Within hours of Marc Bohan's first haute couture show for Hartnell yesterday, Eleanor Lambert was firing off faxes from London, with snippets about who was there ("Joan Collins in a large white chiffon turban") and which of the designer's 50 ensembles drew raves ("a group of white damask suits brought down the house"). It was a curious gesture, perhaps, pumped with an old-fashioned tone of cabled urgency. But Lambert, the consummate publicist, was not about to let a war get in the way of what was supposed to be the fashion event of the season.
Of course, none of Bohan's American patrons -- Ivana Trump, Georgette Mosbacher, Lynn Wyatt, Judy Taubman -- had made it for the afternoon show in Claridge's ballroom. Princess Firyal of Jordan had canceled at the last minute too because of the war. Nevertheless, Hartnell's owner, Manny Silverman, was sanguine as usual. "It's regrettable, but, considering the circumstances, understandable," he said. "One should expect prudence to prevail."
In London and Paris, where the spring haute couture shows are underway, the talk has been of war, or, more specifically, how war has zapped the usual enthusiasm for viewing grand clothes in pretty ballrooms. "Don't you think it seems frivolous?" asked a New York retailing executive, who hadn't thought so until now.
Yet even in better times, before recession took its separate toll, haute couture was a peculiar ritual -- a money-losing venture supported by fewer than 2,500 patrons worldwide and a fashion press eager for novelty. In December, Balmain shut down its couture business, admitting that losses were too great to carry on. And while the Middle Eastern and American clients who stayed away this week may return discreetly for fittings next month, there's a feeling -- perhaps exaggerated by current events -- that a tradition is dying. "These are the last days of haute couture," Pierre Berge, the chairman of Yves Saint Laurent, announced in somewhat characteristic Gallic gloom. "Women don't need it anymore."
So what is Manny Silverman up to?
First, the ebullient Cockney buys the real estate -- the fading Mayfair townhouse where Sir Norman Hartnell once reigned over his pistachio green salon -- with Roy Dixon, a partner who wishes to remain so silent that even Silverman occasionally says "he doesn't exist." Next, they acquired the 68-year-old fashion business, near bankruptcy and oblivion in 1987, but its reputation still intact after years of faithfully outfitting the queen, the queen mother and a string of royals who wanted ballgowns and deb dresses that were, well, royal. The queen's warrant wasn't exactly an endorsement, however, in the bouffant '80s.
"Don't think for a minute that Hartnell is a household name in England," cautions a longtime British fashion journalist. "It just isn't."
But then last June, after flubbing for several seasons with different designers, Silverman hired Bohan, the internationally known couturier at Christian Dior. The British press quickly called the Bohan deal -- reportedly worth $1.7 million to the 63-year-old Frenchman -- a coup for both Silverman and British fashion. For one thing, Bohan would almost certainly attract his former Dior customers -- a shiny sheet of devotees headed by Princess Caroline of Monaco. But British fashion editors had their sights set on an even more influential customer.
"Perhaps Bohan will attract a new royal patron to Hartnell," wrote one editor, "for his spare, unfussy style could prove perfect for the Princess of Wales."
If Silverman and Bohan seemed as different as chalk and cheese -- one scrappy and glib, the other reserved and meticulously French -- they had at least one thing in common. Silverman had risen to the top of Moss Bros. from a teenage apprenticeship in the tailoring rooms at the British haberdashery. So he knew the nuts and bolts of the rag trade, or as one fashion veteran observed, "You could drop Manny Silverman in the middle of Seventh Avenue and the only difference would be the accent." Bohan, too, had spent most of his career with one company, the venerable chez Dior, where haute couture sales were the highest of any French house. Yet both were indecorously sacked, Silverman in the mid-'80s and Bohan as recently as 1989 when the Italian designer Gianfranco Ferre was given his job at Dior.
"There is a shared feeling," says Silverman, "of starting over again."
Fashion is a peculiarly optimistic undertaking, perpetuated by massive doses of PR and by people, like Silverman, willing to lose millions in the hopes of becoming a major player. This was, after all, the success formula of the '80s. With lucrative licenses for fragrances and accessories, distributed to a global network of boutiques, designers amassed fortunes. They could afford to subsidize haute couture operations and even, in some cases, their ready-to-wear lines. The thinking was, and still is, that couture was the ultimate seducer, enticing women to buy into a designer's carefully packaged image by buying his lipsticks and pantyhose.
In Silverman and those around him, one hears that familiar refrain of optimism. "As I used to say at the Brothers Moss," he recounts, "nobody is going to come through that door with a pound for a 50-pence piece. We felt Hartnell was a first-division club drawing third-division crowds. We needed a superstar. Marc Bohan was the obvious choice."
That's quintessential Silverman, the East Ender who spikes his quotes with the dry wit of someone who knows when to bluff. "We've really got to get our skates on," he says when asked about plans to launch a ready-to-wear line this fall. On reviving a frumpy fashion label: "Certainly, as a house, Hartnell is not in the first flush of youth." On the prospect of spending millions: "It brings a tear to the eyes but a smile to the lips." At least nobody could accuse Manny Silverman of being stuffy.
"He's very endearing," admits Lisa Armstrong, fashion editor of the Independent in London.
It seems that more than a few people have been convinced that Silverman can not only revive Hartnell but British couture along with it. Though English fashion has occasionally been accused of resembling a lumpy mash of Mod revivalism, post-punk sleaze and the parlor curtains, there are a number of small but successful couture designers in London. And the thinking seems to be that Bohan's international presence may rub off on them. "I think people here are very excited about Bohan coming here," says Armstrong. "Our couture is always seen as a poor relation to the French."
In any case, few in the business doubt Bohan's ability to make chic clothes for understated women, or to draw social fixtures to London instead of Paris. "I think there's no doubt that Marc Bohan will have a big success with his clients," predicts Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune. "They were mortified by his departure from Dior."
Says Lambert, who engineered the Bohan-Hartnell match: "Marc's a designing snob, which is the best kind, because something always filters down to the ordinary woman. That's the choo-choo."
Yet there remains a sense, muffled in the euphoria of Bohan's debut yesterday but heard in the wartime gloom, that the timing is off. "I think Manny Silverman has a great deal going for him," said one observer, "but it's all come too late. The luxury market isn't the great moneymaker that it was in the '80s. And I would very much doubt that Hartnell has the kind of money you need to pull this off."
Some wonder, rather bluntly, if an old fashion hand can revive an old house. "Marc has the clientele, but his were not the kind of innovations at Dior that ever started a trend," says an American retailer who routinely attends the couture shows. "And who's heard of Hartnell in the last 20 years? We would never have been interested in this were it not for the fact that his going to Hartnell made a story."
But who knows? In Lambert's faxes came the familiar hum of approval, the click and clack of fashion once again spinning its fantasies in shades of coral and pink. "The collection is young and colorful but never strident," she wrote. "He has stripped away all the chichi, fuss and flamboyance of the '80s."
Or as Silverman, ever the optimist, would put it: "There's always a better time. I believe that when you're committed to your stroke, then you have to play it through."