For more than a century, couture has been emblematic of the triumph of craftsmanship and fashion. It represents the fusion of fashion — the modern entity that combines novelty and synergy with personal and social needs — and craftsmanship — the arts of dressmaking, tailoring, and crafts constituent to apparel and accessories.
With a minuscule client base (approximately 4,000 worldwide) and an exclusive allocation of industry tickets for runway presentations, the practice can seem entirely fanciful and out of reach. In truth, the art of couture is a tightly controlled, invite-only application, governed by Paris’ Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (FHCM) with widespread influence on the fashion industry at large. But despite being the most extravagant, glamorous and expensive form of fashion, haute couture has seen a rapid decline in interest in the last seventy years.
In 2021 alone, interest in “Couture” has steadily declined by 13 per cent (according to Google Search data). In fact, only four of the top ten search queries related to “Haute Couture” are for actual collections: Chanel, Dior, Fendi, and Valentino. The idea of “glamour” itself has undoubtedly evolved with modernity.
Whereas glamour and luxury previously meant gowns, hand-made and embroidered with thousands of pearls, luxury today can be seen in the form of t-shirts, sneakers, and comically tiny handbags. So, rather than needing hundreds of thousands of dollars for a custom piece, consumers can buy into the luxury dream with a US$400 t-shirt. So how does haute couture fit into today’s modern, technology-filled, inclusive-prioritised fashion landscape?
The Not-So-Humble Beginnings of Haute Couture
While the phrase is thrown around liberally, the term haute couture has been building on its roots since the late 17th century. As France became synonymous with richly produced and innovative luxury silk textiles, the relationship between aristocratic and upper-class women and their personal dressmakers began to grow; and so too did the haute couture system.
Founded in 1868, the FHCM preserves the exacting standards of French fashion culture by presiding over Paris Women’s and Men’s Fashion Weeks, as well as endorsing and nurturing designers who exhibit a quality of craftsmanship that meets the level required to show on the official Haute Couture schedule.
Today, members are selected by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute couture. To qualify as an official Haute Couture house, members must design made-to-order clothes for private clients, with more than one fitting, using an atelier that employs at least fifteen full-time staff. They must also have twenty full-time technical workers in one of their workshops.
Couture’s elitist appeal is born from its exclusivity. It is a singular moment, made of peculiar rituals. The clothes are jewel-like creations reserved for an exclusive coterie of women, whose names are religiously kept secret by the maisons. Its purchasing process is shrouded in private showings with only a select circle allowed to enjoy a seat and marvel at the exquisite creations. In a world that is increasingly digital and manufactured — and thus infinitely replicable — couture is as traditional as it can possibly get.
However, in today’s fast-paced, fast-fashion oriented world — where such a small percentage of the population has the wealth to buy Haute Couture — its slow decline was imminent. Combine that with the rise of independent designers and the rising appreciation for more independent and exclusive designers, haute couture is prone to becoming the next big fashion faux pas.
The Modernisation of Haute Couture
There is nothing democratic about couture and proudly so. It’s barely touched by the fever of visibility which has made fashion the religion of our time. Couture is based on values that are totally out of time and in a world that goes fast, it is extremely slow. While the rest of the world embraces a visual language that is fluid and endlessly morphing, couture celebrates traditional codes, rituals and clearly defined gender divisions. In this sense, couture will never be truly modern.
Yet, in recent seasons, we’ve seen designers embrace modernisation and explore the definition of couture. “Markets, trends, and clients are constantly evolving, along with their spending habits,” says Tamara Ralph, designer of couture label, Ralph & Russo. “Over the years, we’ve witnessed emerging markets taking an interest in couture, and younger generations also taking notice. There has been a real resurgence in an appreciation for true craftsmanship, spanning all backgrounds and ages.” She adds. A representative from couture label Maisonn Rabih Kayrouz told Vogue France in 2018 that their millennial clientele has grown to make up a quarter of the company’s business.
In 2022, no longer is the craft restrained to stunning hand-stitched gowns covered in handmade sequins. Though prices are still cost-prohibitive for many, today’s haute couture designers are catering to a younger plugged-in generation by embracing more youthful designs, and understanding the the impact that intricate couture work can carry on Instagram. For example, Schiaparelli’s pendant-covered designs from Spring 2020 have gone viral. By the same measure, the mesmerising, nature-inspired styles of Iris Van Herpen have attracted a new era of stars. Her unique aesthetic dominated the 2022 Met Gala by custom designing pieces for Björk, Teyana Taylor, and Winnie Harlow.
And as designers look to court a younger generation of consumers, they’re no longer laser-focused on gowns, and instead have expanded into less formal looks, focusing on artistic intention and ways to mix heritage and creativity. As seen in the recent Fall 2022 Haute Couture shows, the fusion of Demna’s harsh yet poetic sensibility and the sculptural and severe codes set by Cristobal Balenciaga offers us a glimpse of what modern couture means while at Schiaparelli, designer Daniel Roseberry fused heritage and creativity through his own insouciant fixation for breasts and nipples with plenty of iconic references from Christian Lacroix and Jean Paul Gaultier.
Beyond the design shifts spurred by consumer demand, designers are modernising this niche fashion category by crossing into other areas of cultural interest like technology and art. We start seeing haute couture more as an art form and a way for designers to share their viewpoints and core beliefs. Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri addressed the current moment by taking inspiration from the work of Olesia Trofymenko, a Ukrainian artist whose favourite motif, the Tree Of Life, is a folkloric symbol of humanist hope inn cultures all over the world. Another example is Dior’s Spring 2020 couture collection, where creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri collaborated with the legendary feminist artist Judy Chicago. The show included an immersive space featuring banners emblazoned with questions around the show’s concept, “What If Women Ruled The World?”
Couture’s offering of distinction in design and technique remains a compelling force, one even more potent when much other quality has atrophied. It remains a discipline of ultimate imagination, unaccountable to cost, with the paradox of being the fashion most cognizant of its ideal clients. It is, as it began, a dream of quality in an era of industry and its succession. Haute couture persists in providing us with a paragon of the most beautiful clothing that can be envisioned and made in any time and it is an industry that will only go onwards and upwards with time.
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