Monday, March 21, 2011
The Decline of the Haute Couture Power House: Is it Immortal?
The term “Haute Couture” is one that is tossed around quite often when discussing high-end fashion and clothing, but what exactly is it? The direct translation from French is “high sewing” or “high dressmaking” referring to the creation of exclusive custom fitted clothing. Haute couture is made to order for a specific customer, and it is usually made from high quality, expensive fabric, and hand sewn with extreme attention to detail with the use of time consuming, hand executed techniques that one must be highly trained in.
Haute Couture made its debut more than a century ago in the middle years of the nineteenth century in Paris and the fashion world was in awe of the novelty and modernity of the Haute Couture Aesthetic. In the mid-nineteenth century, Englishman Charles Frederick Worth burst onto the Paris scene with a new philosophy of how clothes should be made. By creating branded fashion design, Worth created the very first Fashion House. After Worth, the trend of Haute Couture became the norm for upper class women who were willing to spend money on luxurious clothing items.
The Chambre Syndicale de La Couture was developed by Worth and his sons to determine which design houses were truly Haute Couture Houses. The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne was created in 1868 stemming out of the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie de Paris to govern the rules of Parisienne Haute Couture. By 1946 there were 106 Official Haute Couture Houses with the criteria for being an Haute Couture House established in 1945.
By 1952 that number dropped drastically to 60 Haute Couture Houses. This was mostly due to the Second World War creating a great change in the fashion industry and mass-manufactured fashions became increasingly popular. The idea of custom made clothing that was both extravagant and time consuming to make became unjustifiable. With the emergence of street and fast fashion quickly growing, Paris needed to figure out a way to protect its Haute Couture roots, and keep the true Paris couture houses as well known and respected establishments. The Federation Francaise de la Couture was created in 1973 growing out of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne to do just this. The Federation is responsible for setting the dates and locations of the French fashion weeks.
Within the Fédération the Syndicale is a body that promotes, , educates, represents, defends, deals with social and working benefits and advises its members in all relations between labor and management, including great names of the Paris couture world. It also establishes industry standards on quality and on the use of the word "haute couture". 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. To earn the right to call itself a couture house and to use the term haute couture in its advertising and any other way, members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture must follow these rules: Design made-to-order for private clients, with one or more fittings, must Have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least fifteen to twenty people full-time, and Each season (i.e., twice a year), present a collection to the Paris press, comprising at least thirty-five looks (at least 75 new designs a year) with outfits for both daytime wear and evening wear.
After these extremely strict rules were put in place the number of official Haute Couture houses had gone down to just 18 by the year 2000. By January 2002, at the time of Yves St. Laurent’s sad departure from the fashion industry into retirement there were only 12 couture houses left. In 2003 and 2004 famed designers Donatella Versace and Emanuel Ungaro stopped doing couture shows respectively. Now there are 11 official members of the Federation Francaise de la Couture. Those members are Adeline Andre, Anne Valerie Hash, Atelier Gustavo Lins, Chanel, Christian Dior, Christophe Josse, Franck Sorbier, Givenchy, Jean Paul Gaultier, Maurizio Galante, and Stephane Rolland.
With only 11 members left, how long until the Federation Francaise de la Couture is gone for good? The exclusivity of the Federation means enhanced values to the status conscious consumer but those who can and still choose to wear Haute Couture are an aging clientele. Even extremely wealthy younger women, who could in theory afford couture, often find ready-to-wear clothes more practical, wearable, and fun.
Because of that there is no way that Fashion Houses can rely on Haute Couture for their main income. For most houses, their twice-yearly Haute Couture shows lose them money. ). The big four operators of Couture – Chanel, Dior, Givency, and Gaultier – use couture as a marketing tool and make money of off their ready-to-wear, fragrance, and accessory lines.
If you remove the rules of the Federation Francaise de la Couture, than the actually act of creating Haute Couture, or made to order high quality clothing, is still alive and well. It is just no longer something one can only find at an official Parisian Couture House. Custom-made clothes are making a big come back, and people will always want their own unique pieces. Especially popular is the man’s custom made suit, dresses, wedding gowns and raincoats.
It seems at the now Haute Couture of an actual house recognized by the Federation Francaise de la Couture is simply a marketing tool which captures the public’s imagination, or will it, sadly, disappear altogether.