Fashion nowadays isn’t so much about selling dreams or creativity, it’s about shifting products. Just look at behemoths like Amazon and Yoox Net-a-Porter, who apply their customer data and sales analytics to inform their private label collections, which they design not out of love for the craft, but to increase the bottom line.
So if at one end of the fashion spectrum we have retail’s private labels, contrived to achieve higher margins, fill in retail gaps and is ‘designed’ to sell, at the other end we have haute couture: the pinnacle of fashion dreams and fantasy, artistry and craft without limitations. And indeed, not based on data analytics.
Specialized Roles in Couture
The couture house workrooms are carefully distributed according to sewing techniques. The sewing staff are divided between two areas: dressmaking (flou), for dresses and draped garments based upon feminine dressmaking techniques, or tailoring (tailleur), for suits and coats utilizing male tailoring techniques of construction. The staff work according to a hierarchy of skills ranging from the première, head dressmaker or tailor, to apprentices. The selling areas, salons, are equally controlled and run by the vendeuse, saleswoman, who sells the designs to clients and negotiates the fabrication and fittings with the workrooms.
The British-trained tailor and dressmaker Charles Frederick Worth is commonly credited as being the “father” of haute couture. What was radical in the mid-nineteenth century was that a male was creating women’s fashion. This situation required intimacy between a dressmaker and client and had previously been a female-dominated profession. Worth’s designs also commanded high prices that were a substantial investment in the garment itself and his associated and recognizable design style. This significant shift established the profession of fashion designer of women’s garments as a suitable and profitable one for men. Worth worked directly with the French silk weaving industry to access and promote the original, luxury textiles that were a signature of his production. His clientele included the nobility of European courts as well as the new Haute bourgeoises who followed his advice on appropriate dress for day to evening wear. Worth and his contemporaries, particularly Doucet, introduced innovations that have become standards for haute couture establishments, they created luxurious Paris salons to which wealthy clients came rather than the couturier visiting his patrons at their homes; they created artistic designs from which clients could select and that were made to measure; they also employed live mannequins who modelled the designs for private individuals. Thus the haute couture system of luxury dressmaking production was created.
Haute couture has been around since 1858. When the first Haute Couture house was established in Paris by Charles Frederick, it has also been around when the Queen of France at the time, Marie Antoinette, when she was having garments made to fit her and her only which naturally carried on throughout French history and has evolved to what it is now. It’s a very particular way of making garments, not like when creating Ready to wear. It’s very expensive and extremely time-consuming due to the people behind the making of the clothing who are experts in their craft. The French have a whole has been known to be the best garment makers in the world even compared to other great garment makers in Milan and London which is what Haute Couture stems from. Haute Couture is the most expensive and holds the most “fashionable” pieces designed by fashion houses. Since then, Haute Couture has evolved, and it continues to. Since it is extremely expensive to where it’s not accessible to the average person and even to some of the upper class, there’s an estimation that there are about 4,000 people or less that buy Haute Couture consistently. In Haute Couture there’s Ateliers, which are very skilled pattern cutters and seamstresses who then meet in a studio with the client who the garment is being made for, usually requiring multiple fittings to ensure that the piece fits that one client and that client only. The difference between Couture and Haute Couture is that the word “Couture” is just French for “dressmaking”. While adding the word “Haute” before couture meaning “High”. The average price for A Haute Couture piece depends on what the client wants, and the levels of embellishment added. For day-to-day wear, it would start at about $20,000, and for bridal, it starts at about $100,000 for a garment. Many people may these prices are fucking ridiculous, well at first glance yes, but are they that crazy? How much do people spend on an art piece say a painting or a sculpture from an auction, it would be around the same range if not even much, much, much more depending on the artist. It’s like buying an art piece, depending on your perception of how you define art. In my eyes, I’d say the client buying the Haute Couture piece spending $150,000 on an evening gown is like the buyer purchasing an Andy Warhol piece from an auction to add to their collection of fine art.
Growth of Haute Couture Salons
The 1950s were years of huge profits and press and the continuation and emergence of new haute couture salons. The most important, and largest, houses in terms of production were those of Christian Dior, Pierre Balmain, and Jacques Fath. The postwar years continued and consolidated the prewar situation that was shifting the economic basis of the houses from private sales to the commercial buyers. The large market for haute couture was as a design source. Couture was copied and adapted to limited editions, or line for line copies, a process that began in the 1930s, as well as for mass-market fashions. Haute couture houses sold the original models as well as toiles (muslins) and paper patterns, all of which was regulated by the Chambre Syndicale.
The Use of Toile
A couturier’s design was usually first created in inexpensive muslin, called a toile, to perfect the design, cut, and fit. These toiles record the exact cut and sewing techniques and include samples of the inter-linings, linings, and fabric required in the final garment. Paper patterns were also used to replicate designs.
This situation stimulated many new initiatives from the Paris couture to control their designs and for the design houses to directly profit from them. Christian Dior began his licensing arrangements with Christian Dior, New York, and Jacques Fath entered into the American ready-to-wear market with Joseph Halpert. Increasingly couturiers opened boutiques within their couture salons in order to sell less expensive versions of their haute couture lines as well as accessories, a development begun by Paul Poiret in the early twentieth century. The society Les Couturiers associés, founded in 1950 by Jacques Fath, Robert Piguet, Jean-Marc Paquin, Marie-Louise Carven, and Jean Dessès, was a precursor to the creation of prêt-à-porter designed by couturiers who sold readymade designs to French department stores. A similar initiative, Le Prêt-à-porter Création (1958-1962), was directly aimed at international buyers and press. It ceased as ready-to-wear collections by couture houses became firmly established. However, the successful governance of the Chambre Syndicale over the couture houses, and its huge success during the 1950s is reflected in prosperity of the haute couture that in 1959 exported garments worth 20 million francs and 3,000 workers were employed on a full-time basis, totalling 100,000 hours per week for most of the year.
The Paris haute couture system was such a successful formula for attracting sales, prestigious clients, commercial buyers, and international press that all other couture organizations were based upon this French model. In 1942, the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers was formed in England; in Spain, during World War II the Cooperativa de Alta Costura was formed in Barcelona; the first Italian couture collective was shown in Florence in 1951, and the Association of Canadian Couturiers was founded in 1954. However, no other nation managed to create an haute couture industry that was as prestigious or economically important as Paris. The French system was historically based on its luxury textile industry and its ancillary industries of beading, embroidery, ribbons, and lace as well as its highly skilled artisans
The craft base of haute couture was financially difficult to maintain in an increasingly industrialized society. The numbers of couture house fell from 106 in 1946 to 19 by 1970. The establishment of quotas and high customs duties resulted in radical declines of haute couture exports and served to intensify the commercialization of rights for reproduction and licensing agreements. In 1953-1954, Pierre Cardin presented his first prêt-àporter collection and made it a separate department within the house in 1963. In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent created Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, the first freestanding couture boutique. Sociocultural shifts and an emphasis on youthful fashion instead of designs for mature women caused the breakdown of uniformity in the women’s wear market. They resulted in the Haute couture’s departure as the only or leading source for international fashion design. The more profitable ready-to-wear market necessitated new initiatives for the haute couture houses, which began to create unique, less expensive non-couture lines marketed with labels associated with the prestige of the haute couture house.
Many journalists and the general public (the ones interested in the fashion industry) they keep themselves updated, having to come on to write about how Haute Couture is dying, which is completely untrue because to me personally, it can’t die. A piece that is made for an individual that some clients have described couture to be like their “2nd skin” to be gone so randomly wouldn’t make much sense. Although, yes, there are not very many people in the world who buy Haute Couture consistently, that doesn’t diminish the fact that there will always be a buyer. I assume that’s where I differ with those who do think couture can be dismissed so easily. Haute Couture has been around for many decades. There will always be women, very, very wealthy women coming in demanding a certain piece that makes them feel powerful and exclusive, which they can’t find in ready to wear. Imagine a woman walking into an event and seeing another woman with the same garment on from that same collection. Now would that be awkward? Or would you embrace it? It makes a woman feel something that no one else can feel because of the sense of individuality that couture gives to the client. Even if the couture runway shows are not being presented, there will not be women taking their business to their favourite couture house for perfectly fitted garments that make them feel 1/1, it’s what you can’t get from RTW.
By the late 20th century, designers such as Christian Lacroix, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Theirry Mugler started their own couture houses, but due to the high expense of producing these collections, Lacroix and Mugler dropped their couture collection.
In today’s fast-paced, fast-fashion oriented world, where such a small percentage of the population has the wealth to buy Haute Couture, how do these houses survive? The answer is luxury shoes & handbags, fragrances and cosmetics! While it once was true that the couture was a way for designers to try out new ideas, today couture shows serve as a vehicle for brand marketing and publicity. Yes, it’s true, some of these clothes are ordered by a small number of wealthy women or loaned to celebs for a walk on the Red Carpet, but by and large, it’s about brand-building. Those who can’t afford the hefty price tag of a couture gown can purchase ‘a piece of the dream’ via a couture houses’ perfume, lipstick, ready-to-wear, shoes and bags.
Couture is thriving
While many have been quick to lament the imminent death of couture, nothing could be further from the truth. No longer on the endangered species list, haute couture is alive and well and appealing to an entirely new generation of clients. It is no longer solely for the aristocratic or old-moneyed Mademoiselles and mesdames, even if the cost of buying lies only within reach of a wealthy minority.
For anyone following the shows, the couture calendar is having a renaissance of sorts, with established houses including Balmain, Givenchy and reportedly Celine all returning to their haute couture roots. The Chambre Syndicale de la haute couture sets strict criteria for its classifications of couture, counting just 14 members alongside a host of guest designers each season.
Of course, there are very few individuals who can afford this level of luxury. While most houses shy away from publishing their prices, a gown from the Valentino runway, for example, can easily cost 80,000 pounds, and that is likely not one with elaborate embroidery or beading.
But costs aside, haute couture is the only fashion week where true artistry and craft are allowed to shine without the constraints of commercialism. Where else can you see clothes that require hundreds of hours and meticulous detail to be made? Whereas the high street so easily copies ready-to-wear collections, they are designed to be made in factories in high volumes, not by seamstresses and ateliers, where it can take days or even weeks to finish a single garment.
But haute couture is not only relevant because of creative possibilities. It is a celebration of skills and craft that must be honed, sustained and kept alive. Haute couture, and ateliers at large, employ thousands of specialists, tailors, craftsman and seamstresses, who are skilled at techniques that would otherwise be a dying art form. Who then would make the beads, feathers, hats and gowns that allow us to dream?
Who knows what the future holds for the business of haute couture. And who knows how many porte-monnaies sur pattes, or “walking purses,” as haute couture clients are jocosely referred to, will continue to spend their disposable income on indispensable clothes. But if ready-to-wear has lost its brilliance, then haute couture seeks more and more opulence. And that should be enough to attract future generations who are bewitched by anything that runs counter to current customs.