There are lanes in luxury. If we can back track a little bit, ‘The Anatomy Of The Luxury Fashion Brand’ identified the four principal categories of luxury goods to be perfumes and cosmetics, watches and jewellery, wines and spirits, and fashion. Fashion, in this case, refers to the accessories, ready-to-wear and couture that adheres to the characteristics we mentioned in our last post. Haute Couture is of particular interest to us here because its raison d’être is to be the epitome of luxury. Google Arts & Culture defines it as “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 sewers, often using time-consuming, hand-executed techniques.”
However, like luxury, the term ‘haute couture’ is one of the most misused phrases in fashion. In fact, if the French Ministry of Industry (Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode) – located on the rue Faubourg St.-Honoré – hasn’t included your brand on its members list, you can’t claim to be couture. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
It started with English couturier – Charles Frederick Worth
In the 19th Century, Worth opened the first Haute (Which means high) Couture (Dressmaking) house in Paris. Coining the term ‘fashion designer‘, he created a place where upper-class women could come and experience exclusive fashion luxury. However, according to Harper’s Bazaar, it wasn’t until 1908 that the phrase “haute couture” was actually used. Recognizing this was a pretty good idea, worth copying, The French Press decided to set systems in place to prevent piracy of haute couture designs. Thus, the PAIS (L’Association de Protection des Industries Artistiques Saisonnieres) was formed in 1921.
They started out by simply photographing and cataloguing designs, but by 1945 they realised they needed some concrete rules (Which were later updated in 1992). There are a lot of name changes and inclusions which you can read in detail here. But we’re going to jump ahead to the good part. Apart from selecting members, Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture established some new ground rules.
According to the Business of Fashion, “To qualify as an official Haute Couture house, members must (1) design made-to-order clothes for private clients, with (2) more than one fitting, (3) using an atelier (workshop) that employs at least fifteen fulltime staff. (4) They must also have twenty fulltime technical workers in one of their workshops. Finally, (5) Haute Couture houses must present a collection of no less than 50 original designs — both day and evening garments — to the public every season, in January and July.”
Basically, the rules above mean that the term ‘Haute Couture’ is protected by French Law. Just like you can only call bubbly “champagne” if it comes from the Champagne region in France. So, in order to use the term couture in your brand you’d have to fulfil the rules and be recognised by the Paris Chamber of Commerce (Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris). Once you’re accepted in, you fall into one of the central bodies which are Haute Couture, Couturiers’ and Fashion Designers’ Ready-to-Wear, and Men’s Fashion.
Of course there are exceptions to every rule, depending on what you bring to the table. Take for example Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen. She only started showing under couture in 2011 and she’s already broken a few rules. Her latest collection consisted of only 16 looks plus she uses 3D printing to make her extraordinary creations. (Remember, couture needs handmade designs). According to the New York Times, they allowed her to show because she pushed the limits, making her clothes true one-offs; the quintessence of couture. Fun fact: even Chanel – which is one of couture’s longest extant couture house – created a collection in 2015 using 3D technology. Not to mention, they let street wear show through fashion label Vetements. Demna Gvasalia, Vetements’ creative director, explained that it was because the brand had ‘high levels of individualizations and was a perfect representation of flexible couture criteria in the 21st century and it portrayed what it could mean in the modern age’.
But back to the rules: Another way to tell that you’re not quite Haute Couture is that you’re not making garments for one client in mind. If you are making a gown, for example, it would exclusively be made for them, taking into consideration their body stance and measurements. The gown would then be made by hand and perfectly fitted to ensure it is tailored to the client perfectly. As with all luxury, such attention to detail doesn’t come cheap (hundreds of thousands of dollars per piece kind of money). So you understand why Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel, calls the couture client base – which is around 1,000 people worldwide – “the happy few.”
While some may call the Haute couture archaic, since it doesn’t influence new silhouettes and lines the way ready-to-wear does nor does it cater for most women today be it in size or price, Pavlovsky begs to differ. In an interview with the New York Times, he states, “Contrary to what people think, the concept of couture is very modern. It is about being able to design, for every single customer, the unique and the best clothes.”
We’re not saying that you’re not making your designs by hand, or that you’re not making to measure or embracing the individualization card. But you technically can’t be Haute Couture unless you follow the rules and you’re recognised by French law. It’s not easy to do, considering that the number of Haute Couture studios in Paris doesn’t even hit 20. Now that you know what couture is, do you think it’s still relevant or a dying breed? After all, couture is showcased in museums whilst fashion comes and goes. Is there a standard the African continent can create for itself to govern itself? We’d love to hear your thoughts.