The World of Haute Couture

Posted by Cherie
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With the advent of Paris Haute Couture week coinciding with the plethora of vintage Haute Couture that has come into the shop lately (and is still arriving from all four corners of the globe), I thought it prudent to talk a little about Haute Couture.

The very definition of Haute Couture has "slipped" a bit as time goes by. Those two words are used to describe so many things these days that are absolutely NOT Haute Couture that it is ridiculous. The single word "couture" suffers even more abuse and seems to apply to just about anything. It seems that the term is used even more so in the vintage world to describe anything that some sellers decide will get a little boost by calling it Couture. Even some more reputable dealers can get a case of "Couturitis".... I know one particular person who has page after page of perfectly "couture" garments but with no provenance to the majority of the dates or that it is even truly couture. If only it were so easy to just say it is so and it is.

What is Haute Couture though? When should we use it? Well, in general terms, the Wikipedia definition of Haute Couture serves us well as a starting point:

"French for "high sewing" or "high dressmaking" or "high fashion") refers to the creation of exclusive custom-fitted clothing. Haute couture is fashion that is constructed by hand from start to finish, made from high quality, expensive, often unusual fabric and sewn with extreme attention to detail and finished by the most experienced and capable seamstresses, often using time-consuming, hand-executed techniques. Couture translates literally from French as "dressmaking", but may also refer to fashion, sewing, or needlework and is also used as a common abbreviation of haute couture and refers to the same thing in spirit. Haute translates literally to "high". A haute couture garment is often made for a client, tailored specifically for the wearer’s measurements and body stance. Considering the amount of time, money, and skill that is allotted to each completed piece, haute couture garments are also described as having no price tag - in other words, budget is not relevant."

However, in the strictest sense of the word, the term Haute Couture is protected and sanctified (in France it is actually defined and standards upheld by law). The Wikipedia entry goes on to explain this as well:

"In France, the term haute couture is protected by law and is defined by the Chambre de commerce et d'industrie de Paris based in Paris. The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture is defined as "the regulating commission that determines which fashion houses are eligible to be true haute couture houses". 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. The Chambre Syndicate de la Couture Parisienne is an association of Parisian couturiers founded in 1868 as an outgrowth of medieval guilds that regulate its members in regard to piracy of styles, dates of openings for collections, number of models presented, relations with press, questions of law and taxes, and promotional activities.

The criteria for haute couture were established in 1945 and updated in 1992. 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.
  • Have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least fifteen staff members full-time.
  • Must have twenty, full-time technical people in at least one workshop (atelier).
  • Every season, present a collection of at least fifty original designs to the public, both day and evening garments, in January and July of each year."

So this is the official definition, however, as someone who actually has access to vintage gowns and garments of true Haute Couture nature, it is always astounding to me how many people simply do not understand the rarity of pieces this little world produces. Never mind the scant odds of actually having them in hand if you are outside of that rarefied circle. Some may scoff at the elitism and astounding, jaw-dropping costs and one could endlessly debate the merits over feeding a small village or buying a gown that is well over 6 figures. However, for sake of argument here let us leave the philosophical debates behind and just look at the scarcity and rareness of Haute Couture. These are pieces produced entirely by hand from some of the greatest masters of our current century.

I urge you to watch the BBC produced video (above) that gives us a glimpse into the world of Haute Couture and then to take a look at the chart that my team has reproduced and added to (below). Now take it one step further and let us really delve into the whole production.

A single Haute Couture dress takes a minimum of 150 hours to produce by a team of skilled artisans and is entirely done by hand. Every stitch. A blouse starts at $10,000, a day dress at $30,000 and gowns are well over six figures. Pieces are produced in the ateliers for the runway presentation and then an elite group of women will decide whether to buy a garment from that season. As the documentary above points out, if the client is the same size as the sample they can buy the actual runway piece at a 30% discount - a bargain yes? Otherwise they pay the price in full. Since clients often travel in the same circles once a piece has been spoken for no other is produced besides that one and the original runway piece. This pricing limitation and "one of a kind" aspect severely limits how many of any given garment you see on the runway is ever produced. Often it is never reproduced beyond that original sample at all and that original stays in the houses archives. This means that very, very few pieces from each collection actually go out into the world.

The garments that are produced and bought by this elite group are carefully worn and then closeted, until one day they are perhaps donated to a Museum - usually upon the retirement or death of a Haute Couture patron or perhaps used as a tax break - once a garment has been deemed to have been worn enough. In days past garments were often recut or reworked to keep up with the present fashions but as time goes by and people place more importance on the entire concept of Couture and originality this is a practice that is just not done anymore. Haute Couture is bought as much as an investment, or as a piece of art, as it is for a functional garment. All of this means that most Haute Couture examples, from the time of Charles Frederick Worth to our present day, are held in the private collections of client's, or are in the archives of the houses that made the originals. After that, the majority of the garments that are not in the hands of clients or the ateliers are held in museums archives. The chances of seeing true Haute Couture in person and in real life continue to go down for anyone outside of these groups.

Now add to that the fact that the majority of the couture fashion houses that are displayed on the historical chart below actually no longer even produce couture, or they simply do not even exist anymore at all, or if they do, the original founder of the atelier is long gone and therefore pieces produced under the founder are even more rare and obviously new examples from the cannot ever be made again ..... and the rarity of Couture is further amplified. I would hazard to forecast that seeing examples from the last 20 years show up outside of museums or high end auctions will get more and more rare as women are more educated and personally invested in Couture. They buy as deliberate as one buys art or antiques and the days of being able to scoop up vintage versions of couture at the pricing you see today will be gone. Vintage versions will only become more of a rarity as time goes buy

But still, for now vintage examples are out there and I am lucky enough to get my hands on some of them.

When I get a vintage example in of a Haute Couture garment that first thing that happens is that I do everything in my power to verify it. Sometimes a piece is researched and the process of verification can take months behind the scenes before it goes up for sale. I agonize when I cannot narrow it down to an exact date. I beg and cajole the various houses that still exist to check their archives, though sadly many just do not have complete records or a dedicated staff to look things up, making contacting them a dead end. My team and I spend hours and hours and hours sifting through books, old magazines, the internet and any other source we can think of to try to find a reference photo. Pieces often come to the studio in a terrible and crumpled state, having been shoved in back corners of closets or never cleaned since the last wearing 50+ years ago, and I practically stand over and breathe down the neck of my cleaners once the decision has been made to clean it. Other times they come in and look to have never been worn and it is like being given a mini time machine into a glorified past. I agonize over the final listing price. Sometimes finding a comparable item takes more weeks of patiently sussing out examples. Waiting for replies from trusted sources and contacts made over the years to get a fair idea of everything.

And sometimes I just put off listing it because it is so beautiful to have and look at that I can't stand the thought of it leaving.

Even once I finally can bring myself to put it up and available for purchase and fill out that final price before hitting the publish button for the shop, my finger hovers over the keypad in equal parts anticipation, excitement and dismay. I almost laugh at the sheer bargain of it all and knowing something once cost tens of thousands of dollars and took countless hours and fittings and is the only one of its kind and yet I will inevitably be told I am "too expensive". A dress that would cost over $100,000, with the client also having to pay for the flights to Paris, hotels, time, etc, being able to be bought right now, right here for somewhere in the $5000- $10,000 range to me is mind boggling. I always think I will list and it will be sold in seconds because it is just so amazing that you can get it at all. Sometimes they are and sometimes they sit, patiently waiting for someone to realize and love just how special they are. Yes, I know it is still a lot of money, but for those who can and do spend at that level on new ready-to-wear it seems a no-brainer to me. The reality is that you can walk into any high end shop and spend the same amount on a dress or gown that is in every cities version of that same shop. And no one blinks an eye at that.

You are not just buying a dress. You are buying history. You are purchasing the ability to wear the vision of the very select few who have lived on our planet and contributed to what we all conceive of as fashion. Everything you see at the mall right down to that $5 rack can be traced back to Couture. It sets the direction and forms the paths of our collective fashionable souls. It is buying something so rare and select, that for the true vintage collector it is like nothing else that exists. It is the pinnacle of the entire fashion experience.

Even if this is not the category of vintage you are collecting (yet), it is still worth looking at and admiring. To avoid that overuse of that word couture and any confusion about what is and what is not couture, I address that problem by having a dedicated Haute Couture section and try my best to keep it to true Haute Couture as defined by those on the chart below. To solve the problem of pieces that are also important or made to couture standards but not by a house on that chart I have a secondary category I call Demi-Couture. Simple, clear and accurate.

Many of the pieces I source do ultimately end up going to Museums and I am okay with that. In the long term this is  the best place for them to be going, in terms of long-range conservation and preservation. However, I also like to think that for many of the garments that pass my path and that are sound and wearable, going to that one last event or two, and being given a chance to seen and loved once again is not necessarily a bad thing. I send each off with a prayer and a hope that they end up well cared for. I suspect most are as I form such close relationships with my clients and know they love vintage as much as I. I also suspect that most will and do get donated to Museums at some point or passed down lovingly as a heirloom piece. And that makes me happy.

For now, and for whatever reason the universe has decided to smile down upon me and my little vintage endeavor, I am lucky enough to be getting pieces of vintage Haute Couture in on a regular basis these days. I wanted to share with you here my personal thoughts on just how special these garments are and I hope it was a bit of an eye opener if you had not really thought this over before. I can also share with you how deeply personal the process of it all is for me. I truly feel honored to pass these little pieces of history through. When someone contacts me and asks me to handle the sale of their gowns, or the gowns their mothers or grandmothers wore, I almost cry. Sometimes I even do a little. It is such a privilege and experience to see and hold these garments. They, like no other clothing on the planet, have such close ties to their owners and the designers who conceptualized them that it is almost like handling a bit of the person themselves. And for that I am grateful.

Updated for 2016: As reported by Vogue these labels are being added to the schedule:

Vetements, The Gvasalia brothers–led, post-Margielian anti-fashion collective; J. Mendel, the Russo-French haute furrier and atelier overseen by fifth-generation family scion Gilles Mendel; Yuima Nakazato, the committedly future-facing technophile designer from Tokyo via Antwerp; Francesco Scognamiglio, the provocatively nostalgic romantic from Naples; and the excellent Iris van Herpen, who returns to the couture schedule for the first time since 2013, following her contribution to the “Manus x Machina” show in New York.

Alongside this year’s newly installed guest houses (plus the core Couture corps of Dior, Valentino, Armani, Versace, Chanel, et al.), there will be repeat presentations from guests whose invitations have been extended. The Chambre Syndicale listed these as Aouadi, Guo Pei, Ilja, Julien Fournié, Ralph & Russo, Schiaparelli, Ulyana Sergeenko, and Zuhair Murad. 

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