By MEENAL MISTRY , courtesy of the WSJ.This fall, the promising young London designer Mary Katrantzou sold 18 units of her Jewel Tree dress. That might seem unremarkable until one catches a glimpse of it. Between the floral-print velvet top, padded crinoline peplum skirt and lattice of crystals and appliqued enameled roses, producing the garment required four studios (putting in more than 150 hours) and even made one seamstress cry. Next, consider that each dress cost $14,200. "These are really difficult pieces to make," said the designer from her studio in Islington.
But Ms. Katrantzou's Jewel Tree, inspired by Faberge eggs, is just one of many elaborate ready-to-wear items experiencing a life beyond the runway and magazine spreads.
As the fashion industry continues to question the relevance of the haute couture collections in a 4G-speed world, ready-to-wear designers are finding that there's increasing demand for their most exquisite and expensive pieces. The diverse list includes up-and-comers Jason Wu, Rodarte and Prabal Gurung as well as more established houses like Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Stella McCartney and Chanel.
Perhaps this new high-end side of ready-to-wear, referred to by many as demi-couture, is what couture looks like in the 21st century. These clothes have hefty price tags, which run from the mid-four figures into the fives, but are sold off the rack, typically through the usual retail channels. By contrast, haute couture, shown twice a year in Paris, is governed by strict rules set by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. The code dictates the minimum number of employees in an atelier (20) and the minimum number of looks in a show (25), and requires that garments be hand-sewn and made to clients' measurements.
But the customers who have the time to fly to Paris to sit through shows, lunch at Maxim's and visit designer ateliers for multiple fittings are few and far between these days. In contrast, pieces like Ms. Katrantzou's Jewel Tree or Ms. McCartney's damask lace and organza Pamela dress ($13,395), don't require fittings—they can be bought with a few clicks at retail website Net-a-porter.com and delivered to your door the next day.
Further evidence of the rise of halfway haute is Azzedine Alaïa's showing of what he called "semi-couture" during the fall couture season in July. This upgraded version of his ready-to-wear, which can be purchased as-is, was one of the week's highlights, eliciting superlatives all around. "It rendered me speechless," said Ikram Goldman, owner of the influential Chicago boutique Ikram, who was eager—along with stores like Barneys—to buy the collection.
Some attribute the trend, perhaps counterintuitively, to the shaky economy and to consumers wanting more bang for their buck. Matthew Williamson president Joseph Velosa reports, "Pieces over $5,000 now account for 6% of our business. To put that into context, two years ago we sold nothing at that price." He said that it could also be a reaction to the minimalist fare that has dominated the past few seasons. "Ever since 'La Crise,' designers are making sure that pieces are special," said Nicholas Mellamphy, buying director of luxe Toronto store The Room. "The customer wants value for their product. That's what the last two years have taught us."
The creation of such speciality pieces is also a way for high fashion to draw a line in the sand, placing knock-offs squarely on the other side. "Between all the designer collaborations and everything that's going on, we need to give people a reason to buy," said Mr. Wu who started using Parisian ateliers like Lemarié and Lesage, and lace mill Sophie Hallette, a few seasons ago. "There are some things that just can't be done for cheaper."
You certainly won't see the giant retail chain Zara reproducing Mr. Wu's houndstooth tweed overcoat with gold bullion embroidery ($15,000), nor for that matter Valentino's hand-painted lace gown with beaded and sequined flowers ($18,000), nor Chanel's gold sequinned prefall jacket ($23,010) that looks purloined from a Indian rajah's treasury. In fact, nearly all of the pieces in Chanel's pre-fall show qualify as demi-couture, since the collection—called Metier D'Arts—employs the traditional, highly specialized ateliers that the house bought in 2002 (Massaro for shoes, Michel for hats, Lesage for embroidery, Lemarie for feathers, Goossen for jewelry, Guillet for fabric flowers and Desrues for ornamentation).
While much of this phenomenon is about preserving tradition, technology has played a substantial role in selling these pieces. Today, clients can open their laptops and see for themselves what came down a runway. As a result, department stores such as Bergdorf Goodman get calls requesting certain pieces—often pieces they wouldn't buy otherwise. Bergdorf fashion director Linda Fargo says she sees an uptick in those calls particularly after popular shows like Alexander McQueen.
The name of the game is accessibility, with online retailers democratizing high fashion by offering five-figure dresses to women everywhere. "Our customer wants something really special that a lot of people won't have. That is very much the theme right now," said Áslaug Magnúsdóttir, CEO of the presale website Moda Operandi.
And with these kinds of prices, finding someone in the same gown at the same event is rare. "There's a customer who wants this stuff, but it's like one in each city," said Mr. Gurung, who's selling a hand-painted organza and braided chiffon gown ($15,000). "You hope to sell a lot, but five total is great."
Big brim hats are hot for fall 2011.