“Paris is always a good idea” – Audrey Hepburn
Paris, the fashion capital of the world, the birthplace of haute couture where the elite of the fashion world congregate twice yearly to view the latest inspirations from the couturiers of high fashion.
Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Today, the term haute couture has been so overused and misused that for some, its simply lost its true meaning and representation. In the past, for an item to be considered haute couture it had to be made in Paris, by a house that met the standard of the Paris Chamber of Commerce (the regulating commission that determines which fashion houses are eligible to be true haute couture houses) and even till today, price is never advertised because if you have to ask then you simply can’t afford it.
Haute couture is a handmade exclusive custom piece of clothing for a specific individual. Today there are many tailoring houses that produce good quality and relatively stylish garments across the world. Some are new players to the market and their talent and eye cannot be denied but “tailor-made” even for you doesn’t actually qualify a piece of clothing to be haute couture. It really is simply just a bespoke or tailored piece of clothing and should not be confused with the former even if the brand is relatively “known”. There are a finite number of brands recognised by the Chamber in Paris as houses that qualify to have their clothing labelled haute couture. Brands such as Dior and Chanel are part of this exclusive yet limited collection of designers.
Fashion model Katoucha wears a Valentino Haute Couture
Then understand this, to be part of this “haute couture elite club” money is not enough to grant you access. This club does not rely on celebrities wearing the designers items to make them credible – in fact the inverse is true, if it is overly advertised it becomes highly undesirable to them. To join this elite group, whilst money is an obvious prerequisite, desire to acquire the finest and most expensive clothing money can buy is the finishing caveat. As its often said, money can buy you alot of things but not taste. You must cultivate like a purveyor of fine arts, a desire to understand and appreciate these pieces of clothings as works of art in their own right. Many clients of this world are often not known, the secret rich as some may say, a world connected by relationships and an allegiance to maintain sartorial elegance for all of their life. This is not a quality that is often evident in the nouveau rich, they are mostly acquainted with forms and methods of displaying wealth and designer labels, but this must not be confused with haute couture taste or representation and belonging.
Chanel show Haute couture shows
You may ask, some of the designs seen on the catwalk are completely unwearable, in fact they often look like artistic constructions that are totally impracticable and who would consider such flamboyance as a tasteful form of wearable expression? You have completely missed the point. The haute couture pieces serve as wearable forms of art. They are the catalyst to the entire fashion industry in terms of the source of inspiration that filters downstream. Take yourself back to the scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Miranda Priestly (editor at high fashion editorial Runway) so unabashedly corrects Andrea’s misunderstanding that her low quality blue cerulean jumper was a choice she made to show her lack of care and disregard to fashion and ultimately a choice she has made for herself. As Miranda succinctly corrects her (paraphrased) “that blue cerulean was first featured in 2002 by Oscar de la Renta in a collection of gowns, it then filtered to Yves Saint Laurent as military jackets, and then quickly to 8 other designers, the department stores and then a clearance bin at some low end store on the high street…” the point being simply, that choice was made for her by the elite of the fashion world, the haute couturiers, and that process of filtration thereby means even the lowest brands at the bottom of the fashion food chain look up to this world for guidance and inspiration on what to create, even if it is a cheap imitation of the original construct of art.
The Devil Wears Prada Movie Scene
The term coined for the diffusion of these brands is called “pret-a-porter” – ready to wear. This is the world of popular and known designer labels that some have confused with haute couture. Brands like Alexander Mcqueen have their diffusion McQ, Donna Karen as DKNY and we could go on. It is this ready to wear that isn’t custom made but produced in larger quantities that help reduce the cost to the consumer and provide access to that “taste of culture and high fashion” so many crave to be a part of. Make no mistake, most haute couture brands with the exception of a few such as Chanel make most of their profit from the masses that indulge in their more affordable pret-a-porter world through clothing, perfume, accessories and anything that features the brand image. From ready to wear you filter to high end department stores on the high street that provide even more affordable imitations of these trends and then right down to high street that reduce the quality of materials even further to make it yet more affordable.
Illustration by Hayden Williams
You will hear some say “I must get my wear out of this outfit…cause I spent xyz on it” possibly a ready to wear or high end department store item when actually within the haute couture world, the inverse is true. It is often not a repeated item of clothing for engagements and one that will usually end up in a museum as a donation (with the advantage of writing it off as a tax loss to the purchaser). It really goes to further epitomise what haute couture means for these elite group of individuals, exclusivity, art and a prime investment. It is worth every penny…or kobo spent and if you cannot understand that, then you cannot enjoy the indulgence and pleasures of the secret club of haute couture.
This is a feature piece delivered for (Autumn 2014/15) Masterpiece magazine – The art of fine living