Haute couture is considered the most prestigious discipline in the world of fashion and is a very costly business – not just for customers, but also for creators. What used to be the preserve of the noble houses is now the realm of a few hundred well-heeled female customers. But what sets a maison de haute couture apart from a dressmaker’s workshop? We had a look at the fashion capital that’s hosting the haute couture shows from 24th to 28th January.
Charles Frederick Worth is considered the father of haute couture. An Englishman, he opened the first large fashion store in 1857. He was the first to use mannequins to showcase expensive styles. Empress Eugénie, Princess Pauline von Metternich and Empress Sisi were among his clientele.
The Chambre syndicale de la haute couture
Founded in 1868, this federation of dressmakers still exists today. Its members decide whether to admit couturiers to their distinguished society of craftsmanship.
The admission criteria
Only those who have been admitted to the Chambre syndicale de la haute couture upon the recommendation of an existing member are allowed to refer to their creations as haute couture. Other mandatory requirements are a dressmaker’s workshop based in Paris with at least 15 full-time employees and the presentation of at least 35 looks per season that are exclusively custom-made – with several fittings – on commission for private customers. It goes without saying that the elaborate dresses have to be hand-sewn for several hundred hours.
The guest members
As ever fewer maisons can afford costly haute couture, there are also so-called invited members. Who should not be confused with corresponding members (membres correspondents). They share the same status as full members and are based in Paris, but play a leading part in the Parisian fashion world. They include Valentino, Armani Privé and Elie Saab (Lebanon). Atelier Versace is back once again this year after spending more than a decade away.
The active members
After the Second World War, there were over 100 haute couture ateliers. Today there are just 13 full members and it is surprising just how unknown some of the names are outside the French capital: Adeline André, Alexandre Vauthier, Bouchra Jarrar. In contrast, brands like Chanel, Christian Dior, Givenchy and Jean Paul Gaultier are now household names. Other maisons, such as Hermès and Louis Vuitton, have the capacity but have chosen to do without this prestigious side to the business.
Haute couture’s clientele is now confined to just a few hundred well-heeled women. Previously it was mostly American women from 5th Avenue who filled their wardrobes with exclusive fashion, but today the customer base has become more globalized and is now based mostly in the Middle and Far East. Most customers wouldn’t let you look over their shoulders when buying such clothing: discretion is everything when you’re spending a six-figure sum on a dress. Mouna Ayoub, ex-wife of a Saudi oil billionaire, is one of the few who let it be known: her haute couture collection comprises over 1,500 dresses. Her favourite couturier: Dior. When she is absent from the catwalk, people start to panic. A similarly reliable figure on the front row is Ivana Trump, ex-wife of the billionaire and now presidential candidate. A new face at the shows is 30-year-old billionaire heiress Athina Onassis. She arrives with long-time haute couture customer Lee Radziwill, the 82-year-old sister of Jacky Kennedy Onassis. Despite her advanced years, Radziwill is still considered a style icon and represents the classic couture customer. In the future, couturiers will have to start concentrating on the younger generations from the Middle East.
High-end pieces of jewellery art have been presented since 2010 to complement the haute couture collections. Chanel, Boucheron, Chopard and De Beers will be showing their creations in Paris in 2016.
There for the summer 2016 season
Schiaparelli, Atelier Versace, Christian Dior, Giambattista Valli, Elie Saab, Chanel, Maison Margiela, Jean Paul Gaultier, Valentino, Giorgio Armani Privé, Victor & Rolf.