Should Haute Couture change for the modern world?

Right now couture is the subject of intense scrutiny. There are those who believe that couture is an arcane mode of dress that should be taken out of fashion week circulation or at a minimal undergo a large restructuring.  And yet it is perhaps ironic that in some ways the obstinate criticism and the overt examination of couture actually confirms its value and purpose for the preservation of the future of fashion and the choices women make. For example, one might argue that the extreme polarity of couture is what anchors the varying style and quality of fashion.

The history of couture draws forth images of french sophisticates and society figures of the wealthy elite, ladies in waiting burdened by fabric and patriarchal dependency.  Basically, a time of the past that is no longer relevant.

And yet the Paris shows continue to warrant undying coverage and attention each season.

In fact, the public’s attraction to couture has spurned a movement in the fashion industry to create couture-like garments in appearance, that are more like ready-to-wear in quality, and are available at cost for public consumption.

Of course the challenge in the industry is the use of the word couture. The very term haute couture is tightly regulated by French law and membership in its governing body, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, and is restricted to a handful of fashion houses.

Viktor & Rolf Couture Fall 2015
Viktor & Rolf Couture Fall 2015

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced the new theme for the 2016  Costume institute exhibition: “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology”. The upcoming exhibition will focus on the dichotomy between handmade haute couture and machine-made fashion. Based upon press quotes the exhibition intends to challenge the strictures of the standards set by the French Haute Coutre Syndication focusing on the idea that the Chambre of Haute Couture celebrates traditional codes, rituals and gender divisions which prohibit couture from becoming truly modern.

Valentino Haute Couture Fall 2015
Valentino Haute Couture Fall 2015

It is unfortunate that couture carries the stain of being totally out of step in a modern world. The arguments range from the time and skill restraints required to meet couture standards (a couture approved garment may require hundreds of hours and a minimum number of seamstress skill-sets) to the gender and social biases inherently instilled in the practice, specifically the conceptual and cultural boundaries in which couture is perceived to be oblivious.

In argument against couture; the Fashion industry has gone through several evolutions experiencing waves of counterculture, new styles and techniques, diverse young designers, and ever-growing revenue.  Aided by globalization in general, the world has seen a diversification and intensification of flows – digital, physical, and human, growing in force and speed since the 1960s. And yet couture remains fundamentally unchanged.

 Viktor & Rolf Fall 2015 Couture
Viktor & Rolf Fall 2015 Couture

But I challenge the idea of fashion needing to be fast to be modern.  The fashion industry’s fast fashion mentality is of alarm. Fast fashion has impacted the industry mindset of what constitutes a successful collection which impacts the perceptions of what makes a successful designer.  As you can imagine artistic expression is falling by the wayside in favor of shock value.  Other side-effects are the sordid marketing practices by PR to garner exposure and the unsustainable business practices used to meet consumer demands.

This only reinforces that haute couture needs protection to preserve the future of fashion beyond the looming crash from the constant change of trends in fast fashion.  In a world that is increasingly digital and manufactured — and thus infinitely replicable — couture is a singular artisanal craft that, honestly, should be abandoned before sacrificed.

Alexis Mabille Couture Fall 2015
Alexis Mabille Couture Fall 2015

Designers are the ones who can challenge the idea that couture is not modern.  In fact many of the Fall 2015 couture shows blurred the line between ready-to-wear and haute couture. This was accomplished by designers thinking outside the box creating intricate pieces that met the standards of couture and were wearable. Elie Saab and Alexis Mabille are two young designers known for ready-to-wear-couture; Fendi is another example.

And while couture is not on trend with the hyper-sensitive online world or to those few voices that intimate couture is for women surrounded by maids whose only preoccupation in life might be an immaculate coif or a desire to shine as the irreproachable arm candy of their affluent husbands, I portend that Couture is still very relevant to the women of today whose desire is to dress in fashion for the life they want to lead.  Couture is the only mode of dress, similar to a tailored suit from Saville Row, that is designed to make that woman shine. Because couture is about the artistry, the craft, the beauty, the color and the possibility.

And it is about wealth.

And in modern times what does a powerful wealthy woman wear?

Giorgio Armani Privé Couture Fall 2015
Giorgio Armani Privé Couture Fall 2015

Unfortunately the ideas of modernity, synonymous with technology and velocity, might be the thing to actually make couture obsolete.  Or maybe the word ‘modern’ is simply too singularly defined.