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What does Haute Couture mean?   Are the outfits really worth the time and effort as well as the price?

Haute couture (French for “high sewing” or “high dressmaking” or “high fashion”) refers to the creation of exclusive custom-fitted clothing. Haute couture is fashion that is constructed by hand (without the use of sewing machines and sergers/overlockers) from start to finish, made from high quality, expensive, often unusual fabric and sewn with extreme attention to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable seamstresses, often using time-consuming, hand-executed techniques. Couture translates literally from French as “dressmaking”, but may also refer to fashion, sewing, or needlework and is also used as a common abbreviation of haute couture and refers to the same thing in spirit. Haute translates literally to “high”. A haute couture garment is often made for a client, tailored specifically for the wearer’s measurements and body stance. Considering the amount of time, money, and skill that is allotted to each completed piece, haute couture garments are also described as having no price tag – in other words, budget is not relevant. Each couture piece is not made to sell. Rather, they were designed and constructed for the runway, much like an art exhibition.

The term originally referred to Englishman Charles Frederick Worth’s work, produced in Paris in the mid-nineteenth century. In modern France, haute couture is a “protected name” that can be used only by firms that meet certain well-defined standards. However, the term is also used loosely to describe all high-fashion custom-fitted clothing, whether it is produced in Paris or in other fashion capitals such as Milan, London, New York or Tokyo.    The term could also refer to: the fashion houses or fashion designers that create exclusive and often trend-setting fashions as well as the fashions created.   In France, the term haute couture is protected by law and is defined by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris, located in Paris, France. The chambre syndicale de la haute couture is defined as “the regulating commission that determines which fashion houses are eligible to be true haute couture houses”. Their rules state that only “those companies mentioned on the list drawn up each year by a commission domiciled at the Ministry for Industry are entitled to avail themselves” of the label haute couture.   The Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne is an association of Parisian couturiers founded in 1868 as an outgrowth of medieval guilds that regulate its members in regard to piracy of styles, dates of openings for collections, number of models presented, relations with press, questions of law and taxes, and promotional activities. Formation of the organization was brought about by Charles Frederick Worth. An affiliated school was organized in 1930 called L’Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. The school helps bring new designers to help the “couture” houses that are still present today. Since 1975, this organization has worked within the Federation Francaise, de couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Createurs de Mode

The criteria for haute couture were established in 1945 and updated in 1992. To earn the right to call itself a couture house and to use the term haute couture in its advertising and any way, members of the Chambre syndicale de la haute couture 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 fifteen staff members full-time; Must have twenty, full-time technical people in at least one workshop; Every season, present a collection of at least fifty original designs to the public, both day and evening garments, in January and July of each year.

However, the term haute couture may have been misused by ready-to-wear brands since the late 1980s, so that its true meaning may have become blurred with that of pret-a-porter (the French term for ready-to-wear fashion) in the public perception. Every haute couture house also markets prêt-à-porter collections, which typically deliver a higher return on investment than their custom clothing.   Falling revenues have forced a few couture houses to abandon their less profitable couture division and concentrate solely on the less prestigious prêt-à-porter. These houses are no longer considered haute couture.

The fabrics available to the couture house are very luxurious and include the latest novelty fabrics as well as   expensive silks, fine wools, cashmeres, cottons, linens, leather, suede as well as 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 jewelry, 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.

Designers crate their initial designs either by using muslin, which drapes well for flowing designs or by using linen canvas or calico for more structured garments as tailed garments. These sample models are calls toiles and save using very expensive fabrics that can cost upwards of $100.00 or more a yard.   Thus, the toile could be manipulated, marked and adjusted to fit a particular live model’s measurements until the designer and staff is satisfied.   The final toile of a design idea is an accurate interpretation of the line or cut right now to the button placement or hemline that the specific designer is seeking.   Once the designer is satisfied, he/she will instruct the staff to make up the garment in the selected and exclusive materials.   One seamstress or tailor will work on the garment from start to finish.   The cutting and finishing is done in one room and the workroom manager(s) is responsible for everything that is produced in that room.

Many top designer fashion houses, such as Chanel, use the word for some of their special collections. These collections are often not for sale or they are very difficult to purchase. Sometimes, “haute couture” is inappropriately used to label non-dressmaking activities, such as fine art, music and more.   The art of haute couture is one that is rooted in tradition and heritage – and, as such, only a handful of designers are privileged enough to work within its rarefied realm. For many years, the industry has been dominated by established maisons such as Chanel, Valentino and Christian Dior, but this is quickly changing as a new generation of couturiers has emerged.     Unlike their predecessors, this small group of designers is armed with a modern vision that is bringing the craft into the 21st century. With styles ranging from high fantasy to utilitarian minimalism, they are creating modern yet wearable silhouettes that appeal to new audiences in China, Russia and the Middle East.

From the moment a client is received at the salon, they are helped and humored through all the stages of fitting and any sudden difficulties.   For example, a difficulty could be another client from the same city who wants the exact same design and color garment for a prestigious function.   The vendeuse (manager) smoothes out such problems knowing full well what a disaster it could be for two pay a vast sum of money for an exclusive haute couture item only to bump into an acquaintance at the same function, wearing the identical outfit.

Sometimes designers work for their own label and at times they work for a famous Haute Couture house.   Very few couture model sales are made a year, and these rarely total more than 1500 sales for each house.   However, this is not really surprising when you learn that about only 3000 women or so worldwide can actually afford to buy clothes at the highest level, and fewer than 300 buy regularly.   Because of this, Haute Couture actually runs at a loss.   Design houses present expensive million dollar fashion shows of outrageous noticeable designs intermixed with exquisite garments on supermodels.   The couture house sells only a very limited percentage of Haute Couture model garments to a contracting number of customers.   The profits from this activity are negligible, amounting to less than 10% of gross profits of the couture name or even at a loss.   One might wonder then what is the point of it all for so low a percentage sale in relation to effort and deadlines.   The answer lies in the phrase “selling a dream.” The fashion show attracts huge media attention and gains enormous publicity for the couture houses. They sell a dream of the intangible.   A dream of chic cachet, of beauty, desirability and exclusiveness that the ordinary person can buy into.

If a consumer can afford the bottle of perfume, the scarf, the designer boutique jewelry, the bag of the season, the couture named cosmetics or the ready to wear “designer label” products the convince themselves they are just as exclusive as the 1000 women and supermodels who regularly wear Haute Couture model gowns.   It is fair to say that the goods are usually of very high quality, so many people are happy to pay a price that they feel reflects the image and standard.   But, if this is all way beyond your means and part of the fantasy, why not get one of the many online catalogues featuring clothes for real people.

Couture Front for Ready to Wear, Beauty and Perfume Haute Couture is the prestigious front for French creative fashion and original design. IN turn, the ready to wear and couture house beauty industry employs a huge work force for the many lower level sales of perfume and accessories.   This makes for large profits for the couture design house through the volume of mass market international sales.

In a typical fashion show, models walk the catwalk dressed in the clothing created by the designer. Occasionally, fashion shows take the form of installations, where the models are static, standing or sitting in a constructed environment. The order in which each model walks out wearing a specific outfit is usually planned in accordance to the statement that the designer wants to make about his or her collection. It is then up to the audience to not only try to understand what the designer is trying to say by the way the collection is being presented, but to also visually deconstruct each outfit and try to appreciate the detail and craftsmanship of every single piece. A wide range of contemporary designers tend to produce their shows as theatrical productions with elaborate sets and added elements such as live music or a variety of technological components like holograms.

Kathy kiefer


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