Twice a year throngs of the rich and fabulous descend upon Paris for the couture showings, rooming at L’hôtel Ritz and prancing their well-heeled way towards Place Vendôme to take in the spectacle that is Haute Couture. In the fashion world, to be invited to a couture show is to be invited into the innermost circle of the fashion elite. Sitting in the audience is fashion’s equivalent of a dinner at the White House- if you aren’t a paying customer you’re either the face of the brand, an editor at Vogue or an A-list celebrity: think Kidman, not Kardashian.
When design legends Christian Dior and Coco Chanel were alive couture used to be the main offering of a house, with accessory products such as footwear and gloves being manufactured by a third party under license. Back then couture was the driving creative force in the fashion world and was often copied by the mainstream, whereas modern day ready-to-wear now plays that role. In 2013 couture occupies a much smaller space than it used to, commanding less interest and fewer customers. Where there were once over two hundred haute couturiers there are now only sixteen, most of whom produce ready-to-wear as their primary source of income.
While there have been many changes, the concept of haute couture has remained much as it was a century ago. Design houses, based largely in Paris, create one-of-a-kind garments, hand-sewn garments that are shown in presentations to a select group of media and clients. Once a style has been purchased, the client will visit the house atelier several times over the course of two or three months to have the garment fitted exactly to her body. With no small amount of pomp and ceremony, the finished piece is specially delivered to the client’s house, where an ambassador of the atelier is present to help with the first dressing. It is an intimate and elaborate process from a time long ago, when fortunes were made from railroads and steel and gold.
Labour-intensive and luxurious, couture dresses cost anywhere from fifty thousand to two hundred thousand American dollars each.
It’s a staggering sum to spend on one article of clothing when the average American doesn’t make that much money in one year. Looked at within a global context, where over one billion people live in poverty, it is even more shocking to imagine a world where this type of behaviour is deemed normal. If this seems like the level of excess appropriate only for the wives of dictators and sultans it’s because it pretty much is: Reuters reports Queen Rania of Jordan and the Emir of Qatar’s wife, Sheika al-Missned, as two of couture’s top clients.
So how does this relate to the rest of us, who don’t jet off to Paris for a fitting and for whom a cocktail party doesn’t entail dropping a hundred thousand dollars on a new dress? Is couture relevant or is it, in the words of Bridget Bardot, “for grannies”? Perhaps the most important question is whether or not couture should exist at all in a world where so many people have so little.
And do we even need couture when the pace of fashion has become lightning speed? Working as a designer in today’s times has never been more demanding. Present-day couture designers work with one foot in the present and one foot in the past having to satisfy the demands of two very different customers. On the one hand designers such as Giorgio Armani, Riccardo Tisci and Jean-Paul Gaultier must churn out up to six ready-to-wear collections per year for mass consumption, on the other they must tend to the needs of their couture clients: the super-elite, the nobility and the well-connected who can afford the exclusivity of haute couture. Can these designers even invest the time needed to create a true piece of couture, or are their customers getting less than what they’ve paid for?
In truth, the standards of haute couture have never been higher. The petite mains who construct the garment are just as well trained as they were under Coco Chanel, working up to one hundred and fifty hours on just one garment in order to make it perfect. Established houses such as Givenchy and Dior have invested enough money into the French garment industry that small crafts makers are able to support the needs of Parisian couture, creating the same exquisite lace, silk flowers and beading as they have for the past century.
These artisanal firms are extremely specialized in what they do; Maison Lesage does embroidery, Desrues makes buttons and Lemarie supplies the highest quality feathers in the world. In actuality, while couture may appear frivolous, there is arguably more time and more resources invested into a piece of couture than an expensive piece of art or even a car. Unlike most of what is produced today, a couture piece is created to last a lifetime and only increases in value with age.
Couture is extremely expensive but it is so much more than a simple piece of clothing. Alber Elbaz said it best when he stated, “it’s important to still support couture because we’re supporting a technique, a dream.”, because couture is the realization of pure fantasy through many hands. Couture is especially relevant in today`s world because we are in danger of losing touch with the art of fashion design and replacing it with the Zara`s and the Forever 21`s of the world, who create clothing with no soul. It may not be for everyone but haute couture is the pinnacle of fashion talent and imagination, without which we wouldn't even have a fashion industry. It`s vital that we support haute couture in order to support the dreams of those who created it, for they are our industry`s true artists.