When Jennifer Lawrence walked the Golden Globes red carpet in 2014 and was asked what she was wearing, she replied, “Christian Dior Haute Couture—I don’t know what it means, but I had to say it.”
History of Couture
Haute couture—which literally means high sewing—can be traced back to the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s reign, but Couture wasn’t formalized in France until designer Charles Worth founded the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne to regulate the craft of haute couture.
Couture has become synonymous with the concept of entirely handmade garments, made of the very best materials, and created by the most accomplished craftspeople. Art Garments are fitted to an individual client’s shape and then sent to workshops to be embroidered, beaded, and feathered. No more than ten examples of any particular design are ever made.
Haute couture gowns can take over 800 hours to produce. Daywear can start at $10,000, while a heavily embroidered and intricate gown can cost several hundred thousand dollars.
During the 1950s society ladies like Babe Paley, Marella Agnelli, and Grace Kelly were couture customers. During the 1970s and 1980s Nan Kempner, Lynn Wyatt, and Dodie Rosekrans were the couture poster women. During the 1990s Kuwaiti socialite Mouna al-Ayoub and Houston socialite Suzanne Saperstein were vocal about their love of haute couture. Vanity Fair said of Saperstein that she’s “probably the world’s number one consumer of haute couture.”
Over the past 20 years the Couture market has declined. Perceived as a dying art many designers closed their Couture houses. A decade ago the House of Chanel bought six of the most revered couture ateliers in the world including Lesage (master embroiders), Lemarie (specialist in feathers), Massaro (shoe makers), Goossens (goldsmiths), Desrues (costume jewelers), Maison Michel (milliners), and Guillet (creator of fabric flowers), to ensure that the craft of haute couture could continue in the modern era.
The Couture Market Today
Lately there has been a resurgence in the Couture market. Today’s haute couture clients hail form the Middle East, China, or Russia. Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel, told Women’s Wear Daily in 2010: “We have new clients from Europe and the Middle East” and commented that he has seen the business of haute couture increase by between 20 to 30 percent in recent years. Designer Jean Paul Gaultier closed his Ready-To-Wear line in 2014 to only make Couture for the client base he has established. It has been estimated that there are approximately 4,000 haute couture clients in the world today.
Another emerging Couture market is vintage couture. Auction houses like Christie’s make front page news for Luxury and Couture resale items. There has been increased interest from the international market for couture, but it is a limited market. The couture resale market is 50% buyers and 50% collections. Auction houses like Christie’s has dedicated resources to first identify the collectors and dealers and create marketing campaigns to reach them. The key markets for collecting couture are the world’s fashion hubs: New York, London, Los Angeles, Paris, Japan, and increasingly China.
The world of resale luxury handbags and accessories in auction rooms is also making front-page news. Luxury goods like the Hermes Birkin bag, which requires a staff of 30 to produce 15 hand-crafted bags of different styles and textures per month and can range from $10,000 to $150,000 each depending on the size and material used, has proven to be a good resale market product.
Earlier this year an Hermès Birkin with diamonds set a record in Hong Kong as the most expensive handbag sold at auction. The bag was up for auction at Christie’s afternoon handbags and accessories sale and sold for 1.72 million Hong Kong dollars or $221,846, reports the Wall Street Journal.
Another luxury accessories sale that made the news was the Alexander McQueen Armadillo Boots reproduced and Auctioned by Christie’s for the Nepal relief fund. Three pair of shoes were expected to raise between 10,000 to 15,000 each. Instead each pair went for almost 100,000, the three pair were auctioned and now sit in the home of Lady Gaga thanks to her fiance who paid $295,000. Each pair of armadillos are hand-made in Italy, in an elaborate process that span five days and involves 30 people, using material from three suppliers and passing through three factories.
The Future of Couture
The rising spotlight on Couture and Couture accessories ensures that the Art of Costume Couture will live on. Today there are 30 fashion designers on the official Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture calendar each season including couture stalwarts like Christian Dior and Chanel and newer names like Giambattista Valli, Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad who have brought new life to the world of couture, and a new customer.
Fashion brands like Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci have also unveiled haute couture collections in recent years, though they are not members of the Chambre Syndicale. The recent show by Dolce & Gabbana through AltaModa included a cliffside presentation that required clients and press, including a Princess, be transported by boat to a remote location in Capri.