The Business of Haute Couture
By Britney Gu
What is haute couture?
Commonly misunderstood as luxury fashion brands, the literal translation of ‘haute couture’ is high dressmaking. ‘Haute couture’ is a legally protected term defined in 1945, deemed as the creation of one-off garments made-to-order for private clientele. Couture brands you might already be familiar with include Chanel, Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Schiaparelli. As garments are created made-to-order, no commercial requirements need to be fulfilled, hence Viktor Horsting, co-designer of Viktor & Rolf describes haute couture to be like a “laboratory,” where designers have creative freedom.
To classify as a haute couture house, multiple client fittings are required for each client, as well as the house having at least fifteen full-time staff. Other factors that a house must fulfil is presenting a collection [50 minimum] of original designs to the public every season in January and July. These collection showcases are the haute couture runway shows you’re familiar with, which occur at the four major Fashion Weeks [Paris, London, New York, Milan] every year.
Who is the clientele of haute couture?
The current estimated number of buyers around the world is 4000, including but not limited to: royalty around the world, wealthy socialites, and heirs/heiresses. Another market of haute couture are celebrities and red carpets, in particular the annual Met Gala, colloquially known as ‘fashion’s biggest night out.’
France is undisputedly known as the fashion centre of the world. Over 300 fashion shows are held in Paris each year, gaining revenue of $1.2 billion every year from Paris Fashion Week alone. This is supported by the French fashion industry valuing at 150 billion dollars, accounting for 2.7% of the French GDP. Evidently, fashion houses and haute couture are ingrained within the French culture today.
The fall of haute couture.
At the start of the 20th century, fashion became more accessible to the general public. This meant a fall of haute couture in favour of ready-to-wear clothing designed to standardised sizes and to be sold to a generalised audience.
Economically, this makes sense. A single garment made-to-order is an extremely time-intensive and costly process, taking over hundreds of hours and thousands of metres of fabric to construct a single piece. This, coupled with the fact that the haute couture clientele is such a minuscule audience, meant that haute couture needed to evolve.
The rise of commercialism has ensured that ready-to-wear luxury fashion brands are more accessible than ever, with brands like Gucci and Balenciaga dominating pop culture and social media. As the luxury market shifts to accommodate for millennials making up the largest purchasers of goods, a new middle ground between high-fashion and affordable fast-fashion is developing, focusing more on the status symbol of the goods rather than the goods themselves.
Haute couture houses have evolved to target different audiences, corresponding with constantly-shifting economic demand. Where prior designs may have been more formal and extravagant, houses are now are looking more to define trends, in particular to create vibrant and innovative images to push fashion to its limits.