The Craftsmanship Behind Haute Couture

It’s the catchphrase of the fashion world, but what does haute couture really mean?

Literally translated as “high dressmaking” or “high sewing,” the term generally refers to high-end, custom-made garments, as differentiated from the less prestigious prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) garments.

“Haute couture” has a rigid definition and its use is regulated by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, a government commission France.

Photo by Adrien Dirand

The commission’s requirements for fashion houses to call themselves “haute couture” include having an atelier with a minimum of 25 employees, releasing at least two collections per year, and creating all garments by hand and made-to-measure.

Pioneer couturiers the likes of CHANEL and Dior are obvious members, with other brands such as Fendi or Viktor & Rolf having joined in recent years. Here we will explore eight characteristics that form the foundation and savoir-faire of haute couture.

Les Petites Mains

The diminutive title “little hands” belies the highly respected status of the skilled and talented artisans to whom it belongs. An atelier’s petites mains are the masters who sew each outfit by hand, translating the creative directors’ ideas into tangible works of art using techniques that have been perfected over the course of centuries.


Maison Lognon is the preeminent atelier for plissage, or pleating, having created by hand thousands of shapes — from pyramid pleats to origami pleats to accordion pleats — for France’s leading fashion houses. Its artisans create a mould of two interlocking pieces of cardboard, and sandwich the textile between them. The mould and fabric are heated at about 100°C for an hour, then left to cool for a day or so to form the plissage.


Embroidery paints intricate details onto the “canvas” of a garment. The embroiderer’s hand adds the shimmering sequins or the miniscule beads, perfectly placed to form luscious flowers or sophisticated patterns. Maison Lesage is the atelier behind much of haute couture’s embroidery. Dating back to 1858, its archives hold the world’s largest embroidery collection — about 70,000 samples. CHANEL, which has been especially proactive in protecting France’s artisanal fashion traditions, bought Lesage in 2002.


Marie Antoinette’s elaborate feathered headdresses helped spark fashion’s love of featherwork in the 18th century. Plumassiers, masters of featherwork, have been officially recognized in France since the 16th century. Nelly Saunier is the best known of Paris’s four remaining plumassiers. Inspired by natural and ancestral motifs, her work rivals the most dazzling plumage found on the world’s many beautiful and exotic birds.


French for “draping,” moulage is a step in the creative process that helps a dressmaker understand how the garment will flow. A mock-up dress is made of white muslin. The dressmaker can make adjustments to change the way the dress fits and flows, so when she makes the final product, it drapes perfectly. The gravity-defying silhouettes we’ve seen on runways owe their theatrical glory to this technique.

Broderie Or

Broderie Or is embroidery using metal thread — most commonly silver, gold (which is other metals plated with gold), or copper. Originating in Asia over 2,000 years ago, it was used extensively for vestments in Europe’s grandest churches during the Middle Ages, and later among royalty and nobility throughout Europe. Today, goldwork is still a rare, labour-intensive talent. It is mainly reserved for use in religious and artistic embroidery due to its delicate nature.


The technique of perlage has its roots in 17th-century India. It spread to Europe in the 18th century, where it became a fashionable pastime for society ladies. It is now couture houses’ preferred method of beading. An artisan strings beads onto a thread, then pulls the thread between each bead into a stitch, using a hook. The process requires great precision and is time-consuming but results in beautifully ornate textural designs.

Trompe l’Oeil

An art technique that has made its way into fashion, trompe l’oeil refers to creating an optical illusion through perspective or dimension. First made popular in fashion by Elsa Schiaparelli in 1927, it affords a playful spin on materials. A notable example is Fendi’s response to the anti-fur movement; it created the illusion of mink fur on one of its suits with densely-stitched chiffon strips and tightly woven sequin mesh.

Produced by Many Ngom