Thursday, September 24, 2009

When being on the couch is a good thing

The couture house of the 50's ' vendeuses' (saleswomen's) job was not an easy one. Vendeuses were responsible for their customer's orders, from making sure that the fabric was in stock, to supervising the fittings. They worked for years to make their way through the ranks, only to find themselves working long hours for a small base salary. They made more from their commission -- anywhere from 1-10% of the price of the dress, which sounds pretty good until you consider that the customer, being rich and fickle, could suddenly pull the plug on an almost finished dress which would never be bought.

The stories vendeuses could tell were, I'm sure, very harrowing, as the majority of their customers were mature women -- as time passed, the younger generations found themselves unwilling to pay the enormous prices for couture garments -- who knew how to play the game. The maturity of the customer brought a certain amount of entitlement and snobbery, but a vendeuse who irritated a customer could find herself without that customer or worse, without a job. They had to be masters at pleasing their uber-rich customers if they wanted to be successful.

One of the responsibilities that was fraught with peril for the vendeuse was the seating at the opening of a collection. There was no Bryant Park in the 50s -- shows were done in the couture houses which may have seating that was simply chairs in the salon. This was how Balenciaga and Gres chose to do their shows. Other couture houses, however, put one or two small couches amongst the chairs, and woe to the vendeuse who sat the wrong lady in a chair. A customer who wanted the seemingly more prestigous couch at the opening might bear a grudge against the couture house for years. Can you imagine the damage that could be done as these ladies lunched afterward? "Well, the nerve! Did you see that I was put on the chair in the second row? They will surely hear from me!" If those walls could talk......

Photo: design by Balenciaga.

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