Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What is haute couture

Here is an article that I found today.

What is haute couture?

Literally translating as 'high' or even (in the OED) 'exalted' dressmaking, Haute Couture is a protected name that can be used only by firms meeting certain well-defined standards set by the Chambre de commerce et d'industrie de Paris. However, over time the term has also acquired a looser meaning which describes all high-fashion custom-fitted clothing.

Where did it start?

Despite haute couture's association with France, it was actually an Englishman, Charles Worth, born in humble Lincolnshire who was the 'father of haute couture'. He rose to fame in the 1860s when he relocated to Paris and started making rather fabulous outfits for Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III.

In the post-war period haute couture flourished again with the immensely popular appeal of Christian Dior's "New Look" in 1947. After years of sartorial scarcity, Dior's new designs featured rounded shoulders, a tiny cinched waist, and very full skirt celebrating ultra-femininity and opulence in women's fashion.

What's so special about it?

Superior fabrics, dyes and trimmings go hand-in-hand with exquisite workmanship to realise a designer's dream. A whole team of people will work on one garment, cutting, sewing and hand stitching details. Haute couture's offering of distinction in design and technique remains a compelling force, one even more potent when in many areas of the industry, quality has atrophied.

In our 'wear it once, throw it away' society, buying haute couture might be seen by the super-rich as an investment, akin with buying great art. It remains completely unaccountable to cost, but it's target audience hardly needs to reach for the price tag. There is also a veil of mystery surrounding haute couture: The women who regularly buy it do not advertise themselves, while the fashion houses will not reveal their client lists.

So who does buy it?

Traditionally, only wealthy private clients were able gain an audience with the fashion houses, never mind afford the clothes. Not everyone can fund their fashion addiction when the cost of dresses would bankrupt a small nation. Simply put, wearing haute couture is an aspirational symbol of power and prestige reserved for those for whom money is no object. The strange thing is that the some of the people buying to wear, as opposed to borrowing for public appearances (see Carla Bruni and any number of actresses on the red carpet), are the wives of Saudi Arabian billionaires whom no-one's ever heard of.

More significantly, the notoriety and prestige of haute couture fashion is actually part of a carefully executed business strategy. They have the unique ability to generate tremendous publicity for a design house - and that almost always leads to higher sales in the designer's ready-to-wear collections, which can often include simplified, more affordable versions of couture pieces. The more outrageous the piece, the more likely the front page newspaper splash. The luxury kudos also filters down to their cheaper products like cosmetics or perfume which are then sold to the masses, bringing in enormous piles of lovely cash. Which is the whole point really isn't it?

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