Yves Saint Laurent once said, “Haute couture consists of secrets whispered from generation to generation. If, in ready-to-wear, a garment is manufactured according to standard sizes, the haute couture garment adapts to any imperfection in order to eliminate it.” This beautiful account of haute couture could not be truer today for the beauty and quality of its product remains the same. With Spring 2017 couture week concluding in January and Fall 2017 couture week slated for July, this article intends to shed light on the relevance and the history of haute couture.
Haute couture originated in the mid-19th century when English fashion designer Charles Frederick Worth, who was working in Paris, began creating magnificent gowns for an exclusive class of clients, including royalty. Shortly thereafter, a French governing body called the French Ministry of Industry was founded in 1868 because other designers also began creating what is now known as haute couture. To become an haute couture designer, a fashion designer must be a member of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which is now part of the French Ministry of Industry, and meet its rigorous guidelines.
Most importantly, fashion houses must provide custom made-to-order designs to private clients with one or more private fittings. They must also have a Paris-based atelier, which means workshop or studio, with more than twenty full-time staff. Additionally, each season (in January and July), the designer must unveil a collection with a minimum of fifty original creations each year (or twenty-five each season), featuring both day wear and evening wear. Simply put, “haute couture” is a legally protected term and fashion houses are only granted the designation by the French Ministry of Industry once these conditions are met.
Does haute couture still fit into the fashion world as a whole? Of course it does! Many would argue that it sets the tone for fashion trends each year because of the uniqueness of each design. Unlike other fashion weeks which are held six months prior to the design’s availability both online and in-store, haute couture is the only showcase in which clothes are created for the season in which they are shown. The production of each garment can cost tens of thousands of dollars up to one hundred thousand dollars and perhaps more. Budgets are not a consideration.
So much goes into a couture piece to make it special. Each garment is hand-crafted and each piece carefully sown by hand by a skillful artisan. Extravagant collections allow fashion houses to demonstrate their technical skill to the highest degree and establish the designer’s vision for the design house. The collections elevate the brand as well by unveiling the most innovative designs using the most high-quality materials.
Haute Couture Fashion Houses
There are generally three types of fashion houses that are classified by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. The first two types of fashion house members are official and foreign. Both are known as grand couturiers and have full haute couture status. The only difference is the foreign members’ main or primary ateliers are not located in Paris; however, they do have Parisian studios per the guidelines. The final type of fashion house is the invited member who is selected each year by invitation of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
Even in the mid-to-late 1900s, the couture shows were only populated by an exclusive group of loyal customers which consisted of aristocrats, elite society women with plenty of funds, and the French establishment. Today, however, the couture shows’ front rows are filled with actresses, especially in January before awards season and red carpet events such as the Met Gala, celebrities, social media stars, and, surprisingly, a fast emerging group of wealthy, young jet-setters.
Haute couture is here to stay. It is steeped in history and its relevance has been proven year after year as the uber-wealthy flock to buy it and the super-famous to display it at red carpet events such as awards shows. Its beauty is everlasting and, as each season becomes more and more anticipatory, designers continue to impress us with their art.