All photos by Erin Leydon.
Sometimes when I get the chance to slip on a piece of true Haute Couture I stop and take a moment to just reflect on that fact. Haute Couture is the very pinnacle of the fashion experience and if I had not ended up with this crazy career in vintage, odds are that I would have never actually experienced real couture up close and personal. Never mind actually wearing pieces. For the vast majority of human beings on this planet, including myself, buying a piece of modern couture is something that we will never experience. Most women will never actually physically see a piece of true couture outside of the pages of a magazine in their entire life. If they do, odds are that it will be behind a velvet rope in a museum exhibit. Getting to touch the fabric and see the hand-done, meticulous construction up close is not even on most people's bucket list as its just not an attainable goal. To actually get to wear a garment is reserved for a scant handful of extremely wealthy women - the actual number at best is about 1,000 women worldwide. It has always been that way and will always be that way. The doorway to couture is a golden one that is covered in hundreds of thousands of dollar bills, and with some ateliers, even your money won't buy you entry.
Enter the world of vintage and suddenly the unattainable becomes attainable. Every once in a while a couture piece pops up for sale and is discovered by someone like me and then, for a fraction of the cost of current couture, you can own a piece of history. It is actually remarkable if you really think about it. You are literally comparing the cost of modern couture that runs tens of thousands, to hundreds of thousands of dollars, to a tiny fraction of that cost to buy a vintage piece.
You can't pick up a magazine or read an article on-line without hearing how houses like Chanel are trying to save the art behind couture - the trained seamstresses, the embroidery, sequin and bead work specialists, the people that dye the feather and create the textiles, etc, etc - and yet it is often forgotten, or overlooked, that in vintage Haute Couture pieces you are often holding the work of the very people that founded those same dying specialty ateliers that now need saving. That should count for something, no? Added to that is also the fact that in vintage couture pieces you will often see fabrics and techniques that are too expensive, or too work intensive to reproduce, even for a modern Haute Couture garment that may end up costing over $100,000 dollars. Or more. And yet the Haute Couture divisions of these great couturiers often make little to no money. Their mark-ups are generally 1% or less. How is that even possible? Because it is an insanely expensive, time-consuming, work-intensive, specialized art form that the costs are astronomical for everyone involved.
It seems astounding to me sometimes that it is even still done at all.
More astounding is the lack of reverence that is often placed on vintage Haute Couture garments unless they are in a museum. Which I always find extremely amusing as a dealer. Where after all do you think museums get the pieces from? It is not like couture magically appears in their archives in the night. They have to source it just like I do and sometimes we are in competition for pieces and sometimes they buy from me. Sometimes I curse for weeks that I let a piece slip by and see it end up in a museum and it did not get there by going through ME. (I am just being honest - don't judge).
Sometimes I can find a piece for a crazy bargain and almost feel guilty because it turns out to be valuable. I sold a red, Haute Couture Christian Dior coat way back and the person who brought it to me confessed that she had gotten it for basically nothing from the original owner. When it sold for a very substantial amount almost instantly, we both decided to give the owner a hefty check out of our profits. I feel like handling things this way gives me good vintage karma moving forward. There is getting a great bargain, that weighs out all the times you pay through the nose and all the insane expenses you have to keep in business, and then there is ripping someone off. I know the difference and try to keep the balance in check. Other times, a client will ask a price that is so steep I literally feel a little ill at the number. Sometimes I even pay it. I am telling you this so that when you see the price being asked for vintage Haute Couture garments, try to remember what it is you are really getting. It is a bargain even if it is higher priced than what you are used to paying for "regular" vintage. It can still be a big investment, yes, but honestly I see a lot of new, modern pieces that are ready-to-wear out there these days that are right up there price wise and they are often even a lot more. And guess what? In our crazy, insane, weird, messed up, modern clothes culture, you are only supposed to wear that new piece once. WTF? Buy vintage and, *gasp*, you can actually wear it over and over for years. Why? Because it has already stood the test of time and because vintage is judged by different standards. I don't know why it is, it just is. So take advantage of that.
It's an odd little world I reside in but I love it. I love getting to have these pieces in my possession for even a short time. I love that people trust me with their dresses and gowns. The uncomfortable fact is that I get most garments because someone has passed away. More often than not, I am dealing with an estate, or the son or daughter of some wonderful woman. The fact that this was clothing that belonged to their mother, or aunt, or other loved one, does not escape me. It is something I honor. When I get to meet the original owner it is even better as I can listen to the stories of how they chose that particular dress and all the wonderful details that go along with that experience.
All of this musing on couture today was inspired by the Jean Patou I am wearing. Isn't it fabulous? Jean Patou once said "the modern woman leads an active life, and the creator must therefore dress her accordingly, in the most simple way, whilst maintaining her charm and femininity" and this dress is the very epitome of that statement. This dress could have walked the runway for this season right now. It is timeless and I doubt that it will ever feel dated. The color is magnificent and the cut is sexy, but feminine. When Erin and I shot this look, I was literally stopped endlessly between takes with people asking who made it and how great it was. When I told then it was vintage they were floored. I know how they feel. I felt floored being able to wear it. It is a work of art and every single stitch was done by hand by someone in the Patou atelier when it was made. That, my friends, is an art. That is something special that you just can't find every day in a modern world that relies on disposable,"fast", throw away clothing. It is a dress that has history along with the hands and hearts of hundreds of people that dedicated everything they had to make it. It is this great and unacknowledged outpouring of love and dreams from the person who made the initial sketch to the woman who bought the dress.
It is Haute Couture and there is nothing else like it.
Love it? Need it? Want to know more? Get the details on this c.1960-63 Numbered Haute Couture Pink Silk Jean Patou Dress here
You can also read my past article on Haute Couture that includes a fantastic video on the subject as well as a chart that shows what designer actually can say they are official member of the Haute Couture (and we try our best to keep this updated each year as new members are added).
I also just posted an older article from the Telegraph titled "Haute Couture Explained" that is worth reading.
Finally, there is also this great little film that you can watch.