The Power of Haute Couture: Past, Present and Future

The Power of Haute Couture: Past, Present and Future

Haute Couture Spring/Summer in Paris: January 24 to 28, 2016

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Haute Couture: Guo Pei
Rihanna wearing a Guo Pei design at the 2015 Met Gala. © Eastfjord Productions/Shutterstock

Why do I love Haute Couture days in Paris? Because of the splendid spectacle displayed in each couture show. Clothes, like works of art, glide down the runway created from lush fabrics, cut with supernatural skill, adorned with sumptuous embroidery. Each couture show is a unique vision of a master designer not constrained by mass demand but by his or her unique vision of sartorial perfection.

It all started in mid 19th century Paris, with Charles Frederick Worth, considered to be the Father of Couture. Although British by birth, he established himself at number 7 rue de la Paix in Paris, and catered not only to the court of Napoleon III, but also to famous actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt, and to the wives and mistresses of the nouveau wealthy.

Haute Couture: founder
Charles Frederick Worth (left) and Empress Eugenie in one of his creations (right). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Every piece of clothing took hours to work by hand and required long hours of fittings. They were worn to display wealth, originality and distinction by the happy owner. Worth’s creative genius and commercial savvy quickly created a firm reputation for Parisian couture savoir faire craved by the elite of the day, not only in France but in Europe and America as well.

In 1868, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture was formed to organize the Parisian couture industry. This organization is still today’s governing body which rules the amount of petits mains, or skilled hand workers, a house needs to be called an Haute Couture Maison. It also regulates the amount of pieces of clothing to be shown twice a year during Haute Couture Week.

Haute Couture: Chanel
Magnificent finale to Chanel’s Spring 2016 Couture show. © Olivier Saillant/Chanel

Following Worth’s lead, the golden age of Haute Couture saw its day until the middle of the 20th Century. Names such as Poiret, Doucet, Chanel, Lanvin, Vionnet, Schiaparelli, Fath, Balmain, Balenciaga, Dior and Givenchy were the standard bearers of fashion’s craft.

Ladies of means, celebrities and socialites flocked to Paris to partake in couture’s mystique. And the City of Light never looked back. The traditional skills of fashion’s art were the established template from which the fashion industry took its cues.

Haute Couture: new owners
(left to right) François-Henri Pinault, Chairman & CEO of Kering and Bernard Arnault, Chairman & CEO, LVMH

Couture since the Sixties has undergone dramatic change. The challenges of prêt-à-porter fashion have reduced the need for custom made clothes. By the mid 1990’s large companies such as LVMH and Kering bought up individual houses such as Dior, Givenchy and YSL.

The rationale of profit became more important than ever, and Haute Couture’s exquisite clothes were used to drive the image of the brand. This in turn enabled houses to create couture’s dream through the sales of perfumes and accessories, which have a much larger profit margin than clothes.

So where is Haute Couture today?

Haute Couture Dior
Dior Haute Couture Spring Summer 2016. © Dior

Clients are down to a few hundred. Celebrities are lent couture gowns by the houses for red carpet showings. Couture Week has now been reduced to only three days (the fourth is used for jewelry). The number of houses have diminished and are driven by the corporate players such as Dior and Givenchy (LVMH) and Gaultier (Puig).

Haute Couture: Giambattista Valli
Giambattista Valli, Spring 2016 Couture show. Photo: Imaxtree

But there are new players devoted to artistry and invention. Rules and restrictions have been somewhat relaxed by the Syndicat de la Haute Couture. Fewer petits mains and fewer pieces make life and costs easier for the designers. This enables the younger newcomers with immense talent such as Alexis Mabille, Giambattista Valli, Julien Fournie, and Alexandre Vauthier to show their French-inspired creations.

Guo Pei Spring/Summer 2016 Couture Show

Designers are looking East for clients in the Middle East, Russia, and Asia. So the dream continues – Haute Couture is alive and living in Paris. Exciting new names to look out for during Haute Couture days this season are the Chinese designers Yiqing Yin and Guo Pei and the Russian newcomer Ulyana Sergeenko, just to name a few.

Admire their creations and discover some new and exciting couture talent yourself!

Madeleine Czigler
Madeleine Czigler was born in Budapest, Hungary and raised in Toronto, Canada. She holds degrees from the University of Toronto and the Sorbonne in Paris and has pursued a career in TV broadcasting and print journalism for three decades. As a field producer for major media such as CTV, CBC, Discovery and PBS, Madeleine reported on topics ranging from political elections, Olympic sports and fashion shows. From 1989 to 2009, she was the Paris based producer for the internationally acclaimed CBC TV series Fashion File seen in over 150 countries around the world. Madeleine has covered hundreds of fashion shows and back stages interviewing celebrities such as Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Linda Evangelista and Karl Lagerfeld. Madeleine now divides her time between Paris and Toronto, freelancing and teaching communications at the American University of Paris.

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