What comes to mind of you hear the term ‘haute couture’? The visionary designer in his atelier? The most delicate fabrics, assimilated in countless hours of precise needlework? Women of wealth and style in equal measures? Haute couture has turned into a global synonym for quality, luxury and indulgence. In our times, however, couture in itself is not a profitable industry. Rather than selling fashion made to measure, couture’s main purpose is to add to a label’s prestige and brand image – it is the ready-to-wear collection, and in particular accessories and fragrances, that account for a label’s sales. But it hasn’t always been that way, as we learn from fashion heavyweight Didier Grumbach.

Born in 1937 in Paris, Grumbach acted as the President of the ‘Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne’ and the ‘Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de mode’ from 1998 to 2014. Monsieur Grumbach has undoubtedly been one of the most influential ‘homme d’affaires’ in French fashion, shaping the course of the industry and establishing Paris as the global epicentre of fashion throughout the second half of the 20thth century. Starting out at his grandfather’s coat manufacturing business C. Mendès, which he would soon overtake, Grumbach began to produce the first ready-to-wear collections for couturiers like Jeanne Lanvin, Guy Laroche or Emmanuel Ungaro at a time when the industrial production of fashion was still in its infancy. During the sixties, Grumbach helped establish the production of Givenchy, Jean Patou and several others and in 1966 he co-founded Saint Laurent Rive Gauche with Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé.

In 1971, Grumbach, in association with Andrée Putman established the ‘Société Créateurs & Industriels’, a visionary platform connecting designers, stylists and industrials. Despite its short-lived span of five years, it was at Créateurs & Industriels where iconic designers such as Issey Miyake, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler made their first career steps. Besides his commitments as the chairman of Thierry Mugler and of Yves Saint Laurent, Inc., Grumbach has also always had an interest in the support of fashion education, both as the Directeur des Etudes at the Institut Français de la Mode and by writing a book on the ‘Histoire de la Mode’. We speak to him about the early days of ready-to-wear, the renewed relevance of couture, and the balancing act between creative freedom and economic thinking within the fast-paced industry of fashion.

Monsieur Grumbach, your book ‘History of International Fashion’ is a highly educational account of the evolution of fashion as an industry that can only be understood in relation to the changing social and economic conditions of its times. Why is it important to learn about the history of fashion?

If you want to shape your future, you have to know your past. It is absolutely essential to study the history of fashion in order to be able to position yourself in relation to it.

How did you first get in touch with the fashion industry?

It happened by chance or by accident. When I was 18, I started to work for my grandfather at his coat factory during the summer and the holidays. It was in the mid-fifties and ready-to-wear was still very new. Your great grandmother was not dressed in ready-to-wear, she was dressed in made-to-measure. Coats were the first items to be industrialised, because you didn’t need a fitting as you did for a suit or a dress.

Can you tell me about the beginnings of ready-to-wear and fashion turning into a large-scale industry?

I already started factories that produced ready-to-wear before I co-founded Saint Laurent Rive Gauche in 1966. It was during a period when couturiers like Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, and of course, Chanel, didn’t want to produce ready-to-wear. It was still a very new industry. People reacted to the emergence of ready-to-wear in the same way people first reacted to the Internet when it was new.

People didn’t believe in it. 

It was the general opinion that creation and industry don’t go together. People did not believe that ready-to-wear would allow you to be perfectly dressed ; And it was quite understandable since couture and ready-to-wear split, on December 14th 1910, over a hundred years ago and it only happened in France.

For decades, people have foreseen the death of haute couture and yet it has survived until today. Do you have an explanation for the current revival of couture? Is it an anti-trend to fast fashion?

Again, couture, up to the late fifties, was the only industry. By 1925, there were 300,000 couturières. It was a huge and highly competitive industry. It only became differentiated after the crash in 1929 and in the installation of custom duties and quota when suddenly French couture was not competitive anymore. Couturiers then started to sell rights to copy. Foreign buyers came to buy designs in Paris in order to copy them in their own country. Couture became a ‘bureau de style’ for the world. Paris was the centre of creation. That explains why the brands survived and are still strong today. For instance, Bergdorf Goodman from New York went to Paris to buy designs from Balenciaga, from Yves Saint Laurent etc., in order to reproduce them in their own couture atelier in New York. This is very much forgotten today, but it lasted for a long time up to the moment when Christian Dior, after the war, invented the licensing contract.

It was this business invention that allowed the couturiers to survive?

During the war, in the forties, the Germans wanted the haute couture ateliers to be transported to Berlin. This shows how important it was for France to introduce fashion to the world. The Americans had broadly imported French fashion since 1918. Dior was making money by just selling patterns to be copied. The buyers didn’t buy ready-to-wear, but the rights to copy. And if you were going to a showroom you didn’t have the right to take photographs or make sketches, otherwise the police was called. The couturiers didn’t do ready-to-wear, which is something we tend to forget. From 1965 to 1970 the couturiers gradually became involved in ready-to-wear, and a lot of them did it through my grandfather’s company. And, of course, Saint Laurent Rive Gauche was within the Mendès building. The couture house was not involved in the management of production. Production took place in several factories, which I started in 1966 or 1967.

Where were these factories?

In Western France. There is still one in Angers, which is owned by Gucci for Yves Saint Laurent.

I suppose with the beginnings of globalisation, production mostly shifted to other countries.

Up to 1965, production took place in ateliers in Paris. During the seventies, the ateliers became decentralised in province. Licensed manufacturers later started to produce in Asia. But the couturiers themselves, like Givenchy, Ungaro etc., were never involved in the production of ready-to-wear, Courrèges was an exception. They survived by means of issuing licensing contracts. It was through this invention in 1948 that couture turned from a competitive industry into a ‘bureau de style’ of the world, as I already mentioned. Dior first signed a licence to a hosiery manufacturer in America for 10,000 dollars, which was a big sum of money at the time. And when it was renewed a year later it became a royalty payment, and this system evolved until Dior had more than 120 licensing contracts. Saint Laurent and Cardin, who had been assistants of Dior, followed the same system. Licensing, the delocalisation of production and distribution, lasted for 50 years. It finished, as you know, with Chanel starting to integrate production and distribution.

It is fascinating how the alteration of a business model here changed the course of fashion. Let’s speak a little more about the relation between creativity and economic decision-making in the fashion industry. Pierre Bergé said in an interview that at YSL, roles were strictly divided. Yves was in charge of the creative vision, while Bergé took care of the business aspect. Today, you will hardly find a designer who does not also know the numbers of the business. Designers are much more aware of the economic performance of their label. Is it simply a fact of our times that creativity and commerce go hand in hand? Should designers be educated and involved in the managerial operations of the business? Or do you see this development as a threat to the creative process?

In my opinion, creation must be primordial. Therefore, I believe it is much better to have a duo – one person being in charge of creation and the other one being in charge of management. You have to adjust to one another, but the act of creation in the studio must be free of business concerns. You can learn to be a good manager, but you cannot learn to become a great designer. You either have it, or you don’t.

Is fashion art?

When fashion is creative, it is art. That is why today you find it in museums. There are fantastic fashion exhibitions.

In recent years, a lot of designers have been exploring new ways to show their collections, whether by staging a presentation or using online formats. Will the catwalk show soon become a thing of the past?

The fashion show will always exist. After all, the body is the support of fashion. A fashion designer expresses himself on the body the way a painter expresses himself on the canvas.

“You can learn to be a good manager, but you cannot learn to become a great designer. You either have it, or you don’t.”

What was the most fascinating or most provocative fashion show you have ever seen? 

I loved Thierry Mugler in 1984 at the Zenith in Paris. It was a huge event with 6,000 people in the audience. It was very theatrical and it totally changed the way of showing a collection.

Many of the designers you worked with became famous for their radical visions Mugler for new, sculptural silhouettes; Yves Saint Laurent for women in men’s suits. The current zeitgeist seems to be characterised by an attitude of ‘anything goes’, where style is treated in terms of aesthetics only. Is it still possible to make fashion that is socially relevant today?

If a créateur is inventive and changing the history of fashion, then yes. A designer must export and introduce his ideas to different contexts. If he is only designing for his own market, that is not enough. The designers coming from Japan or India who are part of the Paris calendar don’t show the same line they show in their home countries. When Yohji Yamamoto first came to Paris with his label Y’s, the collection he showed was very much in rupture with what he showed in Tokyo. Today, we have 25 nationalities represented in the official calendar.

Let’s talk a little more about the calendar and the system of seasons. Recently, there has been much debate about the unsustainable pace of the industry and the extreme pressure exerted on the designer. Is there a need to reform the system?

It is true that if you do eight lines, you simply don’t have the time to sit back and wait and think. But it is not an obligation, so I am a little reluctant about the current debate. Dries van Noten, for instance, never did inter-seasonal collections – he always took the time to perfect his main collections. Each label needs to choose its own strategy.

What would your advice be for young designers wanting to start out in couture? Do the fashion schools provide them with the necessary tools?

There is no rule. For some, starting out in couture does work. In fact, it can be the most inexpensive way of presenting a collection. You don’t need to pattern it and you don’t need to produce it. But in Paris, up until now, we only take on designers who are also expressing themselves in ready-to-wear and refuse designers who are only doing couture. Today, ready-to-wear and couture are complementary.

“For some, starting out in couture does work. In fact, it can be the most inexpensive way of presenting a collection. You don’t need to pattern it and you don’t need to produce it.”

You must have seen many young labels start out and possibly also fail. In your opinion, what are some of the common mistakes young designers make?

My personal opinion is that fashion shows should only exist in companies that already have a clientele. Presenting a ready-to-wear collection from scratch, without having a client to support it, is extremely dangerous and risky. At the beginning, it makes much more sense to present a collection at a showroom and to have a fashion show only later when a designer really needs to have coverage. This is why we launched a new concept at the Fédération called Designers’ Apartment, which invited ten designers every season to register their orders, receive the press. Only when they have enough clients to justify the fashion show, which is very costly, should they do it.

As someone who for decades has worked with ‘luxury brands’, how do you define luxury?

Perfect quality, rarity in the distribution, and control at all points of management, distribution and service.

Now that you no longer have official responsibilities in the Fédération, do you still closely follow the world of fashion? Or are there other interests that you like to pursue now?

I am still very excited by designers I love. I also recently was elected as the Président de L’Association des Amis du Centre Pompidou, which is extraordinarily active institution. Art is another interest of mine and I am happy to take part in it.

Words Ella Wolf Illustration Edén Barrena