A Lesson in French Fashion
From Sam Saboura, Our Editor-in-Chief and Gina’s Personal Stylist
If you’ve ever used the words “Couture” or “Haute Couture” to refer to a random piece of clothing hanging in your closet, or an expensive dress on a rack somewhere at your local department store, then pull up a chair because we need to talk. It’s time for a brief lesson in French fashion.
As a Stylist and Fashion Expert, nothing makes me cringe more than hearing the word couture tossed around like an old pair of Manolos. And if you had any idea what it takes to create a single piece of Haute Couture, you’d cringe too. Now, while I don’t expect you to be versed in the history of fashion, knowledge is power ladies, and every successful woman entrepreneur should know a thing or two about great style. So, here’s the quick version: There’s very expensive designer clothing—and then there’s Haute Couture. And the difference between the two is immeasurable.
The clothing you buy in a boutique, even those incredible pieces from the major fashion houses, are not—I repeat, not—couture. They are ready-to-wear fashion. And while the quality, fabrication and exceptional details of luxury ready-to-wear might be fabulous, Haute Couture is the next and ultimate step up: totally made-to-order, custom-fitted, hand-sewn clothing that upholds the highest standards of beauty and quality.
When it comes to the world of high fashion, Haute Couture is in a league of its own and is far beyond a simple luxury. It’s more akin to collecting important pieces of art. Calling couture a luxury implies that anyone with enough money can buy into the secret society of patrons, but sadly that’s not the case. In fact, only about 2000 regular couture customers actually exist globally and they’ve certainly earned their spot in this upper echelon. These patrons of couture make up a very exclusive club, and many of the wealthiest and most affluent women in the world have worked for years to infiltrate it. Those lucky enough to own one of these exquisite pieces get to experience the best possible craftsmanship, technique, and artistry in fashion—not to mention a spectacular fit.
How did Haute Couture get to be so great? You’ll have to ask the French. Like so many of their guarded traditions, they take their fashion very seriously, so they’ve passed laws to protect it. In 1868, they created The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to enforce the rules—most of which still apply today.
To create true Haute Couture, designers must have a workshop in Paris—called an Atelier—and employ at least fifteen full-time staff. The clothing must be exclusively hand-sewn and crafted with incredible attention to detail. The couture houses must present two collections per year, comprised of at least 35 runs, with outfits for both daytime and evening wear.
Sounds simple enough, right? Not so fast, because the crafting of a single Haute Couture garment is no small feat and can take anywhere from 200 to 700 hours of labor to create. As you might imagine, the purchase price is not small either. The average couture creation starts at around $20,000 and can cost up to $100,000 or more for an intricately beaded evening gown.
Each custom piece, most of which are one-of-a-kind, is constructed by expert seamstresses known as petit mains, which means “little hands” in French. There are just 2200 of these elite craftspeople in France, and they are revered for their skill and patience.
Most of you are probably familiar with the art of Haute Couture from watching incredible hand-constructed gowns cruise down the red carpet at the Oscars, or from flipping through the pages of Vogue and Bazaar. But if you’re a real fashion lover like me, you wait with baited breath for January and July when the world flocks to Paris for the most important fashion presentations of the year —Haute Couture Week.
Unlike the Fashion Weeks that are currently taking place in New York, London, Paris and Milan, where collections are shown a season ahead, Haute Couture collections are shown in season: Autumn/Winter in July and Spring/Summer in January.
These ultra-exclusive shows are attended by an elite mix of top magazine editors, the fashion press, A-list celebrities, top stylists and most importantly, a highly select group of regular couture clients—who, as actual paying customers, often secure the most important seats in the house. While the Haute Couture collections may not be accessible to the mainstream shopper, the most important luxury houses still maintain and promote them. That’s because the prestige associated with Paris Couture prompts billions of dollars in the sale of luxury goods like ready-to-wear, bags, sunglasses, perfumes and cosmetics.
The Haute Couture collections truly set the tone and trends for trickle down global fashion and dictate what many of us buy and wear everyday. But more than that, in an industry based on fast fashion and mass manufacturing, there’s nothing more exciting than being able to appreciate the history and artistry of hand-crafted clothing that awes and inspires the fashion-lover in all of us.
Watch & Learn
Here are two of my favorite videos that show Haute Couture pieces from Maison Christian Dior being hand-crafted from start to finish in the Paris Atelier. The process is fascinating and mesmerizing and they’re sure to help raise your appreciation for this time honored French tradition.