In the recently concluded fall/winter 2015 haute couture season in Paris, Chanel presented their collection in a casino installation at the Grand Palais. Though the set was Instagram-worthy in its theatricality, the stars of the show remained the exquisite garments — from a white bridal veiled pantsuit to variations of the house's classic tweed suits and feather-embroidered confections.
Haute couture, or 'high dressmaking', is distinct for being completely handmade, and custom fitted to each wearer, with a hefty price tag reflecting the hundreds, even thousands of hours of skilled artisanal labour that goes into the completion of each piece. This is what sets haute couture apart from prêt-a-porter or ready-to-wear where garments are machine made in standard sizes and bought off the racks at significantly lower prices. And between the two, there is demi-couture, which bears only some of haute couture's characteristics such as heavy embellishments.
Strictly speaking, haute couture is a legal honour bestowed upon selected fashion houses by the Chambre Syndicale de Haute Couture under the aegis of the French Ministry of Industry. Paris-based British-trained designer Charles Frederick Worth initiated the organisation back in the mid-19th century. Before World War II, there were some 70 haute couture salons. Currently, there are only a dozen or so grands couturiers. The criteria for becoming one include having a Paris-based atelier employing 20 full-time staff or more working in various capacities to execute at least 25 looks to be presented in Paris every January and July during the haute couture seasons.
Membership is reviewed annually to ensure the highest standards of haute couture are consistently met. Chanel and Christian Dior are two long-time haute couture houses. The newest official member is French designer Alexandre Vauthier, who was given the appellation in December last year. Others, such as Amsterdam-based Viktor & Rolf, are considered honorary members. Then there are guest members such as Dutch designer Ilja and Russian designer Ulyana Sergeenko who were invited to show their designs in the haute couture schedule earlier this month, and may become official members in the future.
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Aspiring haute couture designers need to establish a Paris-based atelier as a step towards qualifying as a member. This year, Chinese couture designer Guo Pei not only exhibited her garments at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, but also opened an atelier in the city. Asian celebrities such as Chinese actresses Li Bingbing and Zhang Ziyi have worn her traditional-made contemporary couture gowns from her successful Beijing studio. More recently, Rihanna caused a stir when she wore Guo's 'Magnificent Gold', a fur-trimmed yellow and gold embroidered gown to this year's Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art inaugurating the exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass.
Within each haute couture atelier, there are two specialist areas: flou or soft dressmaking for the creation of fluid dresses and foundation pieces that caress the body's curves and tailleur or tailoring for the making of structured trousers and outerwear with clean lines. The première leads skilled artisans at the ateliers in realising designs of the head fashion designer.
Artisans at haute couture ateliers are called les petites mains, literally small hands. There may be a pair of petites mains more adept at working with delicate material such as silk, and another nimbler working with one part of the garment such as the sleeves. Typically, these skilful artisans remain at a single house throughout their careers, as seen in the documentary, Dior and I (2014) which showed the team effort put into the creation of Raf Simons' first haute couture collection for the French fashion house in 2012.
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Preserving traditional crafts while generating fresh inspirational ideas for the fashion industry, haute coutuRE Is an invaluable and integral part of the fashion system
Haute couture houses also collaborate with specialist partner ateliers. Chanel, for instance, works with eleven partner ateliers under its Metiers d'Arts umbrella, including embroiderers at Lesage and fabric pleating experts at Lognon, who all offer unparalleled craftsmanship.
There are those who question the viability and worth of carrying on with labour-intensive haute couture in the era of fast fashion. Admittedly, there are few who can afford haute couture, and even fewer who indulge in the habit of procuring pieces. While haute couture houses do not reveal numbers, they have hinted that their clientele is increasingly global in nature, and simultaneously getting younger, which bodes well for the perpetuity of the trade.
Having an haute couture arm makes business sense, for it gives prestige to the fashion houses. This is effective advertising for the houses' ready-to-wear collections, as well as their perfumes and accessory lines. Press coverage of celebrities wearing haute couture pieces boosts sales of these more affordable offerings from the fashion houses as well.
More importantly, haute couture provides a protected space for extraordinary time and effort invested in turning creative visions into luxurious wearable works of art. Preserving traditional crafts while generating fresh inspirational ideas for the fashion industry, haute couture is an invaluable and integral part of the fashion system.