PARIS -- Just a few years ago it was on the brink of extinction. Now, haute couture -- the 150-year-old Parisian tradition of making unique, astronomically-priced handmade gowns -- is back.
The fall-winter 2014/15 collection calendar, starting Sunday with Atelier Versace and graced by Jennifer Lopez, has expanded to five days from three to make room for 12 major houses as well as collections from a whole swathe of up-and-coming names. Additions in recent seasons include the return of big-hitters Donatella Versace, Giorgio Armani and Maison Schiaparelli to the calendar.
So why did the tide turn?
"With so much focus from fashion's powerhouses on heritage and traditions, couture has returned to center-stage as it is the embodiment of savoir-faire," suggested Long Nguyen, co-founder and style director of Flaunt magazine.
"There is also a resurgence of clients coming from new markets -- Asia Pacific, Middle East, Russia -- that supplanted the dwindling traditional European-based customers," he added.
Lebanese socialite and famed couture buyer Mouna Ayoub said in the last decade, word of mouth has driven large numbers of rich Middle Eastern women to couture houses.
"It's all so secret and they deny it, because spending more is frowned upon. But I personally know at least 100 Arab women who in the last few years have started buying couture. They love it," says Ayoub, who says she spent nearly 300,000 euros ($409,000) on one Chanel couture dress.
Haute couture -- a protected name -- is an artisanal tradition invented by Englishman Charles Frederick Worth in the 1870s. It involves intricate, time-consuming sewing, unusual fabrics and luxurious embellishments such as rare feathers and semi-precious stone beading. For a century it defined the essence of French fashion, turning fashion houses such Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent into the envy of the world.
Then in 2002, the death knell sounded when YSL held his last couture show and the number of houses and clients started to shrink. Critics called couture old-fashioned and irrelevant.
Now, designers like 30-year-old Dutch abstract artist Iris Van Herpen, who won the prestigious ANDAM fashion award this week, have helped reshape perceptions about the age-old tradition and made it fresh again.
Thomas Adamson can be followed at http://Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP