Haute couture is the creation of exclusive custom-fitted high-end fashion design that is constructed by hand from start-to-finish. Haute couture is the professional sector in which luxury clothing designers operate. Today, it is organized around “haute couture houses”, some of which are quite old brands, with which many great designers have collaborated over the years. Haute couture played an avant-garde role and her works foreshadowed fashion.
Haute Couture is a French exception and as the name of the Federation indicates, it lies at the heart of fashion’s ecosystem. Tremendously modern, it is a permanent gateway between a tradition for excellence in know-how and contemporaneity in creation embodying today manufacturing techniques that are at the cutting edge of innovation. The Haute Couture collections are presented twice a year, in January and in July.
Due to its extraordinary nature, it has been granted a special status. Since 2010, its official calendar has hosted the Finest Jewellery Houses that are affiliated to the Federation. This initiative allows for synchronicity of presentations but also enables the history of two sectors with exceptional know-how and both in a state of endless reinvention to be played out in sequence.
The origins of Haute Couture are attributed to Charles Frederick Worth who in 1858 founded the first true Couture House at number 7, rue de la Paix in Paris. Before that Rose Bertin, Marie-Antoinette’s «Fashion Minister» had foreshadowed it, being the first to start freeing up the female body, all the while adorning her creations with embroidery, lace and rose petals.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Paris became the centre of a growing industry which focused on making outfits from high-quality, expensive, often unusual fabric and sewn with extreme attention to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable of sewers—often using time-consuming, hand-executed techniques.
Couture translates literally from French as “dressmaking”, sewing, or needlework and is also used as a common abbreviation of haute couture and can often refer to the same thing in spirit. Haute translates literally to “high”. An haute couture garment is always made for an individual client, tailored specifically for the wearer’s measurements and body stance. Considering the amount of time, money, and skill allotted to each completed piece, haute couture garments are also described as having no price tag: budget is not relevant.
Its primary field of interest being handmade work accomplished within these Houses’ workshops, a laboratory for ideas and techniques, a space where creativity can flourish freely: this is Haute Couture, whose international renown has always remained true to itself and has contributed to making Paris fashion capital of the world.
Haute Couture stands out by the uniqueness of original models created each year, and the customization of these models which are then crafted to fit the client’s measurements. Haute Couture as well as contemporary Haute Joaillerie heckles and sometimes trifles academic forms to adapt to the times. They bring an undeniable sensorial and imaginative supplement in addition to remaining extremely modern, often nourished by new technologies.
In modern France, haute couture is a protected name that may not be used except by firms that meet certain well-defined standards. Following a decision taken on January 23rd 1945, the designation “Haute Couture” became a legally registered designation of origin. Only those houses and companies that are approved each year by a dedicated commission run by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture and held under the aegis of the Ministry for Industry may become eligible for it.
Haute couture houses must meet a certain number of criteria: work carried out by hand in the workshops of the house, two workshops, number of employees, the uniqueness of tailor- made pieces, two parades in the calendar of the haute couture each year, number of appearances per show (at least twenty-five), use of a certain area of fabric. In addition, Didier Grumbach specifies that “each fashion designer applying to become a member must be sponsored”.
French pre-eminence in fashion probably dates from the 17th century, when the arts, architecture, music and fashion of the Court of Louis XIV at Versailles were admired and imitated throughout Europe. When the railroad and steamboats allowed it, it became common for ladies of European high society to make the trip to Paris to buy clothes and accessories. French tailors and milliners then had the reputation of being the most talented, and their creations were the most sought after.
Rose Bertin, fashion merchant, perhaps considered one of the first great personalities of French haute couture. In 1770, this young fashion designer opened her couture house under the sign ” Le Grand Mogol ” in the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, in Paris; a rare audacity in a world of essentially male entrepreneurs. Introduced to Queen Marie Antoinette, she quickly established herself as the Court’s fashion designer, earning the flattering and envied title of “Minister of Fashion” from the sovereign. Under his creative impulse, French haute-couture exploded with diversity and invention: la belle poule hairstyle, sentimental pouf, hat fired from the Opera, Montgolfier or Philadelphia…
Prince of tailors and tailors of princes, Louis Hippolyte Leroy reigned over French fashion under the First Empire. Appointed supplier to Napoleon I and his wife Joséphine de Beauharnais, he designed and cut the costumes of the Emperor and Empress for their coronation in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in 1804. At the head of a prosperous and luxurious fashion house located rue de Richelieu in Paris (including fitting room, workshop, boutique), he became the first star couturier of his time, refusing to sell to provincials or ladies who did not come to his home in person in their own car. Paris is already the temple of fashion with more than 2,400 referenced tailors.
Under Napoleon III, Paris was transformed into “the city of light”, and its prestige attracted talent from all over Europe. A young couturier of English origin, Charles Frederick Worth (1826–1895), settled in the French capital. After an initial apprenticeship with the Gagelin house, he opened his own fashion house on rue de la Paix, near the famous Place Vendôme. Innovative and original, it introduced new commercial practices: it was the birth of the fashion show on a living mannequin (then called a look-alike) and of the concept of “collection”, also implemented in emerging department stores such as Au Bon Marché d ‘ Aristide Boucicaut (nicknamed ” Au Bonheur des Dames “).
The legend, his many inventions, and the aggressive self-promotion of Charles Frederick Worth later earned him the title of “father of haute couture”, although he was neither the first nor the only, working in the world of Parisian haute couture. In 1868, Worth created a Chambre Syndicale de la confection et de la couture pour dames et fillettes, intended to protect its members against copies, where the distinction between couture and confection was not clearly established. In 1911, the organization took the name of Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. But from the 1880s, the term “haute couture” was established.
In 1914, the Callot sisters, Paul Poiret, Jacques Worth, Jeanne Paquin, Louise Chéruit, Jenny Sacerdote, Paul Rodier and the silky Bianchini-Férier formed the Syndicat de defense de la grande couture française, of which Paul Poiret took over the presidency, followed by Georges Dœuillet, with the aim of defending their models against unauthorized copies. In a “profession of faith” addressed to the New York Times in 1915, Poiret castigated in particular the methods of the “American buyers”. Later generations of French haute couture include Jean Patou, Madeleine Vionnet, Lanvin, Gabrielle Chanel, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga or Dior.
From 1947, haute couture, revolutionized by Christian Dior, saw its second “golden age”. In the mid-1960s, a group of young designers who had emerged in the wake of Christian Dior created their own Parisian houses. The most famous are Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, André Courrèges and Emanuel Ungaro. Later in the 20th century, Christian Lacroix, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler appeared in particular: in the 1980s, after a long period of decline, haute couture regained its dynamism.
Modernized haute couture shows are not designed and made to be sold, rather they are exactly what they are displayed for—for show. Instead of being constructed for the purpose of selling and making money, they are made to further the publicity, as well as perception and understanding of brand image.
For all these fashion houses, custom clothing is no longer the main source of income, often costing much more than it earns through direct sales; it only adds the aura of fashion to their ventures in ready-to-wear clothing and related luxury products such as shoes and perfumes, and licensing ventures that earn greater returns for the company. It is their ready-to-wear collections that are available to a wider audience, adding a splash of glamour and the feel of haute couture to more wardrobes.
Today, haute couture is no longer the essential activity, in economic terms, for the ten large Parisian houses that still practice it. Firstly because it is not profitable: the requirements of this profession (long work, carried out by hand in French workshops, etc.) result in prices that are unaffordable to ordinary mortals. Some dresses trade for more than 100,000 euros.
But if it is not profitable, haute couture serves as a showcase for spreading the brand image of the houses, which allows them to market ready-to-wear to a wider clientele as well as, increasingly, accessories and perfumes, two extremely profitable activities. Some houses are known to have pushed this logic of licensing and merchandising to the extreme, such as Pierre Cardin, whose prestige plummeted rapidly, the excess and poor quality of products bearing his signature gradually devaluing the prestige of his brand.
Finally, since the 1960s, the fashion scene has become internationalized, and customers have got into the habit of also paying attention to ready-to-wear designers from New York or Milan, Paris nevertheless retaining its role as fashion capital. This activity enabled a number of suppliers to survive, whose businesses were generally artisanal and old, like the embroiderer Lesage or the feather-worker Lemarié.
Paris Haute Couture Week
Each year, two haute couture collections are presented through fashion shows registered in the official calendar of the French Federation of ready-to-wear fashion designers and fashion designers. The presentation of the spring/summer collections takes place during the month of January of the corresponding year, and that of the autumn/winter collections at the beginning of July for the season of the following year. France is historically the first to have organized these parades, followed by Italy presenting ready-to-wear.
Paris Haute Couture Week is a lavish affair, mostly attended by clients (the porte-monnaie sur pattes, or ‘walking purses’) with chequebooks ready to snap up that perfect haute couture frock, which could cost upwards of $20,000. Even if haute couture isn’t a huge moneymaker for the fashion houses – some houses actually lose money on their haute couture – Couture Week is an event with more than its fair share of opulence and glamour.
The Scenes sets are full of meaning, to show off to best effect the incredible hours of work spent creating the garments. For Example, a show from Chanel recreated Parisian streets as a backdrop to showcase for their iconic boucle suits and dreamy chiffon gowns, while the typically flamboyant Schiaparelli accessorised outfits with animal masks at the Palais Garnier Opera.
A couturier is an establishment or person involved in the clothing fashion industry who makes original garments to order for private clients. A couturier may make what is known as haute couture. Such a person usually hires patternmakers and machinists for garment production, and is either employed by exclusive boutiques or is self-employed.
The couturier Charles Frederick Worth is widely considered the father of haute couture as it is known today. Although born in Bourne, Lincolnshire, England, Worth made his mark in the French fashion industry. Revolutionizing how dressmaking had been previously perceived, Worth made it so the dressmaker became the artist of garnishment: a fashion designer.
While he created one-of-a-kind designs to please some of his titled or wealthy customers, he is best known for preparing a portfolio of designs that were shown on live models at the House of Worth. Clients selected one model, specified colors and fabrics, and had a duplicate garment tailor-made in Worth’s workshop. Worth combined individual tailoring with a standardization more characteristic of the ready-to-wear clothing industry, which was also developing during this period.
Following in Worth’s footsteps were Callot Soeurs, Patou, Poiret, Vionnet, Fortuny, Lanvin, Chanel, Mainbocher, Schiaparelli, Balenciaga, and Dior. Some of these fashion houses still exist today, under the leadership of modern designers.
In the 1960s, a group of young protégés who had trained under more senior and established fashion designers including Dior and Balenciaga left these established couture houses and opened their own establishments. The most successful of these young designers were Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, André Courrèges, Ted Lapidus, and Emanuel Ungaro. Japanese native and Paris-based Hanae Mori was also successful in establishing her own line.
The industry in fact has a very specific set of rules. Designers must have their own atelier with no less than 15 staff (in addition to 20 technical staff members, which includes almost 2,200 les petit mains, who provide the painstaking detail of couture pieces), which is equipped to offer private showings for clients, and more than one fitting. The brand also has to show at least 25 looks at Paris’s Couture Fashion Week, which takes place twice a year, in January and July.
From a sketch or a molding on a mannequin by the couturier, the creations are made in a workshop. Haute couture houses traditionally have two workshops: one for “blur” and one for “tailoring”: the “blur” for fluid materials, making it possible to make evening or cocktail dresses; the “tailor” for structured garments such as coats, jackets, trousers, straight skirts. These workshops can be made up of a few people, and up to a hundred for certain houses like Dior.
In France, the term haute couture is protected by law and is defined by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris based in Paris. The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture is defined as “the regulating commission that determines which fashion houses are eligible to be true haute couture houses”. Their rules state that only “those companies mentioned on the list drawn up each year by a commission domiciled at the Ministry for Industry are entitled to avail themselves” of the label haute couture.
The Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne is an association of Parisian couturiers founded in 1868 as an outgrowth of medieval guilds that regulate its members in regard to counterfeiting of styles, dates of openings for collections, number of models presented, relations with press, questions of law and taxes, and promotional activities. Formation of the organization was brought about by Charles Frederick Worth.
The Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, and in particular the Chambre Syndicale de la haute couture, is responsible for regulating the haute couture industry in Paris. It protects design houses such as Chanel, Givenchy and Valentino, as well as designers who only work in the haute couture field, such as Schiaparelli and Jean Paul Gaultier. In total, there are only 14 designers who bear the label of haute couture.
An affiliated school was organized in 1930 called L’Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. The school helps bring new designers to help the “couture” houses that are still present today. Since 1975, this organization has worked within the Federation Francaise, de couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Createurs de Mode.