Haute Couture. The term is synonymous with glamour, luxury, and wealth. It captivates and enthrals many a fashion devoteé. It is the prestigious face of French creative fashion and innovative design.It translates into the less expensive but still costly designer label known as Prêt-à-Porter. To be called a Haute Couture house, a business must belong to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture et du Prêt-à-Porter. There are around eighteen members currently, including such legendary houses as Chanel, Dior, and Pierre Cardin.The salons generate more than $1 Billion in annual sales (but not from the garments – more on this later) and employ close to 5,000 people. Come with me now as I explore and explain the inner workings of the rarefied and inaccessible (to most) world that is Haute Couture…
To begin at the beginning, one would be wrong to assume that ‘Couture’ pertains merely to the execution of fine sewing.Whilst Couture IS perfection in sewing, it is only a small part of the sum. The truth is somewhat deeper, as in essence the Couture is about aesthetics; an ideal, a vision, an ART.It is the true expression of a designer, and creativity that is complex, with evidence of great effort.It is about detail, finishing, and who wears it.Couture possesses the ability to evolve whilst remaining permanent.It sets the standard by which others will be judged, and holds historical importance. A rarefied and glamorous aura surrounds it.Couture holds all the mystique of Royalty, and is equally revered. In its basic form, ‘Couture’ means to sew – the literal translation of ‘Haute Couture’ meaning ‘high sewing’.A fitting description of a Couturier would be an ‘artist of the cloth’. It is also important to note the distinction in terms between the genders. ‘Couturier’ describes the male version, ‘Couturiere’ applys to the female of the species.For those who are fortunate enough to work in this unique arena, it has become a way of life, a reason for being, even.
PASSION.Another important word.It is the motivational force behind any successful artist.The road to becoming a Couturier demands nothing less. Of all the true greats to have emerged over the last one hundred years from the Couture, only a few dozen have written fashion history.They alone were able to take an inspiration and transform it into a groundbreaking, pioneering garment.Charles Worth holds the distinguished title of ‘Father of the Couture’.He founded his house in 1858 in the Rue de la Paix.French Haute Couture made its debut at the 1900 World Fair in Paris, where Worth and Doucet showed their sublimely beautiful creations to an incredulous international audience.A subsequent newspaper review proved to be highly prophetic: “For all those who offer sacrifice at the altars of elegance, brilliance, splendour, and beauty, Paris was, is, and always will be, the only truly blessed place of pilgrimage”.And so it is today.For whilst fashion and the Couture have become a global affair, it is Paris that retains its cachet as the epicentre of high fashion.
Just as Paris gave birth to the Couture, it was also there that a governing body was formed which in turn developed specific definitions and standards that were and are, rigourously adhered to if one is to become a member of the Parisian Haute Couture elite.It is worthwhile to note here the differences between a Couturier, a Createur, and a Commercial designer for Prêt-à-Porter. The designer of Prêt-à-Porter (or a ready to wear designer) is a concept that evolved in France in the 1960s.These designers must possess several skills, combining creativity with business sense, and a knowledge of marketing.Apart from designing the collection, they supervise its production and post analyse its performance in the market place.They also need to be aware of current trends, and sensitive to what is going on around them.In short, they design for a mass market. A ‘Createur’ on the other hand, (not to be confused with a ‘Couturier’), is actually a designer whose status is halfway between that of Haute Couture and Prêt-à-Porter. Thirty years ago, this term was used in Paris to describe a fashion designer.In 1973, the Fondation Francaise de la Couture et du Prêt-à-Porter recognised the existence of Createurs and accepted them into the foundation.As a Createur, the individual can label their designs with their own name, and as a result, are able to show their creations without having achieved the status of Couturier.
As you can see, a definite hierarchy exists within the French fashion world.At the top of the tree is the Couture, or to be more specific, ‘Grand Couturier’.In order to achieve the status of ‘Grand Couturier’ in Paris, one must meet the criteria set down by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture et du Prêt-à-Porter.These requirements state that as a Grand Couturier you must employ at least 20 people in your own atelier, show a collection of at least 75 designs using three live models in Paris twice a year, and in addition, you must present the collection 45 times a year to clients.Today, these stringent rules have been relaxed somewhat, so that the 75 designs that were formerly called for have been reduced to 50 ‘compulsory creations’.This opened up the doors at the end of the 1990’s for designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, and Josephus Melchior Thimister (who sometimes have fewer than half the number of outfits of many colleagues) to show their Haute Couture lines.
With such exacting standards, it is not surprising to learn that most Couturiers come to the art with years of previous training under the tutelage of more experienced designers.Within the environment of the Couture, designers feel inclined to ‘create’ rather than ‘produce’.Therefore, some liken the atelier to a ‘Laboratory’ – a place where designs and techniques are invented and tested – a place where creative solutions to problems are achieved. Indeed, the white surgeon-like coats worn by Couturiers such as Dior and Givenchy gave credence to this concept, and the continued wearing of this ‘uniform’ has become an in-house tradition for many a Couture salon’s staff. Because the specialist techniques required by the Couture are so diverse, and the standard dauntingly high – the house employs a large team of talented artisans. They will help the Couturier(e) to realise his/her dreams.At the head of operations is the Couturier(e) himself/herself, followed by a workshop manager and a deputy, pattern cutters, seamstresses, tailors and hand finishers, each an expert in their particular area of sewing : beading, tailoring, millinery, working on chiffon, draping or sculpting Gazar.In addition, the team will include a Creative Director of Haute Couture, an Artistic Director and an assistant.Of all the people that make up this talented roster, the most important position is held by the Premiere d’Atelier.As the title suggests, she is the head of the studio, the designer’s right hand, and more importantly, the link between him and his workrooms.It is her job to interpret and in turn communicate the ideas that her master has conceived to her colleagues in the studio.
There are few designers such as Pierre Cardin who can draw, cut and sew.This responsibilty is delegated to the Premiere d’Atelier.She will take the designer’s original sketch, and translate it into a working design drawing.From this, a sample toile will be cut, then fitted and pinned on the stand.The sample toile is a prototype of the design which can be manipulated, marked and adjusted to fit a particular individual’s measurements until the Couturier and his staff are satisfied. The final toile of a particular model is an accurate interpretation right down to the button placement or hemline. It will be created from either muslin (which drapes well for flowing designs) or linen canvas or calico for more structured styles, such as a tailored garment. After the toile has been altered, a basic pattern will be cut, and then another toile made.The Premiere d’Atelier must have a designer’s eye and a technician’s skill, for she will often be the person responsible for the actual fabrics, buttons and other accessories used in a collection.It goes without saying that she must be at one with her master or mistress on an aesthetic and creative level in order to produce collections that will strongly evoke the look of the Couture house they represent.Christian Dior’s Premier d’Atelier was Marguerite Carre, whom he called ‘Dame Couture’.Dior himself never touched a pinned gown, but his discerning eye never missed a detail during a fitting.There were other legendary Couturiers and Couturieres who practiced the art of ‘Draping’, as opposed to flat pattern cutting.These included such luminaries as Madeleine Vionnet- doyenne of the bias cut, Coco Chanel, Jacques Fath and Madame Gres.They did not produce a design in sketch form.Instead, their modus operandi was to create a design on the human figure or dressmaker’s stand.
The dressmaker’s stand has remained consistent over the last century, allowing of course for changing ideals of beauty, and the fact that women’s body shapes have altered overtime.It is incredible to recall that in Dior’s day, a woman’s waist SHRANK from 23″ to 21″! Regular clients of the Couture enjoy the special privilege of a dressmaker’s stand made to replicate their own dimensions, along with a filed record of their personal measurements.This saves the need for constant personal appearances at fittings.It is interesting to note that the number of Couture clients at the beginning of this century has shrunk to an almost infinitesimal level. During fashion’s ‘Golden Age’, after World War II, there was a worldwide clientele of around 20,000; socialites such as the Duchess of Windsor, Babe Paley, Mona Von Bismarck and Gloria Guiness would order whole collections at a time. Today that figure has shrunk to around 3,000.Of these, 60% are American, and only 200 are regular customers. Often, Couture houses will loan clothes to movie stars or other public figures for publicity. In spite of its small clientele, Haute Couture still exerts a great influence over the world of fashion in general.The lifestyles of the women who shop the Couture today are different to those clients of the last century. Fashion itself is transitory by nature, yet Couture is still Couture.A profile of yesteryear’s client would read something like this: she was an older woman who had achieved an elevated position in life, she was established, and rich.She came from Europe.By contrast, today’s client is of any age, and she can come from anywhere on the globe.The Couture itself in the 21st century is an international affair.In its early days, a client would normally display their loyalty to one designer.Today, a client will shop with many different designers to achieve the look her lifestyle requires.By tradition, secrecy was the order of the day in all things Couture; today the doors have been opened somewhat and the spotlight allowed to shine in. As a result, the Couture has enjoyed mass coverage and attention from the media worldwide.
Let us picture for one moment the client who ‘shops the Couture’. As a regular patron, she knows the form.When she arrives in Paris she will be accompanied by maids, hairdressers and a secretary.She will book into a suite of rooms at either The Ritz, The Maurice, or The Bristol hotel. Whilst she is in the city, her entourage will attend to her social and well being.Her secretary has already arranged for her to view the current collections at one of her favourite Couture salons prior to arriving in Paris (This is essential, as very often garments from a collection will be out of the country, being presented elsewhere. If the client is of long-standing, or a serious purchaser, the Couture house will sometimes provide a video of their most recent collection in order for her to make her choice). Once she arrives at the salon, ‘Madame’ is looked after by a ‘Vendeuse’ – a very important saleswoman. It is her job to assist the client from the beginning of the Couture process through to the final fitting.If the client happens to be one of her own, she will earn a commission on the garments ordered.Under the Vendeuse’s care, the client will be given a level of attention and personal service which are second to none.The Vendeuse will smooth out any difficulties (such as another client wanting the same design and colour etc) whilst holding discussions between the stockroom, embroiderers, furriers and client. Madame makes her selection, whilst discussing such aspects as colour and accessories, and the occasion to which an outfit will be worn.Her own personal mannequin mimicking her body shape will be in the atelier workroom.On this, the skilled artisans will make a toile that is sewn, shaped, tailored and molded to resemble the finished garment -the difference being it is created in muslin, as opposed to silk.Madame spots an exquisite strapless ballgown.With her choice duly noted, her personal dress mannequin will be supressed in order to reflect her body in that specific design; such is the level of attention to detail in Haute Couture. Madame’s order will naturally be made to her own individual requirements.
At the initial fitting (attended by the Vendeuse, the fitter and the seamstress) adjustments will be made to the sample toile. Each aspect of the toile will be scrutinised, which may take a few moments, or a few hours! The line, drape, proportion, fit, flare, hang of the sleeve, will all be assessed.With adjustments made, a well rehearsed process is initiated by the talented team of craftspeople who make up the studio workrooms. The toile will be laid mis à plat. This means that it is laid flat on a table, taken to pieces, adjusted, and put together again, ready for the next fitting.Once the toile is perfected, the garment is sewn in the fashion fabric, and may require three additional fittings, sometimes more.By this stage, if the garment in question is to be beaded, it will go to the legendary Parisian beading house of ‘Lesage’. Whilst the staff of the Couture workroom toil away to weave their customary magic, Madame avails herself of the attractions of Paris, including the museums, shops and restaurants.She pays a visit to her favourite shoemaker, whose skill is the equal of any Couturier.Using the finest leather, dyed to match her gown, the shoemaker will create the ultimate statement in footwear, lined in satin and piped in gold.At Hermes she collects a piece of luggage that has been made and dyed to her specifications to match her other trunks and suitcases.
Madame returns to the Couture house for her final fitting.By now the garment has blossomed into a beautiful creation of silk taffeta. Once the garment has been finished and before it is released to the client, the Vendeuse will inspect it, for her exacting standards will have to be met before the garment is approved as Couture. Madame visits the salon for the last time to try on her completed gown.She is thrilled to find that it fits like a glove and accentuates her good figure points whilst disguising her figure flaws. As she twirls in front of a magnificent walled mirror, she feels like a princess who is walking on air. She has paid not merely for a garment, but for the art and skill of many – and for the unique experience and personal attention that is the hallmark of Haute Couture. Because so few people can afford to buy Haute Couture, the business often runs at a loss – such is the price of art. The fashion shows themselves can cost up to a million pounds to stage, and only a very few of the couture models shown each season are actually sold to the regular Couture clientele – around 1500 sales for each house.A salon such as Dior will make around 20 Couture bridal gowns a year. As one would expect, profits are often thin – amounting to less than ten percent of the gross profits of the Couture label, or sometimes less. However, Haute Couture is funded not by its garment orders, but by its licensing.
Licensing has become an essential part of modern day marketing for high fashion and is based on the prestige and desirability attached to a designer label. The internationally reknowned design house – known for its luxurious Haute Couture – produces a wide range of beauty products, from perfume and cosmetics through to boutique jewellry at an affordable level. The prestige that the house enjoys for its Haute Couture is also reflected in its licensed products. A consumer may not be able to buy a Couture outfit, but she will be able to buy a bottle of scent, or scarf, or the ‘RTW’ designer label garments. By so doing, the consumer can feel a part of the ‘dream’, and enjoy the cachet associated with a given designer label. At the same time she convinces herself that she is every bit as exclusive as the 1,000 women and supermodels who regularly wear Haute Couture gowns. These licensed items provide large profits for the design house through the volume of mass market international sales, therefore both the Ready-to-wear and Couture beauty industries employ a huge workforce that produce the perfume and accessories which finances their Couture operations, and which enables the house to continue producing exquisite collections in the style to which its clients are accustomed – even if it is at a loss. The world of Haute Couture is a heady, intoxicating and addictive one. Very few women will get to sample the overt luxury it offers, but many will wear outfits that have been copied or influenced by its innovative style. For, perhaps the Couture’s most important, satisfying and enduring role comes from the inspiration that it has consistently provided over the past 150 years for all those who are passionate about fashion, style and art.
HAUTE COUTURE: FALL/WINTER 2016-17 collection
‘ARENA OF DREAMS’ ARTICLE TEXT ©copyright Gary Alston 2013.House Of Retro/Gary Alston makes no claim to the ownership of the images appearing on this page.