What is Haute Couture?
Costume and Fashion history would not be the same without Haute couture.
Haute Couture is a French phrase for high fashion. Couture means dressmaking, sewing, or needlework and haute means elegant or high, so the two combined imply excellent artistry with the fashioning of garments. The purchase of a haute couture model garment is at the top level of hand customised fashion design and clothing construction made by a couture design house. A model haute couture garment is made specifically for the wearer's measurements and body stance. The made to measure exclusive clothes are virtually made by hand, carefully interlined, stay taped and fitted to perfection for each client.
High Fashion - High Cost of Haute Couture
Dependant on the Haute Couture design house and the garment, the cost of a couture item runs from about £10,000 for a simple blouse to £40,000 and often beyond that figure. A Chanel couture suit for example in 2002 might have cost £20,000. By mid 2004 an evening frock cost £50,000. If you are not rich it's hard for an individual to understand why the price is so high, but it's for service, workmanship, originality of a unique design and superb materials of the finest quality.
In addition the client would get a perfection of fit only achieved by painstaking methods of cutting and fitting to the client's body. The manual labour needed to produce a garment this way takes between 100-150 hours for a suit and up to 1000 hours for an embellished evening dress. The evening dress might have thousands of hand sewn beads probably done by the expert and famous Parisian embroidery and beading firm of Lesage, founded in 1922 by Albert Lesage.
A couture house like Chanel for example will have about 150 regular clients who buy couture and a house like Dior will make about 20 couture bridal gowns a year.
Exclusive Expensive Haute Couture Fabrics
The fabrics available to the couture house would be very luxurious and include the latest novelty fabrics and expensive silks, fine wools, cashmeres, cottons, linens, leather, suede, other skins or furs. In the case of a famous design house the design and colour of a cloth, may be exclusively reserved for that couture house.
Outside specialists make accessories either by design or inspiration. Hats, trimmings, buttons, belts, costume jewellery, shoes and innovative pieces are finely crafted to complement the fabrics and fashion ideas being created. Superb craftsmanship, a fresh idea and publicized internationally renowned names all command a price to match. Those able to afford couture are happy to pay for exclusivity and the privacy afforded by the system.
Toiles are Sample Garments
Designers create their initial designs either by using muslin, which drapes well for flowing designs or by using linen canvas or calico for more structured garments such as tailored garments. These sample models are called toiles and save using very expensive fabrics that can cost a £100 or more a metre. The toile can be manipulated, marked and adjusted to fit a particular live model's measurements until the designer and his sale staff are all satisfied.
The final toile of a design idea is an accurate interpretation of the line or cut right down to the button placement or hemline that the designer is seeking. Once satisfied the designer instructs his staff to make up the garment in the selected and exclusive materials. One seamstress or tailor will work on the garment from start to finish. The cutting and finishing is done in one room and the workroom manageress is responsible for everything produced in that room.
Haute Couture - Appointments Only Please
When a customer decides to order a Haute Couture garment she needs to first make an appointment with the design house prior to any visit to Paris. Model garments from collections are sometimes out of the country being presented elsewhere. Some couture houses provide a video of the collection to serious purchasers.
The Haute Couture Order
Once given an appointment the client is looked after by a vendeuse, an important saleswoman responsible for customers, their orders and supervision of their fittings.
The vendeuse gets commission on the clothes of her own particular group of clients.
From the moment a client is received at the salon the client is helped and humoured through all stages of fitting and sudden difficulties. A difficulty could for example be another client from the same city who wants the exact same design and colour garment for a prestigious function. The vendeuse smoothes out such problems knowing full well what a disaster it could be for two women to pay vast sums for an exclusive haute couture item only to bump into the acquaintance at the same venue in the identical outfit.
Every ensemble ordered is made to the requirements of each individual client. After choosing the model she wants, a customer is measured and has to be prepared for 3 fittings, sometimes more.
After a fitting and adjustments noted the garment is laid mis à plat. This means it's laid flat on the table, taken to pieces, adjusted and put together again ready for the next fitting.
The vendeuse holds discussions between stockroom, embroiderers, furriers and client. Her final inspection of a garment and her expectation of the highest standards ensures it's approved as couture and suitable to release to a client. Eventually the garment fits like a glove highlighting the client's good figure points and diminishing bad figure flaws.
Haute Couture Caters for an Exclusive
Sometimes designers work for their own label and sometimes they work for a famous Haute Couture house. Very few couture model sales are made in a year and these rarely total more than about 1500 sales for each house. This is not surprising when you learn that only about 3000 women or so worldwide can actually afford to buy clothes at the highest level, and fewer than 300 buy regularly.
Selling the Haute Couture Dream
Because of this, Haute Couture actually runs at a loss. Design houses present expensive million pound fashion shows of often dubious, but outrageously noticeable designs intermixed with exquisite garments on supermodels. The couture house sells only a very limited percentage of Haute Couture model garments to a contracting number of customers. The profits from this activity are negligible, amounting to less than ten per cent of gross profits of the couture name or even sometimes a loss.
You might then wonder what the point of it all is for so low a percentage sale in relation to effort and deadlines. The answer lies in the phrase 'selling a dream'. The fashion shows attract huge media attention and gain enormous publicity for the couture houses. They sell a dream of the intangible. A dream of chic cachet, of beauty, desirability and exclusiveness that the ordinary person can buy into.
If a consumer can afford the bottle of perfume, the scarf, the designer boutique jewellery, the bag of the season, the couture named cosmetics or the ready to wear 'designer label' products they convince themselves they are as exclusive as the 1000 women and the supermodels who regularly wear Haute Couture model gowns.
It is fair to say that the goods are usually of very high quality, so many people are happy to pay a price that they feel reflects the image and standard. However if this is all way beyond your means and part of fantasy land why not get one of the many online catalogues that feature clothes for real people.
Couture Front for Ready to Wear, Beauty and Perfume
Haute Couture is the prestigious front for French creative fashion and original design. This ultimately translates into the lesser priced, but still costly designer label known as Prêt-à- Porter or ready to wear. In turn, the ready to wear and couture house beauty industry employs a huge workforce for the many lower level sales of perfume and accessories. This makes large profits for the couture design house through the volume of mass market international sales.