Haute Couture: Between Art and Business

The term ‘Haute Couture’ illustrates the early existence of fashion itself and its advocates, although today couture collections are perceived as being an important marketing tool for great fashion houses - as most of the couture designers state they don’t make any money out of it. It is already well known that haute couture has a small clientele-no more than 4,000 wealthy women as Nicholas Coleridge stated in his book  – The Fashion Conspiracy. 

ChanelHaute Couture was born in France, in 1858, when the House of Charles Fredrick Worth, generally regarded as the father of Paris couture, opened its doors. With its extravagant creations, Paul Poiret become the second great fashion legend of Paris, but was soon deposed by the women recognized as being the only designer who created a style of her own - Coco Chanel. According to Elaine Stone, Haute Couture or “fine sewing” is today synonymous with high fashion. These original designs, which use luxury fabrics and are known for their exquisite detailing are of necessity expensive and thus are made in very limited numbers, provide inspiration for the inexpensive mass market designs that dominate the fashion market. 

Christian LacroixAccording to Telegraph, to qualify as couture, a garment must be entirely hand-made by one of the 11 Paris couture houses registered to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Each house must employ at least 20 people, and show a minimum of 75 new designs a year. However in the 21st century, the world of couture have changed to such an extent that iconic operators like Chanel, Dior and Gaultier - increasingly use couture as a marketing device for their far more profitable ready-to-wear, fragrance and accessory lines. In order to support the above statement, we should remember one of the world’s greatest couturiers- Christian Lacroix who lost his creative director job when his namesake label filed for bankruptcy in 2009 due to the fact that he constantly refused to adapt his creations to the already well-known mass market luxury trend. While the Christian Lacroix name remained in use for certain licenses (men's clothes, wedding dresses, fragrances), Lacroix's haute couture and ready-to-wear collections disappeared. Nevertheless, the couturier is now planning a comeback in the world of couture as is now designing a new haute couture collection for Schiaparelli, the first for the brand since its shuttering in 1954. Another great couturier whose couture house is no longer registered at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture is Pierre Cardin who once had almost 500 people working on couture, however by the Eithies the number had fallen to 50. 

Christian DiorBernard Arnault, the head of LVMH Moët Hennessy - Louis Vuitton, provides enough information for a person to understand how couture lines work in practice: "Haute couture is what gives our business its essential essence of luxury. The cash it soaks up is largely irrelevant. Set against the money we lose has to be the value of the image couture gives us. Look at the attention the collections attract. It is where you get noticed. You have to be there. It's where we set our ideas in motion." While many legendary fashion houses were created on the base of couture, today most design houses focus only on ready-to-wear lines as they generate the most income. Therefore, regardless of the fact that we can still witness a few haute couture shows provided by fashion houses such as Christian Dior SA, Valentino, Armani Privé, Giambattista Valli and Elie Saab which gather every year at the Paris Haute Couture Week, the importance of haute couture collections seems to be increasingly lower. For example Givenchy announced its decision to suspend its Haute Couture line at the end of 2012, as the brand will only display its Couture garments internally to private clients and celebrities. Givenchy is not the only brand which decided the art of couture is too difficult to support, as in the past decade Haute Couture houses like Balmain (2002), Yves Saint Laurent (2002) and the above mentioned Christian Lacroix (2009) had a similar fate. 

Oscar dela RentaIt is interesting to discover that Oscar de la Renta, who designed the Balmain’s couture collections for nine years (1993–2002), now being a world-renowned fashion designer respected for his couture-like ready to wear collections stated in 2010 for the Journal that "Couture has become completely irrelevant. Couture isn’t necessary, even to promote the brand. Customers are smart. They know that a $10,000 wedding dress will look as beautiful as a $1 million wedding dress. Maybe it will not be finished the same way inside, but who will know?” 

Jean Paul GaultierAccording to the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture’s official list for 2013, the registered haute couture fashion houses are: Chanel, Maison Martin Margiela, Christophe Josse, Rad Hourani, Frank Sorbier, Ellie Saab, Christian Dior SA, Jean Paul Gaultier, Atelier Gustavolins, Iris Herpen, Julien Fournie, Yiqing Yin, Giorgio Armani Prive, Valentino, Alexis Mabille , Alexandre Vauthier, Giambattista Valli, Bouchara Jarrar, Versace, Victor&Rolf as the next Paris Haute Couture Week will take place between June 30 and July 5, 2013. In France, the term haute couture is protected by law and can only be correctly applied to the members of the above list. Thus the term cannot be applied to all the designers who produce exclusive custom-fitted clothing, though in reality there is a thin line between real Haute Couture garments and Couture-Like Ready-to-Wear designed by Oscar de la Renta for instance.  

ValentinoTherefore, as the world evolves, Haute Couture starts to have different meanings for different people. There have been great debates regarding the term of couture and the importance of couture lines for the fashion industry. While many voices state that as it is now, couture is the essence of fashion; there are also many voices that suggest couture should be reinvented. For instance Colin McDowell an already well-known contributing editor at The Business of Fashion made an interesting point in an article called someway roughly “Is Haute Couture Poised for Reinvention or Irrelevance?” on the actual situation of Haute Couture industry which, as we know, is represented by a the small group of people who” have become complacent, which is the worst thing that can happen to creativity anywhere”. Although he doesn’t share the exact opinion as Oscar de la Renta who sees no point in creating haute couture clothes at all, the idea of reinvention is clearly emphasized. 

There is no doubt that emerging countries such as Russia, China and India have now started to develop an intensive desire for luxury and couture as more and more women have begun to afford having art in their wardrobes. Therefore, there is an obvious need for these countries to develop their own couture houses, so they could bring innovation in an industry that seems to promote anything but new talents. The creativity of young people with skills and dedication for the art of crafting can be used to reinvent and even relocate maybe the greatest phenomenon of the entire fashion industry which is couture. And while the idea of change is part of the modern world we live in, Haute Couture ambassadors are still having the last word as they are the symbol of what really means fashion elite, exclusivity and quality.