I thought I’d write a Fashion 101 post about haute couture, as I often find that it is a sector of the fashion industry that is often most misunderstood. The term haute couture is controlled by France’s governing body of fashion, La Fédération Française de la Couture. (I studied at their school in Paris, Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, where I learnt all about the beautifully intricate yet scarily tedious traditions of haute couture construction.)
Haute couture was a much bigger industry in the 50s and 60s, when most wealthy people bought haute couture. Luxury ready to wear didn’t really exist at the time, and haute couture was somewhat more affordable. Brands also made money by charging American buyers from mass market brands upwards of $3,000 to attend the haute couture shows. They would sketch all the designs as they came down the catwalk, and go back to the States and make cheap copies. That all changed when Yves Saint Laurent opened his Rive Gauche store, which was considered to be the first luxury ready to wear brand. Nowadays the luxury fashion market is dominated by ready to wear, haute couture makes up a very small portion of the market.
In order to officially produce haute couture, you must be approved by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, and follow their regulations, which include some of the following:
- You must design made-to-order clothing for clients
- You must have at least 15 people employed in a Paris workshop (or atelier)
- You must present two collections a year to the press, comprising of day and evening wear (the collections must have a minimum of 35 outfits.)
You can see the full list of brands here, but the members are as follows:
- Adeline André
- Anne Valérie Hash
- Christian Dior
- Christian Lacroix (although I doubt he will be there next season…)
- Dominique Sirop
- Franck Sorbier
- Jean Paul Gaultier
- Maurizio Galante
- Stéphane Rolland
Haute couture is shown in January (for the spring summer collections) and July (for the Fall Winter collections.) The audience of the shows include the usual fashion journalists, but unlike ready-to-wear, it also includes a lot of the clients, who then make appointments in the salon and choose the pieces they want to buy.
Each piece is made to measure for the client, and there can be usually be about 1 to 5 fittings during the making of an haute couture garment. Established customers will have mannequins made to suit their body, as most haute couture garments are draped directly onto the mannequin. The techniques used are sublime, using primarily hand techniques, and that is why the prices can start from $20,000 for a day dress to $60,000 for an evening dress, although the sky is the limit when it comes to beading and embroidery.
“Customers will pay anywhere from $25,000 upward for a couture gown; in extreme cases, the costs can reach into the millions. The Scott Henshall diamond-encrusted dress worn by Samantha Mumba to the 2004 premiere of Spiderman II was priced at approximately $9 million.”
“Clients who place orders must understand that it may take up to four months to construct a dress. Take one in particular, a 1920s-inspired gown made of dove grey chiffon. Decorated with delicate metal decals and a beaded fringe, it carries more than 50,000 Swarovski crystal beads, and took more than 150 man hours to assemble. It’s priced accordingly, at around $90,000″
Despite these incredibly high fees, haute couture is not a lucrative business, in fact, clothing is rarely a lucrative business in the fashion industry. Although some brands manage to make a profit from haute couture, it is generally used to maintain the status and prestige of the top luxury brands, therefore ensuring sales of highly profitable products like fragrances, cosmetics, and accessories.
Anyone wishing to start their own haute couture brand should think again, its not easy to meet the requirements. Newcomers, like Alexis Mabille (who is a guest member,) were only accepted because the regulations were relaxed to encourage new brands to join. Anyone wishing to work in an haute couture atelier should definitely consider doing the course at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, because it is one of the few schools that teaches the techniques of haute couture construction. This is definitely not for someone who is not interested in “the details.”
Read other Fashion 101 posts:
All images from Style.com.