In the summer of 2013, the municipal government of Paris organized its first-ever exhibition “Paris Haute Couture”. More than 100 exquisite dresses and accessories were on display, mainly from the Galliera Museum collection. These works presented 150 years of Parisian fashion history and allowed the public to learn about the talents and virtuosity of world-class designers.
Haute couture (“high fashion” in French) is mandated and protected by French law to feature unique creativity, precise draping and fine craftsmanship, distinct from“made-to-measure” and “made-to-order.” To be certified, a house undergoes a complicated application process and meets a series of stringent criteria. The application must be approved by the French Ministry of Industry.
Charles Frederick Worth, a France-based English dressmaker, is considered the father of haute couture, founding Worth and Bobergh in 1858. A marketing genius, he pioneered the practice of pre-designing model dresses, which he revealed at fashion shows, while simultaneously initiating the practice of fitting his samples to his real clients (a novel idea at that time) in his own workshop. It was a fashion revolution. In 1868, his son Gaston further strengthened the industry by establishing the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris.
Major Parisian Haute Couture Houses
In 1937, the mysterious Cristobal Balenciaga founded his haute couture house. This is a time-honoured label known for ultra-gorgeous and exquisite tailoring. A bias cut is this brand’s trademark. Balenciaga cleverly exploits optical illusions and understands strategic sightlines, lowering the waistline or raising it above the ribs, creating perfection. Balenciaga dresses suit every body type.
Few people know Jacques Fath’s claim to fame. However, many influential fashion designers, including Givenchy, Valentino and Guy Laroche, were once under Jacques Fath’s tutelage, giving Fath the status of legend in European fashion history. Jacques Fath’s designs often highlight the wearers’ elegant carriage.
Balmain, one of the three most influential companies of post WWII haute couture, along with Dior and Balenciaga, was founded by French couturier Pierre Balmain in 1945. Balmain represents a unique interpretation of elegance and clothes royalty and movie stars. Its clients are universally recognized style icons like Brigitte Bardot, Katherine Hepburn, and Marlene Dietrich.
On February 12, 1947, Christian Dior borrowed loans to organize an haute couture fashion show which shocked the world: a dress piled high with an ultra-extravagant use of fabrics coaxed out long-lost femininity, completely different from pre-war jackets with padded shoulders. Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow exclaimed, “It’s quite a revelation. Your dresses have such a new look!” Dior created a peacetime momentum in fashion, one reflecting peoples’ new optimism.
In today’s haute couture process, embroiderers supply their sketches—audacious and creative visions—to designers for the designers’ inspiration. A dress is usually embroidered by several embroidering houses working in concert. In the end, the embroidered pieces are assembled at the designers’ studios. In general, it takes 10 days to embroider eight dresses.
What are the differences between haute couture and ready-to-wear embroideries? The embroideries for haute couture are often denser and more complex in design, one reason for haute couture’s expensive price tags. Yet the difficulty with embroidering ready-to-wear clothes is that each piece of clothing needs be embroidered in the exactly same way.
In the past, French ladies’ dresses were usually pleated. The folds were embroidered, and sometimes adorned with feathers or painted. Pleating is a very delicate, involved job requiring manual dexterity. Individual fabrics and their folds must be baked, at varying temperatures depending on the fabric, and then cooled for a day.
Five decades ago, customers from the Americas would travel by boat across the Atlantic to Paris to purchase new attires. In order to complete at least three fittings, they had to stay for a month at a time. Nowadays, who has such a leisurely and carefree schedule? The shrinkage of the haute couture industry has rendered many ateliers unsustainable. Some are facing closure. In 2002, Chanel acquired couture embroidery atelier Maison Lesage, costume jewelry manufacturer Maison Desrues, plumassierer Lemarié, high-end shoemaker Massaro and couture milliner Maison Michel. Jeweler Goossens and floral artisan atelier Maison Guillet later joined the same family. This launched Chanel’s new atelier collection positioned between ready-to-wear and haute couture. On one hand, Chanel has preserved the traditional couture crafts; on the other hand, it ensures the quality of its own products.
Although the French luxury fashion industry is gradually being occupied by luxury ready-to-wear clothing, couture still plays avant-garde roles and leads trends.