(L-R) Row 1: All Dior Atelier / Row 2: Dior 1951, Didier Grumbach, Lucien Lelong Paris 1945 / Row 3: Givenchy Atelier, Chanel Jacket, Elie Saab Atelier, Charles Worth 1907, Ralph Toledano.
With all the glassy polish befitting a French businessman, Didier Grumbach has presided over the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode for sixteen years. That’s 32 seasons and, as haute couture and prêt-à-porter are shown approximately two months apart, 64 collection presentations. But the Fall Winter 2014 haute couture shows may hold a particularly sentimental grip on Monsieur Grumbach as this will be the final fashion week under his tenure before handing the reins over to Puig fashion director Ralph Toledano.
Grumbach oversaw years of precipitous change to the industry, administering through the effects of globalization as well as mounting competition from other cities. He steered French fashion to where it is today, internationalizing the pool of designers, fostering and encouraging young talent, and perhaps most significant, evolving the Fédération to function suitably in the age of global conglomerates by creating the executive board comprised of the 5 super powers of fashion (Hermes, Chanel, Puig, LVMH and Kering). Toledano has a long history in the industry as well; he served as a co-founder of Saint Laurent Rive Gauche and enjoyed successful stints at the helm of Chloé, Karl Lagerfeld, and Guy Laroche. Toledano will be in charge of vision and strategy for the Fédération, while Stéphanie Wargnier, formerly of Hèrmes, who will come on board to run day-to-day operations.
The Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode functions as the de facto gatekeeper of France’s most coveted industry. The governing body is the determining authority on who shows in Paris, and when, effectively shaping press coverage and production deadlines. The Fédération as it exists today was founded in 1973, growing out of the original Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, founded in 1868. What began as a simple trade guild has grown to define and defend national identity for a century and a half. During the German occupation of World War II, President Lucien Lelong was able wield the power of the Chambre Syndicale to prevent the Nazi invaders from relocating the couture houses to Berlin.
Such a mystic of invincibility has developed as a result of supreme exclusivity. Members of the Chambre Syndicale enjoy a reputation that is carefully crafted as artistic aptitude meets rigorous standards and unapologetic enforcement. Haute couture is a “protected name” recognized by the French government; the qualifications stringent criteria set directly by the Chambre Syndicale. As explained by Amy Fine Collins the fantastic chronicle “Toujours Couture” Vanity Fair September 2009.
According to the bylaws of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, a division of the French Ministry of Industry, an haute couturier is a designer who presides over the creation of hand-finished made-to-order clothing, in a “laboratory” that employs at least 20 workers in Paris. The haute couturier must present a minimum of 25 ensembles twice a year, in January and July, and construct a garment over the course of several fittings, directly on a client’s body or on a dress form replicating her physique. (Hubert de Givenchy, for example, had a dummy built for Audrey Hepburn, whose 31½-22-31½ shape never varied.) From a peak of 200 before World War II, only 11 authentic haute couturiers remain; additionally, there are four correspondent members. (Giorgio Armani joined as one in 2004.) Just two Americans have ever been classified as haute couturiers—Mainbocher (retired 1971) and Ralph Rucci, who was accepted as a guest member in 2002. (After five years and 10 collections, a guest may advance to full membership.) “If someone is simply a couturier,” explains a Parisian expert, “all that means is that you are sewing.” And, the Parisian adds, if a dressmaker uses the term “haute couturier” without the Chambre Syndicale’s sanction, “he can be arrested.” (link)
And yet, in today’s world of immediacy and fast fashion, the terms “couture”, “haute couture” and “demi-couture” are thrown around with such haphazard aplomb that the demarcations have begun to blur. It is a development that further convolutes the tenuous process of proper accreditation for the fashion historian. Proper classification is elemental in preserving the value of the industry’s most extraordinary production. It is such selectivity, the seemingly anachronistic dedication to artistic hierarchy, that the Chambre Syndicale, and by extension the Fédération Française, have championed the precision and excellence of French fashion.