Just as car manufacturers show off their expertise through the creation of supercars, fashion designers use couture as a statement of strength and technical ability. Couture is a showcase for a designer’s most outrageous ideas, where budget is no limit to ambition. The twice-yearly couture shows in Paris, are quite the spectacle and a made-to-measure ballgown could easily cost the same as a Rolls-Royce.
For those that see clothing as art, haute couture is the purest form.
Haute couture is, however, one of the most misused terms in fashion. The main misconception people have about the term haute couture is that it applies to all handmade and/or made-to-order garments, whether manufactured by seamstresses at Chanel or fashion design students.
The couturier Charles Frederick Worth is considered the father of haute couture. Worth was the first “fashion designer” as opposed to general dressmaker. In 1848 he created the first house of couture to cater to wealthy women who 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 produced in Paris in the mid-nineteenth century.
Today the fabrics available to couture houses are very luxurious: expensive silks, fine wools, cashmeres, cottons, linens, leather, suede, other skins or furs. In the case of a famous design house the design and colour of a cloth, may be exclusively reserved for that couture house.
Outside specialists make accessories either by design or inspiration. Hats, trimmings, buttons, belts, costume jewellery, shoes and innovative pieces are finely crafted to complement the fabrics and fashion ideas being created. Superb craftsmanship, a fresh idea and publicized internationally renowned names all command a price to match. Those able to afford couture are happy to pay for exclusivity and the privacy afforded by the system.
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 term haute couture is protected by law in France and is defined by the Paris Chamber of Commerce (Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris). To earn the right to call itself a couture house and to use the term haute couture in its advertising and any other way, a fashion house must follow these rules:
Design made-to-order for private clients, with one or more fittings.
Have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least twenty people full-time.
Each season (i.e. twice a year) present a collection to the Paris press, comprising at least thirty-five runs/exits with outfits for both daytime wear and evening wear.
Fashion houses meeting this criteria are selected each year by the Paris Chamber of Commerce and then become members of the Syndical Chamber for Haute Couture (Chambre syndicale de la haute couture). However, even this most elite selection has its hierarchy – members are divided into “official” (French houses such as Chanel and Dior), “correspondent” (foreigners, most notably Armani and Valentino), “guest” (new talents), “jewelry” and “accessories”. The official ongoing list of fashion houses who make the cut is published HERE.
Today most fashion companies lose money on their couture lines, Chanel is the only house that claims to make a profit. The fashion shows are extravagant, in Dior’s Fall/Winter 2012 show, the walls of the show space were lined in over one million fresh flowers! 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 which takes its inspiration from the themes of the couture show. Below that are the accessories and fragrances and that 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 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.
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