Fashion’s Premier League

Haute couture literally translates as ‘high dressmaking’ (French: haute– high / couture– dressmaking, sewing, seaming) and represents a handmade, custom-fitted clothing production of the finest materials. For centuries, it has been exemplary of the triumph of a fusion that combines novelty and synergy with social and personal needs. It is the art of dressmaking, crafting and tailoring at its finest. A single dress can take up to one thousand hours to make and cost you twenty to thirty times as many dollars. But, to be fair, the work of art created is oftentimes priceless. The home of haute couture is Paris, where the term is protected by law and the couturiers must meet a rigorous set of criteria, and it has been like that for 300 years. Speaking of the criteria, they were first established in 1945 and later updated in 1992. The Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie de Paris guidelines, regulated by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, state that members must: design made-to-order clothing for private clients, with one or more fittings; have a Parisian atelier employing at least 15 members of full-time staff; employ at least 20 full-time technical staff in at least one atelier; and present to the public a collection of at least 50 original designs twice a year in January and July comprising both day and evening garments.

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Then… 

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…and now, Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture

If you are wondering what defined couture fashion as we know it today, we have to go back to the court of Louis XIV. He was a true ambassador of the Parisian fashion who used to send life-sized fashion dolls to every European Court. Foreign dressmakers then studied the clothes they received, footwear, accessories and hats and replicated them for the local nobles. The first couturier we know of is Jeanne-Marie Rose Bertin, who designed clothing for Marie Antoinette. She dressed the queen from 1770 to 1792 (the year of her dethronement) and is the sole culprit for gravity-defying pouf hairstyle of the century.

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(“Grand habit” or court robe with train, “en fourreau”, and petticoat, said to belong to Marie-Antoinette of France, attributed to the dressmaker Marie-Jean “Rose” Bertin (1747 – 1813) Silk satin, applique, embroidered with metal threads, chenille, sequins and applied glass pastes 1780’s, altered in 1870’s Bourbon)

However, it took another two hundred years and an Englishman to put haute couture into the practice we know today. In the mid 19th century, designer Charles Frederick Worth created unique pieces for his wealthy clients and was the first designer to prepare a portfolio of his designs which he presented on live models at the House of Worth in Paris. Clients were offered the opportunity to select design, color of the fabric and pertaining accessories that were duplicated and made-to-fit in Worth’s fashion atelier. The rest is pretty much history we all know. By the beginning of the 20th century, couture houses, such as Lanvin, Chanel and Dior, served as the training grounds for the next generation of high fashion designers who emerged in the 1960s.

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(Couture Maison Worth, Paris, photo credit: La Belle Époque) 

The most recognized couturiers of the last century are Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Lacroix, Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler. But, don’t be fooled! Paris did become a capital of high fashion (read: a place of worship), but haute couture could be found in other parts of the world, as well. Foreign designers who managed to get accepted by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture are: Giambattista Valli, Elie Saab, Versace, Valentino and Armani. Although it is a common misconception Zuhair Murad and Schiaparelli are already members, they still hold the status of ‘invited designers’.

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(Christian Lacroix Haute Couture 1996, photo credit: Steven Meisel)

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(John Galliano for Christian Dior, Fall/Winter 2007/2008, photo credit: Vogue)

Haute couture still remains the most intriguing part of fashion design. It represents ultimate imagination, a paragon of most beautiful clothing that can be envisioned and made at any time. It is a synonym for quality, luxury, uniqueness, style and ultimate beauty. The last couple of years have been challenging for fashion industry (Versace was forced to stop holding shows between 2004 and 2012 due to recession), but we still witnessed some amazing haute couture events. In 2014, Christian Dior presented the first haute couture show in Shanghai, while Karl Lagerfeld staged Fendi Autumn/Winter 2016 couture show on the Trevi fountain in Rome. In celebration of Fendi’s 90th anniversary, the models literally walked on water.

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(Fendi Haute Couture show, Autumn/Winter 2016, Trevi fountain in Rome, photo credit: Vogue) 

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(Dior show in Shanghai, Autumn/Winter 2014, photo credit: CNN)

Although many designer today focus more on ready-to-wear and capsule collections, selling a dream is still a quite profitable business. For instance, a Chanel couture suit in 2002 cost 20.000 dollars. By mid 2004, its price escalated to 50.000 dollars. Today, it’s worth approximately 100.000 dollars. Even though couture houses create a limited amount of pieces (Chanel has 150 regular clients and Dior creates 20 couture gowns per year), their businesses will never go through a crisis because their clients buy a dream of the intangible, a dream of chic cachet, of beauty, desirability and exclusiveness that the ordinary person cannot buy into.

Cover photo credit: Dior atelier in Paris, vogue.com