So, What Exactly Is Haute Couture?

Fall/Winter, Spring/Summer, Resort — these are all completely understandable categories for fashion shows. In other words, you know what you’re getting: some leather and fur at the F/W shows, the perfect maxi dress at the S/S shows, and a chic tunic at Resort.

This week, we’ve been bringing you highlights from Paris Couture Week. Karl Lagerfeld walked a model in a stuffed lion mask down the runway, Dita Von Teese strutted Gaultier’s in a dominatrix outfit to which only she could do justice, and the models that walked the Dior runway brought new meaning to botanics. It’s easy to look at these elaborate runway shows and ogle over their extraordinariness. But when you take away Karl’s eight-ton lion, what exactly are we looking at? What is Haute Couture? And why does it have its own week?

Our trusty reference book, The Fashion Book defines haute couture:

“An industry of established couturiers, or dressmakers, protected by the law and governed by the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne with rigid regulations and emphasis on craftsmanship. Haute Couture specifically refers to the manufacture of made-to-measure garments, an industry that employs a small group of highly skilled craftspeople. In terms of revenue, haute couture no longer pays its way but is still shown twice a year (in January and July).”

To be dubbed Couture, a design house must adhere to a set of strict rules set forth by governing group Chambre Syndicale. The house must employ 15 full time workers and create 35 new garments per show, all of which must be strictly made-to-measure items. Because of the Syndical’s rigidness, only a few brands hold the title of haute couture. Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Gaultier — these are some of the more famous collections shown.

The looks that walk down couture runways take an enormous amount of time (up to 400 hours) and attention to detail. And because of the hand-made, custom nature of the clothing, the elaborate fabrics, and rare materials, prices are sky high. Think that Balmain jacket times a three. An evening gown could easily run you $60,000.

So who’s buying this stuff? What’s the point? Amidst our crumbling economy, why even hold the couture shows? And, well, how relevant can a practice that dates back to Marie Antoinette be?

The Independent reports there are between 200 and 2,000 couture clients in the world at any given time. According to Bruno Pavlosky, president of Chanel, he’s seen a 30% increase in new clients all over the world. Dior’s team reports the same success. “We received so many orders, we are not sure we can deliver them,” the Dior‘s president said. “The demand is here. The number of clients has increased.”

We see couture designs on the red carpet — Zoe Saldana‘s Givenchy Haute Couture purple explosion cannot be forgotten — but rarely does a real-life normal person step out in these looks. And the ones that do, according to Givenchy’s creative director Riccardo Tisci, aren’t big named celebrities that are dying to be noticed. Rather, he told Vogue UK, “They like to quietly come and make their orders and then disappear again.” It must be hard to disappear whilst looking like a giant flower, though.

Truth be told, at the end of the day, haute couture is not, and never has been, about making sales. It’s a think tank of innovative, often times otherworldly ideas that can be spun off into the designers’ less pricey ready-to-wear collections. It’s the dream. And we love the dream.

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