Haute Couture can be defined as the creation and making of high quality, custom–fitted clothing by the leading fashion houses of the world, made for individual clients, and tailored to perfection using the most expensive fabrics and made by the most experienced seamstresses. The term is often abbreviated to simply, ‘Couture’, with ‘Haute’ meaning expensive or high, and ‘Couture’ referring to dressmaking or needlework.
‘Haute Couture’ is a term strictly protected under French Law. The Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Paris determine which fashion houses are eligible to be ‘true haute couture houses’. For these houses or couture workshops, known as ‘ateliers’, to advertise their creations as such, they must abide by the stringent rules laid down in France. This alone will allow them to gain the privilege of advertising their creations as ‘Haute Couture’.
A Parisian expert states that if a dressmakers were to use the term ‘Haute Couture’ without obtaining permission from the regulatory body, the Chambre Syndicale, he can be arrested. For example, a couture fashion house must create unique pieces designed to directly fit on a client’s body or on a dress form replicating hers, with a number of individual fittings being carried out on each client. They must have an atelier in Paris, with at least 20 full time employees, and the fashion house must present a minimum of two 25–piece collections to the Paris press each year. The peak of couture was during the pre-war period; following World War II, only a few original haute couturiers have remained, including Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Stephane Rolland and Jean Paul Gaultier. ‘Corresponding members’ also exist. These are Versace, Valentino, Elie Saab and Giorgio Armani.
Haute Couture Week in Paris concluded this January, and provoked much discussion regarding the future of such unique, expensive fashions. Can it survive in an era where ‘ready to wear’ pieces are far more in demand than individually created designs? Can such expenses for couture fashions be afforded by consumers in the West, especially in an economic climate such as is present in 2013?
In her Vanity Fair article, special correspondent Amy Fine Collins reviewed the much discussed current question that is: can haute couture survive the 21st century? Can many continue to afford such a luxury to enable these ateliers to continue their careful design and production? In 1965, The New York Times declared that: “Every ten years, the doctors assemble at the bedside of haute couture and announce that death is imminent.” In 2009, Collins discussed this “death knell” once again due to the demise of the “revered maison” of Lacroix, who filed for bankruptcy protection that year. However, Collins also stated how, in the same year, the superpower houses of haute couture in Paris (Chanel and Dior) were reporting increases in sales of 20% and 35% respectively.
Launching ones designs as Couture appears also to be the best way for a designer to get noticed, as during couture shows, they are one of a limited number, usually 20, spread over four days. This is in stark contrast with the well-known liveliness that surrounds ‘ready to wear’ fashion weeks, which involve over 100 designers showcasing their new collections over a nine day period.
The history of ‘Haute Couture’ revolves almost entirely around the fashion capital that is Paris. One French professional is quoted in Collins’ article as stating that the “origins of haute couture, like champagne, and equally part of our DNA,” date back to the reign of Louis XIV, as the French Finance Minister of the 1660s ensured that France became the leading manufacturer of luxury goods such as silk. The founder of haute couture was in fact an English man, the designer Charles Fredrick Worth, who opened his store on the Rue de la Paix, Paris in 1858. Worth’s designs and innovations trickled down across Europe and into the new world. Napoleon’s third wife, Empress Eugenie posed as Worth’s ultimate mannequin, and his new creations such as ‘hoop skirts and bustles’ enabled the original haute couture atelier to last 100 years.
‘Haute Couture’ fashion has changed dramatically since entering the 21st century as fashion houses have had to adjust to the demands of the modern customer. The question posed is, can anyone still afford ‘Haute Couture’ creations in 2013? The financial crisis has inevitably changed society, and the desire for ‘ready to wear’ dresses sharply increased, as customers sought a more accessible type of clothing.
Many designers have been forced to close their ‘Haute Couture’ ateliers, and focus solely on their ‘ready to wear’ collections. However, those remaining appear to have a steady, although smaller group of private clientele, who designers are ‘quietly dressing.’ Elie Saab has reported a large increase in clients coming from countries such as Russia, Turkey, Greece, and Ukraine, and states that the main occasion for which these designs are created is weddings. Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel, believes that ‘Haute Couture’ is strong and will remain so, stating that: “There is now a different kind of couture for what different circumstances permit. Luxury ready-to-wear is not so far from what couture used to be … The new couture clients are beautiful, young. We have Russians, Indians, Chinese, South Americans. Women from the Gulf countries don’t even come to Paris; the première flies the collections to them.”
Lagerfeld’s description epitomises the new era of haute couture, as one which is currently strong and in demand. Haute Couture has evolved with its clients, but has not lost its magic touch, that which makes it so unique to its customers. As Lagerfeld himself says: “So long as the house of Chanel exists, Couture exists.”