Lacroix continued to lose money on both his ready-to-wear and haute couture collections, so lower-priced lines called Bazar and Jeans were launched, but Lacroix’s spirit was not well served by T-shirts or denim; what he does really only makes sense when executed opulently. On T-shirts and knits, it all just looked gaudy and sad.
In 22 years at LVMH, Lacroix went through eleven different presidents. But for Christian Lacroix, profit has never been the point. “Businessmen and market people are so far from artists and creative people,” Lacroix says now, regretfully. He is munching on a plate of pastel macarons from Ladurée, while outside there is the whir of military planes rehearsing for Bastille Day on the Champs-Élysées. “Mr. Arnault was the guy with the money. But perhaps the chemistry was not there. It’s this matter of alchemy, of being the same fit, the same rhythm, the same target, and too often it’s a matter of opposition, of war. I think they were very disappointed with me from the beginning because the fragrance was not successful, but it was not my fault. I think it happened when my name was not enough known. And then they signed away licenses without saving creativity. They much prefer to sign with people able to give them back a great amount of money than with people capable of understanding timeless passion. Perhaps LVMH focused only on numbers and bottom lines and was not happy with passions.” He grabs a pale-green macaron—pistachio—and stares into space for a moment. “In the end, you know, Mr. Lacroix had to shut his mouth.”
Four years ago, perhaps sensing the impending larger doom, Arnault gave up. He was involved in a transaction with a South Florida–based company called the Falic Group. The three (unfortunately named) Falic brothers acquired Urban Decay and Hard Candy—teenybopper beauty lines—and later wound up with Christian Lacroix as well, for a price Lacroix dismisses as far too little (the Falics did not return multiple calls for comment). Now the Falic brothers are attempting to sever their relationship, and Lacroix throws up his hands. He’s simultaneously—cue the accordion—philosophical and hopeful and nostalgic.
“Our last meeting was very moving,” he says about Arnault. “We said nothing sentimental, but it was tacit, not spoken, but we both knew. It was a pity.”
There is no equivalent in Italian or American or English culture to the haute couture.
Couture is an over- and misused word—too often, it gets slapped onto things as a catchall phrase meaning “fancy.” But what “haute couture” really means is clothing made entirely by hand, and haute couture refers only to the small group of designers who are members of a French trade group called the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne, which was founded in 1868. There are strict rules for membership in the Chambre Syndicale, regulating the number of original designs produced each year, as well as the number of trained specialists who work on those collections. These specialists declare their profession at 16 and take a specialized professional baccalaureate exam, followed by years of apprenticeship. Many of the members of the Chambre Syndicale have large, multinational companies backing them, absorbing the financial burden. Chanel, Givenchy, Valentino all still show haute couture, because to have such a division is still considered important for branding, like some sort of unbelievably expensive and rarefied biannual ad campaign. Indeed, at the Chanel haute couture show, just hours after Lacroix, the models marched in front of massive plastic renderings of perfume bottles, a grand merci, perhaps, to what makes it all possible. Standing on the set after the show, Karl Lagerfeld clasped his gloved little fingers together when asked about the future of haute couture and said, “When you’ve got $3 billion to lose, you are still rich.”
But there’s more to it than branding. Couture is a part of the French identity, like croissants and small dogs and moss-green chairs in the parks.
“Without couture,” says Lacroix, “no life is possible. Nothing. I remember being a teenager in ’69 and our president, Mr. Pompidou, said in a press conference, ‘The France of Camembert is over!’ He was wrong. Of course we are good for some computers and everything, but forever cheese and couture should be sanctified in this country. In Italy they have a very wonderful way of doing fashion, but it is deluxe ready-to-wear. It is not handmade; it is not the coquette. Everything about couture, it belongs to Paris.”
Lacroix’s atelier is off the Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré, clustered around a courtyard full of potted orange and palm trees, with awnings over the long French doors. CHRISTIAN LACROIX, says a door to the left, HAUTE COUTURE, says another. One day before Lacroix’s show, the sky is dark and there is also a tall woman with her white hair pulled back into a low chignon—Marie Seznec, Lacroix’s longtime muse. She is wearing an orange shift dress with an olive-green ribbon tied around her waist, an olive-green strand of beads around her neck, and she is sipping from a cup of just-squeezed carrot juice.