Christian Lacroix: haute couture's 'Messiah' heads for the wilderness

A French court has ruled that Christian Lacroix close his Paris salon after racking up hefty losses. Its demise is the strongest indicator yet of the crisis that haute couture is in.

All fairy tales have to end, and Christian Lacroix's was no exception, says The Guardian. A French court has ruled that the celebrated creator of the puffball skirt must close his Paris salon after racking up hefty losses. The once-mighty label, now owned by an American duty-free chain, has been reduced to a licensing shell for perfumes and accessories. From rue du Faubourg Saint-Honor to Luton Airport in a few bold strokes. Pouf!

So long to a wonderful designer, says The Independent. Lacroix, 58 once tipped to be the name to rival Yves Saint Laurent gave French fashion its most original moments. "Too original perhaps. A Lacroix dress often made its wearer look a few bananas short of a fruitbowl." A native of Arles in Provence, Lacroix had "undoubted genius", agrees The Times. "What he created was arresting, often ravishing, but also out of its time. He should have been designing for the court of Louis XVI." The demise of his house is perhaps the strongest indicator yet of the crisis that haute couture now finds itself in (see below). No wonder the French culture minister, Frdric Mitterrand, calls it a "cultural disaster".

What really hurts Lacroix is the loss of his name. "Whoever takes over the business can use it and abuse it as they like," he told The Sunday Telegraph. "But it's my father's name and my grandfather's name men who brought me up to have a rigid moral backbone."

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

But it was arguably Lacroix's refusal to sully his name that hastened his downfall. Unlike the savvy St Laurent he never got into his stride with prt a porter; and, unlike the revived houses of Balenciaga and Gucci, he never managed to turn his couture brand into a loss leader for profitable marginalia. He was "the designer who never made an 'it-bag'", notes Jezebel on Gawker Media. Even the gestures he did make including spending $40m on launching a perfume flopped. Lacroix had "neither the luck nor the intelligence to find himself a chief executive capable of turning his designs into gold", notes one former colleague.

As a child, Lacroix remembers being intoxicated by the coquetries of women. "My mother and her friends would wear these wonderful big 1950s puffball skirts and I would crawl around underneath them, breathing in their strong perfumes." After taking a history of art degree in Montpellier, he moved to Paris, eventually joining the house of Patou in 1981. It was there that he made his name, says The Guardian. Snapped up by Bernard Arnault for LVMH in 1987, Lacroix continued to whip up excitement at a time when couture was considered a dying art. The newspaper France Soir called him "a Messiah".

He describes himself as bisexual, and has been happily married to Francoise since 1974. He has "a rare, very un-French ability to send himself up", says The Sunday Telegraph: he is still best known in Britain as the designer idol of Edina and Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. ("It's Lacroix, sweetie, Lacroix.") Yet the loss of a designer of his stature is a huge blow for Paris. Many hope Christian Lacroix finds a new buyer and returns in triumph. But, for the moment, the maestro is in the wilderness.

The end for couture?

Christian Lacroix is surprisingly optimistic about the future of haute couture, which he describes as "stronger than me". Difficult periods from the French Revolution to the Second World War have always heralded new bursts of "creative reinvention", he observes. This recession will be no different.

The trouble is "haute couture is a losing game", says Lisa Armstrong in The Times "the language of yesterday". There simply aren't enough beluga-eating moneyed women to keep the dream of the $80,000 frock alive. What's more, the luxury industry propping the couturiers up is itself in trouble: LVMH is in 'entrench mode', Versace is cutting jobs, and Bain & Co forecasts that the industry is unlikely to recover before 2011.

There are still 15 haute couturiers in Paris, each supporting a small army of artisans and seamstresses, and vying for an estimated 500 customers globally, says The Observer. The most commercially successful such as newcomer Stphane Rolland have been targeting new markets in Asia and the Middle East. But recent events in Dubai won't have helped the mood of largesse there. The demise of Lacroix reflects a deep malaise "within a highly secretive industry, struggling to cope with changing times". Haute couture has lived dangerously for decades; this global recession might well mark its end.