WHAT IS PARIS HAUTE COUTURE?
What makes Haute Couture and is it unique to Paris? Is it a specific part of the Fashion Industry? Are there specific designers involved?
Haute couture was born in Paris in the mid-19th century and since then generations of designers have transformed this supposedly frivolous discipline into high art, drawing on the skill of thousands little hands, like those of the embroiderers and plumassiers (feather workers), whose work in the shadows has kept alive the traditions that help maintain Paris’ influence on fashion all over the world.
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 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.
Haute couture is one of the most misused terms in fashion. Some of the uninitiated toss it around relentlessly in an ungainly belief that peppering your language with “exotic” French expressions will make you sound smarter while others abuse it because haute couture collections are way fancier than ready-to-wear, so everything that’s at least a bit fancy in the eye of the beholder automatically becomes “couture”:
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 Dior or aspiring fashion design students. This isn’t entirely incorrect, but it is a very loose interpretation of the term. Some fashion houses add to the confusion by falsely describing their special collections as “haute couture”; you’d think they should be the first ones making sure the term is used properly, but fashion industry probably fuels the mystery behind these two words on purpose as to create more buzz.
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 one of the other fashion capitals. The term can refer to: (a) the fashion houses or designers that create exclusive and often trend-setting fashions; and the fashions created. What is haute couture in its narrowest sense? The term haute couture is protected by law in France and is defined by the Paris Chamber of Commerce. 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: (a) Design made-to-order for private clients, with one or more fittings; (b) Have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least fifteen people full-time; and (c) 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 these rather challenging criteria (I have an unwavering desire to visit an haute couture atelier and observe the dressmakers’ meticulous work because I often feel like it is more interesting to be able to watch the design process in person) are selected each year by the Paris Chamber of Commerce and then become members of the Syndical Chamber for 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”.
For the first time ever in Paris, fashion capital of the world, an exhibition is bringing together a hundred haute couture dresses and outfits by designers such as Worth, Doucet, Poiret, Lanvin, Chanel, Balenciaga, Givenchy, Grès, Jean Paul Gaultier, Lacroix, Alaïa and many more. Organized in collaboration with the Galliera Museum – under the artistic direction of Olivier Saillard – the Paris haute couture invites the viewer to admire these exceptional garments, chosen from the most beautiful pieces in the museum’s collections. A unique opportunity to discover a number of masterpieces, many of which have never been seen before.
The exhibition enjoys the exceptional support of Swarovski. This close collaboration began in 1900, when the designer Worth created garments embroidered with Swarovski crystals. Jeanne Lanvin, Gabrielle Chanel and Elsa Shiaparelli made sparing use of these crystals, whereas in the 50s, Jacques Fath and Cristobal Balenciaga used extravagant amount of crystals in their collections.
In France, the term haute couture is protected by law and is defined by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris based in Paris. 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. 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.
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. 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.
Haute couture can be referenced back as early as the 1700s. Rose Bertin, the French fashion designer to Queen Marie Antoinette, can be credited for bringing fashion and haute couture to French culture. French leadership in European fashion continued into the 18th century when influence was sourced from art, architecture, music, and fashions of the French court at Versailles were imitated across Europe. Visitors to Paris brought back clothing that was then copied by local dressmakers. Stylish women also ordered fashion dolls dressed in the latest Parisian fashion to serve as models. As railroads and steamships made European travel easier, it was increasingly common for wealthy women to travel to Paris to shop for clothing and accessories. French fitters and dressmakers were commonly thought to be the best in Europe, and real Parisian garments were considered better than local imitations.
In the 1960s, a group of young designers who had trained under men like Dior and Balenciaga left these established couture houses and opened their own establishments. The most successful of these young designers were Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Andre Courreges, Ted Lapidus and Emanuel Ungaro. Japanese native and Paris-based Hanae Mori was also successful in establishing her own line. Lacroix is one of the fashion houses to have been started in the late 20th century. Other new houses have included Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler. Due to the high expenses of producing haute couture collections, Lacroix and Mugler have since ceased their haute couture activities. Modernized haute couture shows are not designed and made to be sold, rather they are exactly what they are displayed for – show. Instead of being constructed for the purpose of selling and making money, they are made to further the publicity, as well as perception and understanding of brand image.
For all these fashion houses, custom clothing is no longer the main source of income, often costing much more than it earns through direct sales; it only adds the aura of fashion to their ventures in ready-to-wear clothing and related luxury products such as shoes and perfumes, and licensing ventures that earn greater returns for the company. Excessive commercialization and profit-making can be damaging, however. Cardin, for example, licensed with abandon in the 1980s and his name lost most of its fashionable cachet when anyone could buy Cardin luggage at a discount store. It is their ready-to-wear collections that are available to a wider audience, adding a splash of glamour and the feel of haute couture to more wardrobes.
The 1960s also featured a revolt against established fashion standards by mods, rockers, and hippies, as well as an increasing internationalization of the fashion scene. Jet travel had spawned a jet set that partied—and shopped—just as happily in New York as in Paris. Rich women no longer felt that a Paris dress was necessarily better than one sewn elsewhere. While Paris is still pre-eminent in the fashion world, it is no longer the sole arbiter of fashion.