The Industry: Haute Couture

6a00d8341bfb1653ef01348548fcd5970c copy 2Givenchy Haute Couture F/W 2010, Via Pinterest

If you don’t know what haute couture is, trust us, you’re not alone. Many people identify haute couture with gowns of extreme grandeur, but it’s SO much more than ball gowns and beading. Couture has a long history which goes back centuries in Europe, specifically France. Couture is actually such a part of French fashion and culture that it is regulated by the French government to this day. So what is couture, who buys it (but seriously who can afford this stuff?), and most importantly why should you care?

haute-couture-alta-costura-maisons-moda-casas-fashion-semana-week-lujo-luxe-modaddiction-paris-francia-france-trends-tendencias-culture-cultura-design-diseno-designer-disenador-taller1 copyInside the Dior Atelier, Via Pinterest

Haute couture is a French phrase roughly translating to “high sewing”, and couture itself meaning “cutting, seaming, sewing”. That is where the true nature of couture comes from, the sewing. Haute couture is sewn completely by hand, every seam stitched and bead attached are all done by the hands of highly trained artisans which are employed by the couture houses, known as ateliers. A single couture gown can take a team of skilled seamstresses hundreds of hours to complete. Yes. Hundreds of hours. Compare that to the minutes or even seconds taken to construct clothing in some fast fashion factories and you can begin to understand just what makes couture so special (and what makes our Zara feel a tad inadequate now).

The French government also has requirements on who can call themselves a couture house, who knew government regulation could be so chic? A certified couture house must adhere to the following: They must produce custom-made clothing accompanied by at least one private fitting, they must have an atelier located in Paris which employs at least twenty staff members full-time, and they must present a couture collection each season. As you could imagine, the number of fashion houses which meet these requirements is rather small, usually in the single digits. Some notable members are of course Chanel and Christian Dior. There are also several foreign couture houses granted a guest status at couture fashion weeks like Valentino and Versace, from Italy. Due to the difficulty of producing couture and then the even more daunting task of selling these pieces, the number of certified ateliers has dwindled in recent years, much to our chagrin. Yves Saint Laurent stopped producing couture in 2002 and Givenchy took a “hiatus” from its couture collections following the Fall 2012 season.

5881075943_0055eaf6ee_oThe Dior Couture Salon, Via The Cherry Blossom Girl

The custom nature of haute couture is the second key factor which lends to the allure of such clothing. You can’t just walk into a Chanel or Dior boutique and pick up one of these pieces (or buy them online at 3 a.m. — thank god). There are certain channels couture clients go through to arrange the purchase of such a garment. Once a purchase is arranged, the client goes through several fittings throughout the creation of the piece, until a completely custom garment is finished, which ranges in price anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars to over 100,000 dollars. Sometimes these pieces are even one of a kind, for an extra cost of course. If a special client wants to be the sole owner of a certain piece and she can afford it, the couture house may agree to an exclusivity arrangement and will never produce another copy of that specific design.

So who are these women purchasing haute couture, spending thousands upon thousands of dollars on a single piece of clothing (and how can I be best friends with them)? Well unsurprisingly the number of clients is rather small – estimated at around 2,000 women. And as expected, repeat customers are an even rarer breed. In couture’s beginning, its clients were mainly french women from the upper echelons of society. In the mid and late twentieth century it was American women who became prime couture customers. Today, couture’s new buyers are mainly coming from Russia, China, and the Middle East. Couture is one of the ultimate forms of conspicuous consumption, and women looking for the best fashion possible (and to show that they can afford it) flock to couture to do just that.

85th Annual Academy Awards - ArrivalsJennifer Lawrence in Dior Haute Couture, Via PopSugar

Here in the U.S. couture has now become a red carpet staple, worn by celebrities who have become so-called couture darlings. Jennifer Lawrence is Dior’s de facto American darling and can be seen wearing Dior Haute Couture on almost any major red carpet. And while Givenchy may no longer show couture collections, celebrities like Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, and Rooney Mara still favor custom gowns from the house. Haute couture isn’t a new fascination of the Hollywood set though; Elizabeth Taylor was famed for her couture wardrobe, some of which Christie’s recently auctioned off. A single vintage Christian Dior Haute Couture gown was sold for $362,500. That astronomical price isn’t just due to Taylor’s fame, either. Christie’s has sold numerous couture pieces at equally jaw-dropping prices. A vintage Yves Saint Laurent couture dress and coat ensemble from the closet of an unknown fetched over $130,000 at auction. So while some people may prefer to spend those hundreds of thousands of dollars on something practical — a house for instance, others (e.g. the entire tradesy editorial team) may be willing to rough it à la Carrie in Sex and the City for some out of this world couture.

Russia Elizabeth TaylorElizabeth Taylor’s Couture Pieces, Via Emirates 24/7

So couture may fill our fashion dreams (and our pinterest boards too), but why should we really care about this fashion which most of us will never even come close to having the possibility of wearing? Think of haute couture as the top of the fashion pyramid, where designers’ minds and budgets run free. The ideas and trends that emerge from the couture collections trickle down to ready-to-wear and then further down to fast fashion and so on. Whether it’s sheer fabrics, exaggerated waists, or other trends of recent years, they almost all pop up first on the couture runways. This January, for instance, both Dior and Chanel showed sneakers in their couture collections and now the entire fashion set has fallen head over heels for the sporty shoe. And nowadays, when everything is all about the the latest and greatest and having it as fast as possible, you have to admire something that so beautifully upholds the standards of the past by placing such importance on every detail and spending hundreds of hours to form perfection. Even further, fashion has always been a precarious mix of art and commerce, yet couture is free to abandon purely commercial interests and embrace fashion as art. And just how most of us may never be able to own a Monet or a Van Gogh, it doesn’t mean we cannot appreciate and enjoy them.

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