young, yet timeless." At his West 57th Street studio, crystal chandeliers, zebra-patterned carpets, and framed drawings by New Yorker cartoonist Marisa Acocella and fashion illustrator Kenneth Paul Block are the backdrop for this season's collection: a bias-cut matte-gold-lamé gown (from $9,500) suspended from one shoulder by a braided strap—a toga for a latter-day Roman goddess; evening trousers done in bronze-and-sapphire beading (from $15,000) topped by a bodysuit with three-quarter sleeves and a wide artist's collar—perhaps the most deluxe work shirt ever imagined (from $3,000). This surprisingly wearable mix of fantasy and reality is what keeps the "American" in American couture, and extends the life of Anthony's creations beyond just the current season.
Winner of two Coty Awards, Anthony chose to bypass ready-to-wear, turning down offers at Halston and Norell to focus on private clients who depend on him to suit their every wardrobe need. "A client in Pittsburgh will call me and say, 'I'm going to a ball' or 'I need a new raincoat' and we'll put together an entire wardrobe," says Anthony. Six weeks after that woman's first visit, and the two standard fittings that follow, everything arrives at her door.
For Anthony, part of couture's appeal is its common-sense schedule. Unlike prêt-à-porter, which is modeled on runways a full six months before hitting the stores, couture samples appear when they are meant to be worn. "Why go shopping for a winter coat in July? We open our spring collection in February, and our fall in September," Anthony says. Of course, couture's enduring appeal can also be explained by a very simple premise: You get exactly what you want and you will never see it on anyone else. Besides ensuring originality, couture, customers testify, provides a uniquely personal touch. "Couture reflects my interests, tastes, even my moods," says interior designer and John Anthony client Heather Hoyt. "And you'll never find that shopping at a store."
THE CLIENT A woman whose refined taste harks back to the ladylike glamour of the 1950s. THE COST From $4,500 for a day dress. THE WAIT Six weeks. At 130 West 57th Street, Suite 11B; 212-245-6069.
A high-collared coat of pale-blue velvet ($15,000), strategically decorated with gold-bullion embroidery, suggest the grandeur of czarist military costumes on display at the Kremlin Armory—as well as the laid-back ease of a well-worn denim jacket. It also sums up the style of Maggie Norris. Her wool trousers with their subtle passementerie ornamentation ($4,000) and tweed jacket with its sable-trimmed portrait collar ($10,800) are humble and perfectly outrageous at the same time; frog closures and silk fringe bring a certain Edwardian refinement to a classic black-leather motorcycle jacket ($8,800).
"I'm very inspired by the architecture of Buckminster Fuller," explains Norris, who headed the women's collection at Ralph Lauren for 14 years before becoming Bergdorf Goodman's in-house couturière in 2001. "I love the way he put straight lines together to make a soft form. His work is geometric but never harsh." Fuller's transformation of straight lines into soft curves is echoed in Norris' sumptuous handcrafted corsets, many designed from antique textiles like black devoré velvet ($22,800). But Norris is careful not to let her vision consume her. "When it's most successful, couture is a collaboration," she says. "The designer also needs to listen."
THE CLIENT A customer who favors unabashed Edwardian romanticism with a rock 'n' roll edge. THE COST From $2,200 for a pair of flannel trousers to $30,000 for a corset of velvet and 18-karat gold. THE WAIT From two to six months. At Bergdorf Goodman, 754 Fifth Avenue, 4th floor; 212-753-7300.
I have clients who started with me when they were junior vice presidents and are now CFOs," says Lamb, who credits her made-to-order designs with helping to empower her successful customers, many of whom have been loyal for 20 years. They keep coming back for suits and separates tailored in the tradition of Savile Row haberdashery, with fine menswear fabrics (silk, linen, tweed) and craftsmanship (hand-felled collars) softened by details such as pearl trim or candy-colored Chanel-inspired wool bouclé.
Lamb's background in engineering is clear in the meticulous construction of her designs. Like the finest menswear, a Dara Lamb jacket may be turned inside out at the shoulder to reveal hand finishing that gives the wearer comfort and mobility. Which is not to say that Lamb's creations are all business all the time. Her clients count on her to inject unimpeachably businesslike menswear with fashionably feminine allure: silk-piped buttonholes and satin-covered buttons give serious suiting an elegant edge. One jacket with three-quarter cuffed sleeves is made of playful pink piqué ($1,395); she also offers cocktail dresses and lavishly embroidered evening gowns.
"We allow women to establish their own personal style and maintain it over time," she says. "When you have your clothing made to order, you're no longer trying to fit into someone else's mold—you are your own perfect pattern."
THE CLIENT A no-nonsense executive who views clothing as a low-risk investment. THE COST From $2,000 for a suit to $6,000 for a hand-embroidered silk evening gown. THE WAIT Six to eight weeks. At 445 Park Avenue; 212-935-2344.
For nine years, Shannon McLean sold her designs under the label Cose Belle at two New York stores. Two years ago she relocated to a private by-appointment-only atelier half a block from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, dedicating her business strictly to custom designs made in her Manhattan workroom. Loyal clients, including Marshall Field's heiress Marina Rust Connor and the Michigan art collector Susu Sosnick, seek out McLean for her ladylike yet never dated take on early-sixties-era elegance: boldly-patterned sleeveless silk blouses with slender neckties ($600) and imperially slim woolen trousers ($500) and coat dresses (from $700).
A hipster Hattie Carnegie, McLean outfits clients "for every moment of their lives, whether it's a wedding or a walk in the park." Her designs tend to have a touch of flower-child charm, as in a tailored silk-lined suede poncho with Pocahontas fringe ($1,500), which she's happy to customize in Ultrasuede for her vegan clients ($800). For McLean, couture has a spiritual side: More than an exclusive luxury, made-to-measure fashion is an enlightened way to create and wear clothes.
"I think that there needs to be a philosophy behind clothing," she says. "It's not just about filling your closet. It's about lasting quality. That's why you buy couture."
THE CLIENT An enlightened trendsetter who practices elegant restraint. THE COST From $500 for wool trousers, with a minimum order of three pieces per season. THE WAIT 30 days. At 7 East 81st Street; 212-988-4210.
The classic shapes that hang in Jussara Lee's studio in New York's Meatpacking District—silk-cotton flat-front trousers with creased legs ($550), slender trapunto-stitched tunic tops ($425), structured coats made of hard, shiny leather ($1,800), ethereally draped "goddess" gowns crafted from an offbeat patchwork of silk chiffon, leather, and perforated suede ($1,500)—are all marked by a decidedly downtown attitude that's right at home in any zip code.
Born in Brazil to a Korean family, Lee makes feminine clothes that strike just the right balance between Brazilian sensuality and Asian subtlety. One of her dresses, in an abstract floral pattern of primary colors against a white background ($600), has the easy charm of an haute beach cover-up; another, in navy-blue silk, has a mandarin collar and split kimono sleeves ($750).
At her atelier, an ingenious wall display of colorful thread cones resembles an edgy art installation more than a traditional garment workroom. Clients can dabble in the creative process, matching fabrics and patterns, adorning, for instance, a simple blouse with a shimmery beaded fringe that catches their eye. Only fitting, since Lee operates her business like a gallery, artfully combining exclusivity and accessibility (during opening hours, anyone can walk in to view samples, and Lee stays open for weekend fitting appointments).
"Couture should be more available," she explains. "It's not all about socialites."
THE CLIENT Hipster creative types looking to stand out in the sea of head-to-toe black. THE COST From $750 for a cocktail dress; $900 for a coat; bridal gowns from $1,500. THE WAIT Up to two months. At 11 Little West 12th St.; 212-242-4128.
ONE TO WATCH
CHARLES ALEXANDER This 33-year old, who apprenticed at Saint Laurent and Lacroix before rising to head designer at Maggie Norris, debuts his own couture collection at Bergdorf Goodman this season. The designs take classic American sportswear to its logical extremes: an off-white cashmere sweater cropped like a tuxedo jacket with tails streaming to the floor ($13,000), a backless gray-cashmere cardigan with schoolboy buttons ($925), a high-waisted hound's-tooth skirt ($2,480), and a magenta zebra-striped silk charmeuse evening skirt ($3,150). There's also a perfect fitted white peacoat ($4,100), and a black-and-white cocktail shift ($4,400) that makes anyone who tries it on instantly ten pounds thinner. "I don't want to do museum pieces," says Alexander. "These clothes should be a part of my clients' lives season after season." And the designer, who knows his way around a dress, knows women equally well: "You should feel great walking into any room and not have to suck in your stomach all night—you can eat dinner." Although you may not want to: Coming this spring—couture bathing suits by Charles Alexander. At 754 Fifth Avenue; 212-753-7300.