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Even the most casual fashionista knows the beauty of haute couture. It brings to mind images of flowing ballgowns, one-of-a-kind dresses and runways that are filled with designs of unsurpassable beauty. But to the French, haute couture is almost a science, an area protected by French law that governs the highly-regulated industry of the upper echelon of sartorial design. These collections are only presented twice a year, and the designers are regulated and protected by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, and in particular the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.
For something truly haute couture, workers may spend up to 700 hours creating a single garment, that is created specifically, and only, for a single client. It can be difficult to differentiate from other high-end designs, even for those in the know, as the term “haute couture” is protected by French law, but the word “couture” is not, leading brands to label their collections couture without the same level of expertise, dedication or quality delivered to their garments. This is why the FHCM was founded in 1868—to hold designers to this exacting standard of French quality and culture.
In total there are only 16 French labels that are legally considered a part of the FHCM haute couture houses: Adeline André, Alexandre Vauthier, Alexis Mabille, Bouchra Jarrar, Chanel, Dior, Frank Sorbier, Giambattista Valli, Givenchy, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Julien Fournié, Maison Margiela, Maison Rabih Kayrouz, Maurizio Galante, Schiaparelli and Stéphane Rolland. As a part of the Federation, they are supported in strategy, communication, marketing, and economic, technological, cultural and even political possibilities; additionally, they are given a position on the official couture fashion week schedule.
To be eligible for France’s ultra-exclusive haute couture status, members must create made-to-order garments in an atelier of at least 15 full-time staff, as well as 20 full-time technical workers in one of their ateliers. Collections must be presented with a minimum of 50 original designs, including day and evening looks, presented to the public in January and July during fashion week, and created for private clients, with each piece requiring more than one fitting.
If this sounds particularly stringent, it’s only because the FHCM has more than 150 years worth of French quality and history to uphold. But this doesn’t mean they don’t understand the changing landscape of fashion. In an ever-evolving and advancing society, they keep their pulse on the shifting societal trends, technological advances, digital platforms, and their links with fashion and creativity. Where haute couture was once only accessible to the 0.001 percent target audience and preferred almost exclusively by older women, it has now become the interest of millennials and evolved through the use of new materials and advancements.
With an estimated client base of only 4,000 worldwide, young socialites, celebrities and even royals descend upon Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week ready to snap up these one-of-a-kind designs. But while these pieces cost thousands of dollars and take hundreds of man-hours to complete, oftentimes the house can lose money on these collections. For haute couture, it’s not often about profits, but rather the influence, status and image of a house, not to mention the inspiration they lend to the ready-to-wear and fast fashion labels that every woman wears. It’s an homage to the beauty and everlasting craftsmanship of what the industry’s most visionary and ingenious minds can conceive of when given creative freedom.
Whether the eccentric stylings of Jean-Paul Gaultier or the classic, lady-like looks of Dior, each house works to preserve the beauty and centuries-long craftsmanship of French design. It’s a tradition that must be preserved and treasured while still pioneering new processes and nurturing new talent.