PARIS — During a recession, how do you hawk a dress that costs more than many cars?
That's the dilemma facing the handful of luxury labels that still craft haute couture _ the collections of sumptuous, wildly expensive garments made-to-measure for an elite cadre of the world's ultra-rich.
During the bull market, labels considered couture lines and their showcases _ lavish, media-saturated catwalk displays that started this week in Paris _ to be headline-grabbing investments that helped bolster sales of more accessible ready-to-wear collections and accessories, perfume and cosmetics lines.
But with the luxury industry reeling from the global financial crisis, the future of haute couture _ and its euro20,000--plus (US$28,000) dresses _ looks anything but certain.
In May, couturier Christian Lacroix launched insolvency proceedings, raising the specter that the label, whose dazzling cocktail dresses in eye-popping colors have come to epitomize _ almost define _ couture, could close up shop.
The words "haute couture" are often tossed around casually, but in France there are formal, legal guidelines that define the practice, dictating a minimum number of original designs as well as a baseline number of technical workers.
There are currently only 11 full-fledged members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. With its correspondents and guests there are two dozen designers on this week's official schedule of catwalk shows.
Designer Ralph Rucci, an American invited to Paris as a guest in the early 2000s, has since returned to the New York catwalks, mostly for financial reasons. Rucci said he believes couture is still viable, but added that Lacroix erred by failing to balance it with ready-to-wear.
"He never fully had the opportunity to expand into ready-to-wear in the way that he should have," he said.
A Paris commercial court has placed Lacroix in receivership, setting a six-month observation period to see whether the label _ which has never in its 22-year-long history made a profit _ can turn itself around. Lacroix slashed costs for his normally over-the-top runway show on Tuesday, inviting only a fraction of the usual number of guests.
"For us, the crisis is like an earthquake, and some houses are going to fall," said designer Stephane Rolland, who launched his eponymous haute couture line about 2 1/2 years ago. "It would be too sad if Lacroix were among those houses because what he does is pure art. I simply cannot believe he'll be permitted to fall."
Still, pillars of couture have crumbled before. Elsa Schiapparelli, an extravagant Italian aristocrat who made fashion history in the 1920s and '30s, folded following World War II, as did legendary French label Madeleine Vionnet.
Balmain, which marked the heyday of couture from the postwar period through the late '50s, went through a period of turmoil after shedding its haute couture line, and more recently reinvented itself as a red-hot pret-a-porter label.
Other designers, like Nina Ricci and Emanuel Ungaro, continue to struggle to find their footing since shuttering their loss-making couture lines. For such labels, giving up haute couture has proven akin to giving up their raison d'etre.
Couture is where designers unleash their creativity, using the finest materials and techniques without regard for the bottom line. Styles that debut here often trickle quickly down to retail consumers _ albeit in simplified, mass-market variations.
Though these are the most turbulent times couturiers have faced in recent years, observers have long predicted the death of haute couture.
"Rumors of couture's demise have always been in the wind, despite growth spurts now and then," said the Town & Country magazine's editor-in-chief, Pamela Fiori.
In e-mailed comments to The Associated Press, Fiori said couture's customer base is shrinking. Houses that used to cater to European aristocrats and American royalty, like Jackie Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor and the late New York socialite Nan Kempner, have in recent decades increasingly turned to a Middle Eastern and Russian clientele.
The couture customer shouldn't be confused with a rich woman carrying an "it" bag or a starlet in borrowed clothes, said Rucci. "We're talking about customers _ and they don't hire publicists. They wear couture in each other's homes and in restaurants. I love when they come in and say, `Can I take this coat and turn it into a pair of pants?'"
Still, noted Fiori, "the reality is that women _ even wealthy women _ are not spending extravagant amounts of money on articles of clothing," she said, adding that by extravagant "I don't mean under $10,000, which is expensive enough, I am talking about outfits costing $40,000 or $50,000."
Women who were once bought tailor-made clothes have been turning to high-end ready-to-wear. Plus, because fashion moves so quickly, many women feel they can no longer afford to invest weeks in multiple fittings for a couture piece.
Another challenge is the dwindling talent pool of artisans. An aging pool of traditional "petites mains," or "little hands," toil in cramped ateliers, hand-stitching the swathes of shimmering sequins or the bursts of silk-petaled roses that make couture, well, couture. A single special piece can require as many as 500 hours of painstaking labor.
It's hard to attract young craftsmen to this low-paying, fiddly work, and it's this diminishing savoir-faire _ and not the crisis _ which threatens couture in the long run, some insist.
In an effort to preserve the artisans' skills, Chanel reached into its deep pockets, buying out a handful of speciality companies that the couture house depends on. Fiori of Town & Country sees major players like Chanel as a beacon of hope _ the "big boys" who may be couture's only salvation.
"Keeping couture alive is, at this point, about making a deep investment and a long-term commitment. So far, few companies seem willing to do that," Fiori wrote. "We can be grateful to those that do."
Associated Press Writer Samantha Critchell in New York contributed to this report.