I've seen the sticker prices on Manolos at the new shoe salon at Barneys, and I can remember when Carrie Bradshaw picked hers up for just $385. We all paid less than a grand for Balenciaga's tasseled leather Arena bag back when Kate Moss, Sienna Miller, and the Olsens made it famous, and now, a decade later, it goes for about $1,500. That prices for accessories have skyrocketed is a rather well-documented, and for fashion fans a rather bracing, fact of life.
Still, I'm surprised to see dresses—not couture dresses, not demi-couture dresses, but off-the-rack frocks—selling for five figures on several different e-commerce sites. How did this happen? Who's responsible? What makes a ready-to-wear dress worth so much? And aren't we in the middle of a great recession?
To find some answers, I went to the source: Net-a-Porter, which is currently selling dresses by Kaufman Franco, Valentino, and Azzaro that are, respectively, $5, $50, and $815 shy of $10,000, and earlier this summer was offering even more frocks for above that eye-popping figure. Holli Rogers, the site's fashion director, traces the trend to Alexander McQueen's Fall 2010 show, the last collection he designed before he died and one that became immensely desirable in the wake of his suicide.
"Until then, we really hadn't looked into offering five-figure items," she said, "but the McQueen showpieces ushered in a level of price not previously tapped, and with that success we continued." In May, I saw a Sarah Burton-designed McQueen gown selling on the site for $28,950. In this case, though, customers weren't paying a premium for a dress from a posthumously released collection. Instead, they were paying for the cost of materials, the intricacy of the cut, the handmade details, and the labor. Rogers points out, "Most products at this level are made in Europe, where the cost of labor is much higher." (High enough to justify the same price tag as a midsize car? Hard to know given that most labels prefer to keep their cost structures to themselves. Then again, have you seen how ugly most midsize cars are these days?)
The house of McQueen is hardly the only member of the five-figure club, of course. Balmain and Marchesa also do well on Net-a-Porter at these prices, says Rogers. Indeed, part of what created the "Balmainia" phenomenon of 2009 and 2010 were the crazy amounts commanded by Christophe Decarnin's creations. "You have to bear in mind that Balmain is formerly an haute couture house," the house's CEO, Alain Hivelin, told me, when I called to ask about its pricing strategy. "We decided to dedicate our creativity to ready-to-wear, but with a couture spirit."
In the wake of Decarnin's abrupt departure last year, Hivelin installed the then 25-year-old Olivier Rousteing and subsequently expanded the label's price range. You'll see more jackets at or around €1,500 on Balmain racks these days, but it's still selling exceptional gowns for €30,000. Pointing to a dress handwoven from natural raffia in the Resort collection, Hivelin said, "Maybe it's not profitable, but this is the image of the house. These pieces are the DNA of the brand."
Another factor fueling the trend? To hear Cameron Silver, who sells vintage couture at Decades in L.A., tell it: It's our own twisted psychology. Recounting a situation that he's often witnessed at his ten-year-old boutique, he says, "Someone will go, 'Oh my gosh, this dress is $400, it's too cheap.' There is a perceived value in something that's higher priced." Add another zero, the theory goes, and the item has a better chance of selling.
Big cities—and the big-spending flocks of global super-rich that congregate there—are the big markets for these dresses. And perhaps not surprisingly, more often than not, they're sold in brick-and-mortar shops, not online. "We want the customer to see it, touch it, try it on. That's the way [we think] she'll buy it," says Balmain's Hivelin. But whether they're shopping on foot or online, what these clients have in common are their exceptional relationships with their personal shoppers.
Says Net-a-Porter's Rogers: "Our personal shoppers will notify special customers if something unique or in limited supply is about to arrive. Many of them make the purchase without hesitation, knowing the opportunity will be gone if they wait. No one wants to run into someone else wearing the same dress." And this, from Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus: "We have a lot of customers who almost have a curatorial, collector's approach. When they see, say, an amazing coat, it's like buying a piece of art. We seek out those special pieces for them." Citing labels like Chanel, Tom Ford, Valentino, and Chado Ralph Rucci, Downing goes on, "We're not buying a lot of one particular style. We might buy three or four of a single dress." In the case of a $40,000 "jellyfish" gown from Alexander McQueen's Spring 2003 collection, the store bought and sold only one.
If a woman's willing to spend $40,000 on a runway dress, why isn't she buying couture and the atelier fittings and perfect fits that come with it? It's a question I asked Christine Chiu, whom I met along with her husband, Dr. Gabriel Chiu of Beverly Hills Plastic Surgery, at the Paris haute couture shows last month. "Talent is talent, genius is genius, and superb craftsmanship is obvious—whether in a five-figure ready-to-wear piece or in a haute couture dress," she told me. "Part of the attraction for me in purchasing couture is the experience of being measured in the atelier, meeting with the couturier, and being a part of the creation process, where every stitch, hemline, adornment, and detail is purposed specifically for you." That said, Chiu goes on, "ironically, sometimes customer service can be lost in translation with couture houses as you are working on their time, in their space, and according to their traditions."
Monique Lhuillier, for her part, has been selling dresses in the five-figure category since she expanded into ready-to-wear from bridal ten years ago and will continue to do so when her New York City flagship opens on 71st Street off of Madison Avenue next month. "It's a small part of my business, but it's big enough that I know every season I have to have it," she says. "Custom orders take three to five months, but women don't shop that way anymore. They come in on a Monday night for a party that weekend."
Lhuillier just might be on to something. Yes, traditional haute couture is enjoying a renaissance, with Donatella Versace back on the runway, Chanel's ateliers experiencing their "best year ever," and Raf Simons reviving the house of Dior. But maybe these days the ultimate luxury is couture quality at the speed of the Internet.