Haute couture is the highest, most specialist market level. Established houses such as Chanel, Givenchy, Gaultier, Dior and Lacroix are members of the Chambre syndicale de la haute couture and show their couture collections in Paris over three days in January and July. Currently there are only 12 full members compared with over 100 in 1946. Only garments that are hand made in France, by members of the Chambre syndicale de la haute couture, can be labelled as haute couture. But the Chambre may also invite guest designers, such as Martin Margiela, Valentino and Giorgio Armani, to show alongside other members in Paris. In 2008 Boudicca, the English design duo, were honoured with an invitation to show during Paris Haute Couture Week.
The Origins of Haute Couture
The origins of haute couture can be traced back to the early 17th century, when France was the centre for luxury silk textiles in Europe. Aristocratic women would commission makers to produce personal gowns and accessories for social and court occasions. Makers, known as couturiers (from the French couter – to sew), would create one-off clothes for clients and include their names on labels sewn into the garments.
Traditions continue with the couturiers of today. Within the atelier, which is usually owned by the design house, each garment type is created within a specialist area. The flou is an area specialising in dresses and draped garments. The tailleur focuses on tailoring for suits, jackets and coats. The chief dressmaker is known as the première and assistants are apprentices. Couture houses are traditionally by skills into the flou and tailleur. However, with more money to be made in daywear than evening wear, the boundaries are now blurring. For example, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel commissions the dressmakers to work on unstructured jackets, which brings a lightness to the tailoring.
Couture gowns rely on the craftmanship of the ateliers, where specialist handwork is carried out to the designer’s and client’s specifications. The atelier is the laboratory for developing and maintaining new fabrics, beading, cutting, embroidery and the highest level of handwork and finish. Chanel has bought five ateliers, including Lesage, which specialises in flowers, braids and feathers. Other houses in Paris, such as Dior, also use this atelier (Dior no longer owns its own specialist ateliers).
Developing a Haute Couture Collection
Designers begin haute couture collections in much the same way as ready-to-wear. John Galliano, for example, starts his haute couture collection by drawing sketches and selecting fabrics. Each season, showing the couture collection allows potential clients the opportunity to see first-hand the possibilities for next season’s wardrobe.
Appointments are then made with the designer/house to attend private viewings and make individual selections. Clients buy close to the season, seeing a show in January for that spring (unlike ready-to-wear, which shows for the following season). This ensures exclusivity for the client, who values the privacy and service only available at this level of the market. Then, after seeing the collection, a client will make an appointment with the vendeuse (saleswoman) in the salon. Having made a selection, the client must have the pattern adapted to ensure that the garments are personally fitted to their measurements and body proportions. A series of fittings will take place, using calico toiles. The toile records the exact cut, fit and finish and will also detail information for linings, interfacing and embellishments. The fittings and client selections are confidential and reflect the exclusive nature of this fashion market. Regular clients will, over time, have a personal form made to their exact measurements.