High fashion (haute couture)

Haute couture is French for “fine tailoring” or “haute couture” (commonly informally referred to as “couture”), and describes hand-made, made-to-measure garments using the finest fabrics, such as the finest cashmere, fur, suede, leather, and silk. The best tailors pay the greatest attention to detail, usually using manual methods. It’s a mixture of haute couture and artisan clothing, usually worn by the richest and most famous.

The Syndicate Chamber of Haute Couture is an association of companies that have been accredited for their work in the field of haute couture. Haute Couture is a legally protected designation that can only be used by fashion houses to whom it is granted by the French Ministry of Industry. This Chamber annually reviews its member base, which must be subject to a rigorous level of regulations and standards in order to maintain membership. The list of members changes annually due to its strict criteria.

The bolero jacket of the dress worn by Swedish actress Josefin Bornbusch to the Elle Fashion Awards in Sweden in January 2010. Design: Holven Polken for H&M, 2010. Image courtesy of Holven Polken.
The haute couture house is headed by a couturier who oversees a knitting workshop staffed by skilled workers who practice their craft as either expert knitters or tailors. The process may begin with a preliminary design sketch, illustration, or a detailed cut-out piece of muslin and tulle, depending on the designer’s preference. In order to put the finishing touches on a haute couture piece, fine trimmings, embroidery and embellishments are usually purchased from outside sources who are experts in their field and are then meticulously woven into the garment. Haute couture pieces have an essential feature of precise sizing. The client undergoes a series of measuring sessions to determine whether the piece has been executed according to the required measurements, and this is not only to ensure the accuracy of the size, but also to ensure elegance and comfort, which are equally important.

When couture collections first appeared, they were shown to the press, buyers and the high-profile clientele, in mini fashion shows in dedicated halls. Each model carried a tag indicating her look number, making it easy for attendees to jot down the numbers of outfits they liked. Once the choices are made, the customer sits down with the designer, who either adjusts the costumes to the customer’s exact sizes and preferences, or the buyer copies them for his store.

Illustration by Isaac Zeno for Henri Bendel, 2004. Illustration courtesy of Isaac Zeno.
Illustration by Isaac Zeno, Personal Collection, 2006. Illustration courtesy of Isaac Zeno.
And currently, we see haute couture collections on the catwalks at Paris Fashion Week. Prices usually start in the tens of thousands and can go into the hundreds of thousands. Many companies use the charm and allure of their high-end collections, which have a small market share of their total business, as a driving force to increase sales of their ready-to-wear, accessories and perfumes, which represent the bulk of their income. The haute couture collections are often used as ‘visual publicity’ to draw attention to the brand and generate sales for its affordable ready-to-wear collection. Style.com, Vogue’s website, is a great source for haute couture reviews, in the form of photographs and videos.
Armani Privé, Versace, Chanel, Christian Dior, Givenchy, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Valentino are some of the most recognizable names in haute couture. The Syndicate Chamber of High Fashion accepts “foreign” members; But there are very few fashion designers outside of Paris who practice the exacting style of haute couture, such as Elie Saab, Giorgio Armani and Paul Smith. The French government allows members from abroad in an attempt to demonstrate its firm belief in the importance of globalizing the fashion industry. Only Ralph Rucci, Rick Owens, Adam Kimmel, Zac Posen and Manbucher reached that high position among American designers. The government has invited each of them to show their collections in Paris, and they are, or were, members of the Syndicate Chamber of Haute Couture. Interestingly, Thom Browne, a New York-based menswear designer, independently showed his collection in Paris as not belonging to the room. A full list of current members of that room can be found at www.modeaparis.com.

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