Sunday, January 2, 2011

The World of Haute Couture

A few weeks ago, I was reading a magazine. In it, there's an announcement about the Valentino Retrospective Exhibition that will be visiting Singapore. I was immediately excited and carry on with the plan to definitely pay a visit to the exhibition. After all, I'd be ashamed to call myself a fashion junkie, if I have never encounter the ultimate "drug" in the fashion world, the Haute Couture.
So what's all this hooplah about Haute Couture you may ask? Why is it that I'm so fascinated by the thought of being able to see a piece of clothing that is worthy to be called Haute Couture? Well it started about over a hundred years ago, when Charles Frederick Worth (a British man nonetheless) basically felt threatened that his job as a made-to-order dressmaker would soon be replaced by a less luxurious yet more practical form of pret-a-porter, also known as ready-to-wear.

So he created this term, Haute Couture, which literally translates to high sewing. The idea was to preserve a very particular style of dressmaking that was elaborate and has a very high quality from the attack of ready-to-wear clothing. His idea was bought, and soon almost every French designer from the late 19th century to the early 20th century designers were called Couturier (or Haute Couture Designers). Callot Soeurs, Jean Patou, and Jacques Doucet were some of the earliest couturiers. The early 20th century pre World War II are Paul Poiret, Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet, Mainbocher (who's an American), Elsa Schiaparelli, Fortuny, Lucien Lelong, Cristobal Balenciaga and Pierre Balmain. The lovely thing about Haute Couture at those days was that the couturiers of the next generation were trained under the previous generation of couturier just like how Madeleine Vionnet was working for Callot Soeurs then Jacques Doucet before opening her own house, so was the next generation of couturiers. Christian Dior who was the biggest couturier in the 40s an 50s, were trained under Lucien Lelong and Pierre Balmain. Hubert de Givenchy was an apprentice to Elsa Schiaparelli before the big launch of his career.

This applies to the next generation as well. After the 50s new generation of couturiers blossoms into the surface. Names like Yves Saint Laurent (who was an apprentice to Christian Dior), Emanuel Ungaro (who worked for Balenciaga), Courreges (who also got a jump start from Balenciaga), and Pierre Cardin (also worked at Dior and Schiaparelli) were the biggest names of the decade. The later designers that had the balls to try their luck in the Haute Couture scenes were Jean Paul Gaultier, Christian Lacroix, Valentino Garavani and Thierry Mugler.

It was almost impressive how the Haute Couture works. They have a council, who decided whether or not someone is worthy of being a Couturier. This council is called Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne which was created in 1868, now it is a part of a Federation called Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture du Pret a Porter des Couturiers et des Creatures de Mode (loosely translated: French Federation of Fashion, and of Ready to Wear of Couturiers and Fashion Designers). So what does this council do, is basically the Syndicale decided who's worthy of being a couture designer. He or she must fulfill the standard operational of Haute Couture by following these 3 rules: design made to order clothing for clients with at least one fittings, have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least 15 people full-time, and twice a year each season is able to present a collection to the paris press of at least 35 set of garments with outfits for both day and evening wear.

So what is it that made an Haute Couture piece so special, other than the most complicated bureaucracy involved in just being able to make one? Well it is famously known that Haute Couture is made mostly by hand, over 80% of work has to be by hand. Though it is said that a lot of fashion houses cheated on this rule these days, you can still see that there's a lot of effort going on in making that garment.

Chanel is one of the old fashion couture houses that believes in the old values of making everything entirely by hand. A documentary about how a couture collection was made showed that almost all of the garments from the draping of the pattern to the making of the trimmings are done by hand. A friend of mine who studied in the school of Haute Couture (oh yes, there's a special school for it), said that the curriculum is almost impossible and that only those who are trained amazingly well would be able to survive sewing an entire jacket by hand. Of course this makes the cost of labour triples the regular cost of ready-to-wear. A ready to wear dress can be finished in a mere day, while an haute couture can take up to 3 weeks to finish from pattern to trimmings. And haute couture is one of a kind, meaning that there's only one of it made in the world. They are by law (and integrity) are not allowed to re-create a same piece with the same pattern (once the outfit is done, the pattern is scrapped).

The fabrics used are also exceptional. They say that all the fabrics are the best and the rarest quality fabrics anyone can find in the world. Lucky for me, they have these kinds of fabric supply in Jakarta. And I've seen a Chantilly lace that Ungaro used on his last Haute Couture collection, a piece of that lace could pay my rent for an entire year, believe it or not. And the trimmings, according to a documentary about Chanel Couture that I watched, the famous Chanel braiding that embellish the famous Chanel tweed jacket is made by an old lady who lives in the out skirt of Paris. She's so old, but she's still the best in the business. Karl Lagerfeld (the chief designer of Chanel, in case you don't know), said that that woman was indispensable in making a Chanel jacket, and that no other person in this world could braid like her. Mind you, she's so old, so when she died, no one else in the world could do the same Chanel braiding!! And the beading are another story, a dress could be done by 6 ladies, and could take up to over 100 hours! That's 600 hours if done by 1 person. Using some of the most beautiful crystal, beads and sequins that you can find in this world. So in conclusion, Haute Couture is the highest of the highest level in fashion.

So what does this lavishness of Haute Couture cost you? Well according to Becca Cason Thrash, a philantrophist and famous couture collection, a blouse could cost you around $10,000 to $20,000 and a dress could probably exceed 6 figures. So what justify these women to spend money that could possibly feed a small country on a piece of clothing? Some say it's the exclusivity, some say it's the prestige, some say that it's like an addiction, that once you wear Haute Couture, you can never wear ready to wear ever again.

Considering the price tag that might get someone a heart attack, the people who can afford couture are extremely limited. Some say only about 200 people in the world buys Haute Couture, a very small number. It's almost like a little private club of 200 women who have 2 things in common, they are rich, and have an impeccable taste in fashion. Though Couture houses are private about who buys their clothes (and price tag as well), some famous (really) rich women like Becca Cason Thrash, Daphne Guiness and Ivanka Trump are famous for throwing Couture on their back almost on every occasion.

But 200 people isn't that many. And there are dozens of Couturiers fighting for clients every season. Which is why companies with smaller financial backing have withdrawn from the Couture game to focus on the ready-to-wear market. In fact, it is said that Chanel is the only fashion house in the world that's actually making decent money out of it's Haute Couture business. Other houses like Dior and Givenchy merely use the show as a way to advertise their other products like accessories and make-ups. While the rest, those who didn't have as strong financial backing as those mentioned earlier, have really slipped away from the market and some, like Christian Lacroix, was forced to give up. Earlier in 2009, the house of Christian Lacroix failed for bankruptcy. The bigger business minded company like Yves Saint Laurent, Ungaro, Guy Laroche, chose to shut down the Couture line altogether and focus more on other lines to make more profit. Some international designers who have tasted the bittersweet taste of the world of Haute Couture like Emilio Pucci, Versace, and recently Chado Ralph Rucci, haven't shown their Haute Couture collection in years.

So the fact that it's getting rare, almost extinct perhaps, somehow adds up the luxuriousness of these clothes. It's almost like if you're able to afford a piece from Jean Paul Gaultier or Dominique Sirop, that you have been a patron of Haute Couture. More and more clothing have become an art form, and some of these ladies consider Haute Couture to be sort of an investment. I happen to heard a story about a lady in Indonesia who's been collecting a look from each and every one of Jean Paul Gaultier's Haute Couture collection, not to wear, just to look at.

And that's another thing too. The reason why Chanel is the only profitable Haute Couture houses is because Chanel's products are relatable to the direct customers (ladies who are mostly in their 50s), while other houses like Elie Saab and Valentino's shows are always packed with middle eastern princesses and royals who loves the elegance that they both bring to their designs. While houses like Christian Dior, whose designs are always extra-ordinary, out of the box, innovative, yet somewhat not wearable, are not counting their income from the couture collection, the shows have been more about keeping up with the traditions and setting trends rather than actual sales (note that the Haute Couture show of Christian Dior has went from really grand at the Versailles a few years back to very low key at the house's salon in Paris). While those like Lacroix, who seems to be stuck in the 80s, unfortunately is unable to meet the modernness and relate-ability that the customer needs, and therefore forced to shut down altogether.

So is Haute Couture in general dying? With the Couture fashion week down to just 3 days, and consisting only very few members of the Chambre, and most are actually foreign companies (Valentino is Italian, Elie Saab is Lebanese, Giorgio Armani is Italian, Martin Margiella is Belgian) or have foreign chief designer (Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld is German, Givenchy's Ricardo Tisci is Italian, and Dior's John Galliano is British), while the rest of the list are smaller companies like Dominique Sirop, Anne Valerie Hash, Franck Sorbier, Alexis Mabille and Jean Paul Gaultier trying to survive the harsh fashion world, I guess it is save to say that the Haute Couture is a dying art, as rare as the Sumatran Tiger or the American Bald Eagle, which brings back to my point at the beginning of this post, about my fascination to see Haute Couture with my own eyes for the first time in my life.

Sadly, there's not much we can do to preserve this dying art of Haute Couture. With that price tag, it's almost like the Couturier are making this kind of art unreachable, and even if we can reach it, would we buy it, even though it means preserving an art form.

Once I made it (if I ever make it) to the Valentino Retrospective Exhibition, I'll report back to you. And until then, Ciao!!

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