Haute Couture: A Dying Art?
This past Sunday, the Paris Haute Couture shows kicked off with the newly revived Atelier Versace couture collection. Haute Couture represents luxury, wealth and status, and a fantasy that some are debating as being relevant in the rapidly changing landscape of fashion.
Haute Couture, which literally translates to “high sewing,” can trace its roots back to the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The current form of couture was not established until the trade union Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture dictated a strict set of rules that would determine what constituted as couture in 1863. To be considered a couturier, a House’s workshop/headquarters must be located in Paris. Garments must be handmade (no sewing machines allowed), custom designed for private customers, and pieces must undergo at least 1 fitting in the workshop with the customer. The finest fabrics and embellishments must be used on the garments from such ateliers as Lemarie (who produce feathers), and collections are then shown at the bi-annual Paris Haute Couture Fashion Weeks in January and June.
The Couture collections are shown in the same season they are attended for, unlike ready-to-wear which shows a season in advance to ensure time for buyers to secure garments for the shops. Less of an investment and more of a style statement, these odes to the skill of the top artisans in the world are considered to be the ultimate status symbol and possessed by only a select few.
This exclusive facet of the fashion industry is merely a dream, an inspiration, a fantasy for the vast majority of the populace. With pieces costing anywhere from $50 000 to $800 000, couture garments are only a decadent indulgence of the fabulously super-wealthy. But even wealth does not assure that you will be able to don yourself in the finest garments in the world. Couture Houses are extremely selective of who they select as a customer. After all, these exquisite garments are a walking advertisement and fine wearable art piece.
Today’s couture world is dependent upon a mere thirty women who are very secretive about their membership in this exclusive community. Daphne Guinness is one of the few known names of the inner circle of patrons of fine fashion. Outside of these core buyers, there are an estimated 1 000 – 2 000 customers world-wide. Film’s red carpet extravaganzas are the only time that couture surfaces for the delight of the plebeians, a spectacle that draws attention to the luxury fashion houses and boosts sales of their bottom tier (read: more accessible) products.
Although it may seem an indefensible expenditure and a gluttonous practice by many, haute couture holds a great deal of importance. Like all great art, the cost of the piece may be great, but the beauty, inspiration, and creativity contained are of much greater value and importance. Let us also keep in mind that haute couture employs thousands of skilled artisans: Seamstresses and tailors employed at the fashion houses, specialists who make the embroidery, beads, feathers, hats, shoes and bags, and the skilled artisans who weave the fabric, dye it, and produce the fine raw materials. The employment this provides in Europe (primarily in France) is an industry of great importance. Not only does it provide for families, but it keeps the old traditions and techniques alive, keeping precious historic skills from extinction. On a more practical and base level, the opulence of the couture collections generates ravenous sales of its low-end products (perfumes, sunglasses, bags) by the average woman who desperately wants to buy into the magical fantasy.
Despite the long-tradition, historical value, and beauty of this form of wearable art, many believe that haute couture is a dying art.
The decline in couture can be linked to the post-war beginnings of mass production which has led to today’s fast fashion phenomenon. The rise of the machine gave way to in ready-to-wear collections in the market after the 1950s. These lower priced collections were making the great fashion houses more accessible to women around the world. As fast-fashion and the era of inexpensive disposable goods took hold, the quality and reverence to artistry began to crumble.
“Once you start losing all those artisans that knew how to make those things, it’s like cutting down a forest. It’s not going to grow back.” ~ Daphne Guinness
Many designers have closed their couture houses in the past 20 years. There are fewer artisans than ever that are trained to create such highly skilled work, the few workshops that do remain are equipped with a tiny yet highly talented staff, and the customer is literally dying out. The aging populace that gave such importance to quality and design has begun to leave the hall of fashion, and the new customer is intent on a gluttonous cycle of high-turnover. As a sign of an industry desperately trying to protect and preserve the legacy of couture, Chanel bought up six of the most revered couture ateliers in the world to ensure that the craft of haute couture could continue in the modern era. Among these ateliers was Lesage, Lemarie, Massaro, Goossens, Desrues, Maison Michel, and Guillet.
But while many feel that haute couture has already sung its swan song, others are looking hopefully towards the possibility of a resurgence. Although the golden age may have passed and the likliehood of couture returning to its former glory are low, designers claim that popularity has begun to pick up in the past couple years. More patrons are emerging from China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia increasing business by an estimated 20-30%. It is thought that perhaps this new young generation of buyers and collectors are seeking to counter the waste of fast-fashion, recognizing couture as an art form.
We have been watching the industry carefully and it is becoming clear that there is a greater mass market interest in the customization of clothing in every realm of fashion. Perhaps we are burnt out from the sheer enormity and light-speed momentum of fast-fashion culture and looking towards a more sustainable and simpler future. Whatever the future of fashion, our sincere hope is that the marvelous creations of haute couture will continue to inspire us in the years to come.