Haute couture is the pinnacle of fashion design. Literally translated as “high dressmaking”, a garment cannot be called “haute couture” unless it is hand-made in Paris. Couture represents the highest quality garment custom made by the most skilled artisans in the world. The pieces are shown during Paris couture fashion week and while the shows are watched by thousands of people, only a small handful of people actually purchase these items; with prices ranging from $10,000 to $500,000 it’s no wonder. Many celebrities turn to haute couture for their gowns for the evening -- think Rihanna’s extreme gowns at the Met Gala, Grammys or CFDA awards.
1848: Charles Frederick Worth creates the first house of couture to cater to wealthy women. Worth is noted in history as the first “fashion designer” as opposed to general dressmaker. Women came to him for his designs instead of commissioning their own ideas. He also had connections with the textile industry which gave him access to the finest and most elaborate fabrics.
1868: Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture was first established to protect high-fashion. Designers were required to earn the right to label themselves a couture house by adhering to a specific set of requirements.
1937: The U.S. Department of Agriculture prepared to conduct a study of women's body measurements for the purpose of creating a sizing system which the entire industry could follow. This led to the opposite of couture: pret-a-porter (ready to wear), standardized off-the-rack clothing that we’re all familiar with.
1945: New specifications of Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture were established:
- Designs must be made-to-order for private clients, with one or more fittings
- Each atelier (skilled workshop generally in the same city as the designer) must have at least 20 members of staff
- Each season, the couture house must present a collection of at least 35 runs with both daytime and evening wear to the Paris press.
1947: France’s fashion industry was successfully revived from wartime austerity with Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ collection. At this point there are over a hundred couture houses.
1970: The number of couture houses dropped to just 19 (there were 106 in 1946). Many designers attributed blame to the strict rules from Le Chambre Syndicale de La Haute Couture, demanding conditions unsustainable after the war when mass-production was popular and couture clientele diminishing.
2014: Christian Dior brought the first haute couture show to Shanghai and Ralph & Russo joined as the first British brand in over 100 years of Couture Fashion Week.
2015: A total of 13 fashion houses showed on the autumn/winter 14-15 couture schedule in Paris.
- Stephane Rolland
- Maison Martin Margiela
- Viktor & Rolf
- Ralph & Russo
- Elie Saab
- Jean Paul Gaultier
- Yiqing Yin
- Serkan Cura
- Alexis Mabille
At this point you’re probably wondering how couture is even still around! It’s clearly suffering as the number of houses dropped from over 100 to a mere 13; an understandable result since the costs are so extreme. Most fashion companies actually lose money on their couture lines (Chanel is the only house that claims to make a profit). Even the shows are extravagant and pricey. In Dior’s Fall/Winter 2012 show, the walls of the show space were lined in over one million fresh flowers; Chanel’s 2012 couture show took place in a recreated airplane where guests sat in the seats and the models strutted down the aisle. The magic of these shows is what makes them important. Not only does the head designer get to experiment with the designs of their dreams without caring about the commercial viability, but it creates a pyramid structure to the business that makes the companies successful. Couture is at the top of the pyramid then lower down is ready-to-wear (the designer clothes you see at a department store on the rack) which takes its inspiration from the themes of the couture show. Below that are the accessories and fragrances (which is where all the money is). We see the dream created by the fine art of couture and the average person wants to buy into it. Chanel keeps its cachet with the couture collections which makes us want to buy the comparatively affordable bags or Chanel No. 5 fragrance. From a business perspective the couture shows are really just a large marketing push for their smaller items. Instead of selling a few expensive garments, these companies cash in by selling a lot of their cheaper items.
Many of the present patrons of haute couture remain adamant about the artistic value of couture. They invest in these garments not only because of their custom-fit and decadent designs but to invest as they would in a piece of contemporary art. In the BBC documentary The Secret World of Haute Couture (available on YouTube) Margy Kinmonth noted that most of the women she interviewed hardly wore the couture pieces they owned! Many of them only wore them out of the house once or twice. It seems like such a waste for a $20,000 garment. She then discovered that the women could keep these dresses they adored so much then one day they could donate the garments to a museum for their artistic value (and get a nice tax break). For those that see clothing as art, haute couture is the purest form and these women are patrons. Chanel even posts videos on their YouTube channel of the garments being made (after the fact, of course) that show the intense amount of craftsmanship involved in each piece.
Like what you read? Subscribe here