Guest Post: FASHION: Is Haute Couture Still Relevant in 2014?
Paris is currently in the middle of Couture Week, the most prestigious of all fashion weeks the world over, and one of the main reasons the city is dubbed “fashion capital of the world” along with London, New York and Milan. But with Fashion Week approaching next month, and many celebrities, stylists and designers currently converging on Paris, some might ask what Haute Couture Week is all about and how it differs to Paris Fashion Week?
Couture Week is an old tradition exclusive to Paris, although Singapore hosted a Couture week of their own in October 2011, and usually follows Paris Fashion Week for Men. Haute Couture translates to high-sewing in French, more commonly known as high fashion. Garments are custom fitted to the wearer’s size and are usually one-off designs that are hand-made, without the using of sewing machines. This identifies them as high quality, with impeccable detailing, constructed from unusual and superior fabrics. A large team of designers and seamstresses will spend months on one dress, cutting, sewing and hand stitching details.
With the amount of time, attention and labour that haute couture garments adopt, they are generally seen as “priceless”, and made without the intention of being sold. Fashion has often been described as art, and with couture shows this is certainly the case; the items are predominantly made to be displayed on the runway like an exhibition.
For those who do want to purchase haute couture, it is possible. Each piece can only be purchased once and with prices running in to the hundreds of thousands, only those for whom money is no object need apply. Even haute couture worn to red carpet occasions is, without a doubt, always borrowed. Those who buy it never reveal themselves, and the fashion houses that are aware of their clients’ identities operate a strictly confidential stance. Is it assumed designs are collected, like art, amongst aristocracy, royalty and elaborately wealthy oil tycoons of the USA, Russia, China and the Middle East, to demonstrate power and wealth.
Many of the well-known couture brands include Chanel, Versace, Elie Saab and Victor and Rolf, yet not just any designer can produce a couture line as the industry is protected. The Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris has ensured that designers must meet certain well-defined standards to be considered to partake – a full-time workshop in Paris of at least 20 staff is key. They must also show at least 75 designs, displaying twice a year, while allowing personal fittings of their clients.
Yet, according to fashion PR guru, Jean-Jacques Picart; “No matter how successful you are, you can’t make a profit from couture.” It is not uncommon for designers to charge far less for dresses than the cost of making them, though prices still start around £30,000. Often thought of as highly impractical, completely unaffordable and often unwearable, with approximately only 4,000 customers worldwide and its relevance questioned, the industry looks to be is suffering. Its latest blow saw Christian Lacroix declare bankruptcy and close his label in 2009. Over the 20th century the number of couture houses decreased considerably, from 106 in 1946to just 24 this week.
And should there be no sale at all, it would appear the labour-intense construction results in a lucrative loss for a design house. However, there are many pro’s – not only is technical prowess displayed, but also the designer’s creative vision, and pay attention and you will see that it is a brilliant marketing strategy. The more supposedly absurd a dress is, the more likely it is to get media attention and public bewilderment, leading to invaluable publicity for a fashion house. This current rise in profile has a knock-on effect when it comes to a designer’s prêt-à-porter collection, displayed during the relevant Fashion Week. The high quality and use of similar colours boost sales. The intrigue then filters down to high street products, such as make-up and perfume, which are sold affordably to the masses, and the likes of Valentino and Jean Paul Gaultier are laughing all the way to the bank.
Adamant of its importance, owner of Dior and Givenchy Bernard Arnault spoke recently on the topic; “Haute couture is what gives our business its essential essence of luxury. It is where you get noticed.”
Opposing views might only add more mystery and desire to couture week, translating to cash sales for the brands. And with a large celebrity turnout this week including Lady Gaga, Kate Bosworth, Michelle Rodriguez, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, it seems haute couture and its importance is very much on the agenda right now.
By Clarissa Waldron