The Exclusive World of Couture
One of the purest luxuries for a woman is to own a piece of clothing that is truly unique, made especially for her by one of fashion’s great artists. What follows is a brief introduction into this fascinating, high-status fashion universe.
What is Couture?
The French phrase “haute couture” means “high fashion.” Haute couture refers to garments custom-made for a single individual, designed by one of the major fashion houses and hand-sewn by expert craftspeople to suit that client’s exact shape. Even the design of the garment is unique, a one-of-a-kind response by the designer to the client’s particular body type and taste preferences. “Couture” is sometimes generalized to refer to the entire group of famous designers who set the trends in the world of fashion.
Made-to order vs. ready-to-wear
In France, the Paris Chamber of Commerce sets very strict rules about which fashion houses are permitted to refer to their work as “haute couture.” These rules state that the couture house must design and sell made-to-order clothing for individual private clients, and the client must have at least one personal fitting during the construction of the garment. Other rules state that the house must have a workshop (“atelier”) in Paris with at least 15 people working in it, and that it must present a collection of new work to the Paris press at least twice each year.
In addition to their custom-made pieces, every fashion house also puts out a “ready-to-wear” or “off-the-rack” line, because the profit margin on these collections is higher. These articles are not made for one individual, but instead are produced in standardized sizes. They are manufactured in a more industrial manner, and use fewer specialized materials, although they sometimes copy individual custom-made designs. The “Fashion Week” events in February and September in New York, London, Paris and Milan are presentations of ready-to-wear collections. These are the “designer label” dresses that will be found in designers’ boutiques and high-end retail outlets.
The haute couture collections are also shown twice a year, in January and July, presenting a mix of attention-getting pure art pieces and one-of-a-kind haute couture garments on models.
Buying haute couture: an exclusive club
The essence of luxury is uniqueness: knowing that you own the only object of its kind that was ever made. Very few haute couture garments are made and sold each year, and having enough money is only one step in acquiring one. A designer house such as Chanel may make as few as 150 haute couture dresses each year, and Dior creates about 20 bridal gowns in a season.
Houston socialite Becca Cason Thrash, who owns perhaps a dozen couture gowns and is considered a minor collector, says “Couture is almost like a private club.” Having a dress custom-made for you by one of the couture houses is a privilege, and you can’t simply phone for an appointment. The designers send out invitations. In a Forbes article on Couture, Thrash credits her friend Suzanne Saperstein with introducing her to the necessary people. “It’s not easy at first to get your invitations or to get to know the directresses of the houses,” she says. Sometimes a designer will offer a gown to a high-profile celebrity, as a form of publicity.
Once you have navigated the pathway to an invitation, you will go into the designer’s atelier to view model garments and have an extensive measurement session. Your chosen article will be constructed first in muslin or canvas, and may go through 3 fittings on your body before it’s perfect. Once the exact garment has been finished in cotton, it’s carefully deconstructed and used as a guide for producing the real thing. Typically a couture suit will require 100 or 150 hours to produce, and a beaded gown can take up to 1000 hours. Couture prices reflect this intensive time commitment, with a simple blouse costing around $16,000 and an elaborate gown often requiring an investment of over $100,000.
Purchasing couture is a form of collecting art, a type of art which brings out your own one-of-a-kind beauty. As Forbes points out, no one will ever have an article of clothing exactly like yours — but since it is by definition at the cutting edge of fashion, your garment will “spawn a thousand copies.”