Once the most influential sect of the global fashion economy, Haute-Couture could soon very well be all but a distant, glamorous memory. The Death of Couture.
In 1864 Charles Frederick Worth formally founded the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne which strictly governed the elitist industry known as Haute-Couture. The term is French for "high sewing" or "high dressmaking" and refers only to clothing that is made by hand specifically for one customer. The materials are always of the highest quality and are used by experienced seamstresses to create clothing with painstaking attention to detail requiring hours upon hours of labor.
[caption id="attachment_5177" align="aligncenter" width="1024" caption="Charles Frederick Worth"]
The famously Parisian industry was in fact founded by an Englishman; Charles Frederick Worth was the first to produce clothing that adhered to the now strict regulations that define "couture." By 1939 there were 70 functioning couture houses and now only 11 remain - with almost all of them suffering financial loss. Those still in existence include Christian Dior, Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier and Givenchy. In 2002 Yves Saint Laurent started the trend of retirement from couture, and his leaving was followed by Versace, Emanuel Ungaro and Valentino.
[caption id="attachment_5178" align="aligncenter" width="1024" caption="Karl Lagerfeld inside Chanel's couture studio"]
[caption id="attachment_5179" align="aligncenter" width="490" caption="Backstage at Givenchy AW10: seamstresses hand sew beading repairs"]
[caption id="attachment_5180" align="aligncenter" width="570" caption="Couture shows traditionally end with bridal. Gaulter SS11 wedding dresses."]
The term itself is protected by Parisian law and can only be applied to a fashion label if it adheres to the following guidelines
1. Design made-to-order for private clients, with one or more fittings.
2. Have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least fifteen people full-time.
3. Each season (i.e., twice a year), present a collection to the Paris press, comprising at least thirty-five runs
In addition to these rules, the fashion house must also employ a minimum of 20 people full-time in a Paris-based workshop and everything must be produced in-house by hand. The rigid guidelines and extremely high operating costs have turned this once fundamental and thriving part of fashion into a cash suck. The industry has been on the decline since as early as the 1950s, and as mentioned above, now only 11 houses remain.
[caption id="attachment_5181" align="aligncenter" width="467" caption="Chanel couture fitting"]
[caption id="attachment_5182" align="aligncenter" width="460" caption="Givenchy AW09 runway show"]
Public concerns for the industry came to a head in the 1960s, with Queen Magazine (now Harper's Bazaar) publishing a mock obituary for Balenciaga and Givenchy. Couture houses were seen as obsolete and antiquated, and the often breathtaking price tags kept the industry closed off to a very small market. Clearly some changes had to be made. The couture houses began to diversify their products; licensing became all the rage with designers lending their brand to perfume, sunglasses, scarves, etc. There also was a huge upswing of Ready-to-Wear or prêt-à-porter lines - mass produced clothing made in standardized sizes with faster production techniques. This allowed the fashion houses to switch their income from the unreliable Haute-Couture to much more accessible RTW. With the market opened up fashion houses had room to breathe financially and were able to continue to produce their couture lines.
[caption id="attachment_5183" align="aligncenter" width="480" caption="Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche"]
[caption id="attachment_5184" align="aligncenter" width="800" caption="Prêt-à-porter means literally "off the rack""]
But now with the global economy the way it is, even RTW is a distant possibility for many consumers' budgets. Fashion houses are looking to find ways to make their lines even more accessible to the common man. Collaborations with stores like Target and H&M have given major fashion brands life saving cash injections. Versace as well as Stella McCartney for H&M, Vera Wang for Zale's and Missoni for Target lines, among others, have been extremely popular, often coming close to selling out on opening day and resulting in a riotous shopping experience. Working with discounters has proven to be surprisingly positive for brand image by improving brand awareness. There has been a major paradigm shift in the industry; brands that once would never even consider a mass-market line are now open to the idea. Alber Elbaz, artistic director of Lanvin, comments
, "I have said in the past that I would never do a mass-market collection, but what intrigued me was the idea of H&M going luxury rather than Lanvin going public. This has been an exceptional exercise, where two companies at opposite poles can work together." Accessibility, a once dirty word for these elitist brands, has suddenly become chic.
It will be exciting to see the new path that fashion is heading down. The global fashion economy was faced with the prospect of adapt or die, and the creative approach that many brands are taking will continue to benefit those with tight budgets. As sexy as the elitism of fashion is, it's place with the modern shopper just isn't relevant today. At least not when it comes to price tags. However, it is important to remember that Haute-Couture still holds an extremely important place in the fashion industry. It preserves and ultimately promotes crafts and techniques that would have been lost forever otherwise. Featherwork, glove making, millinery, ribbon making, embroidery and button making industries are all kept alive by the limited market for couture. And beyond that preservation, couture is a veritable laboratory of ideas. The highly skilled expertise and seemingly unlimited talent of the people involved represents the tippy top of the fashion industry. They introduce the shapes, colors and trends of the season -- all of which then trickle down to the mass market consumer. Haute-Couture is the fine art of fashion, and even if we can't go out and buy that $20,000 floor length gown our closets will be unknowingly influenced by it.
[caption id="attachment_5170" align="aligncenter" width="443" caption="left: Chanel couture hat; right: Leah C. Couture millinery hat"]
[caption id="attachment_5171" align="aligncenter" width="380" caption="Elie Saab AW11: embroidery"]
[caption id="attachment_5172" align="aligncenter" width="380" caption="Jean Paul Gaultier AW11: featherwork"]
[caption id="attachment_5173" align="aligncenter" width="380" caption="Valentino AW11: embroidery"]
Miista is not a couture brand but we also work to preserve certain aspects of traditional craftsmanship. Laura Villasenin, our founder and designer, studied under the shoe designers Tim and Fiona Slack when she left university and learned the ins and outs of luxury shoemaking. Slack's line T&F Slack
offers made to order Derbys along with full seasonal lines. They are dedicated to nurturing young talent and explain
, "We wanted to harness what little was left of London's shoemaking. Our goal was to help pass on these important skills to the next generation." Fashion is steeped in history and it is important that we recognize and support those who work to continue its traditions.
[caption id="attachment_5174" align="aligncenter" width="383" caption="Leathers available for custom made Derbys at T&F Slack's Notting Hill store"]
[caption id="attachment_5175" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Miista AW11: weaving technique in the DAX"]