13 January 2012

Fashion Friday: Haute Couture vs. Ready to Wear

From Chanel Couture Fall 2009 (via)
I was going to write this last week, when I was home sick and really crabby, but I spent most of the day in bed so unfortunately it had to wait. But I didn't forget!

It seems today that everyone wants to slap their name and the word "Couture" on something and sell it as such (serious side eye to you, Real Housewives!). As such, the understanding of "haute couture" has become a bit foggy. I wanted to devote a blog post to this matter and help clear up some of the confusion.

To truly be considered "haute couture" involves jumping a series of hurdles. In fact, it's so difficult and so expensive that there are currently only 11 official members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture on the schedule for the upcoming shows. To be a member of this Chambre is the only way you can call what you do couture, and you must meet the following qualifications: present two shows a year consisting of at least 35 looks for both day and evening, have an atelier (workshop) in Paris which employs at least 15 people full-time, and design made-to-order for customers which consists of at least one personal fitting.

On top of those high standards, the couture client list has drastically declined in the past 50 years, which means it has become unprofitable. When you consider that the price of a couture garment is rarely every anything less that $20,000 (running around $200,000 for a suit - I am not joking) the client list is very small. Chanel, perhaps the best known couture house, has claimed around 150 regular couture clients. One hundred and fifty people in the world purchase Chanel couture. And where does that money go? Luxe, rich fabrics, loads and loads of man hours (a gown can be 400 + hours of labor!), personal fittings and customization. This garment didn't get put through a machine - we are talking tiny hands carefully sewing and embroidering. This is a gown tailor made for you, and you can be sure you will be the only woman in the room - perhaps the world - with that specific garment. Haute couture is one of the Ultimate Luxuries. It is like buying a piece of art in terms of investment, because depending on the designer, the value can actually increase over time.

Couture gowns (most of the time) are the ones you see preening down the red carpet. However, not all red carpet gowns are couture. When an actress is listed as wearing Atelier Versace, for example, that means that the technique of the gown met the standards of couture (hence the Atelier designation) but that the company itself is not a couture house. The French take this appellation very seriously in the same way that the only sparkling wine that can be called "champagne" must come from that region in France.

So why bother putting the time and effort into a couture fashion show? Remember, we're talking thousands of man hours for 7 minutes of a fashion show with next to no return. Simply put, these gowns are the Show Stoppers. They will end up splashed across the pages of magazines for months, even years in some cases, on the bodies of best-dressed celebrities from award shows and red carpets. Editorial after editorial will showcase that one suit. These gowns will be archived for exhibitions. It is the best form of advertisement for these prestigious companies. When Sue Smith sees that gorgeous Dior Couture gown on Nicole Kidman, she won't be able to buy the gown, but she will be able to buy Dior perfumes or maybe handbags.

What about the stuff you can buy in stores? When you walk into a Chanel boutique and purchase that classic Chanel tweed jacket (and good for you!), you've just bought something off the rack. The designation for these garments is Prêt - à - Porter, or Ready to Wear. 99% of the fashion shows and editorials that you see feature RTW garments. Ready to wear does not mean that it is cheap; in fact, many houses that sell RTW have very high price points. Nor does it mean that the garments are cheaply made; Alexander McQueen by all accounts used couture techniques and made beautiful things worthy of the designation. However, for one reason or another, they are not Haute Couture houses.

IMPORTANT! Some houses, like Chanel and Dior, do both haute couture and prêt-à-porter. Therefore, it is possible to have Chanel couture, but not all Chanel is couture.

All this being said, that Louis Vuitton bag you bought is not couture. And your velour tracksuit is definitely not couture. Unless you personally flew to Paris and were hosted in a beautiful salon while experienced seamstresses fit that velour to your body and charged you 50 grand so you could have the privilege of traipsing around looking like Paris Hilton circa 2002, no ma'am, that is not couture. And it is not 2002, so maybe reconsider the tracksuit.

There are a lot of beautiful, well made, expensive things that are not couture, and I am not trying to demean those things in any way. I just want the people of the world to be knowledgeable so that when I talk to you about it I won't pull my hair out! (Joking, joking - I love my hair, I would never really pull it out.)


  1. Brilliant! Thank you so much for making this VERY important distinction. I would guess that maybe 5% of people know the difference. In fact, they just talked about this on Project Runway All Stars last night. They were asked to make a couture gown in 24 hours and the designers were all saying that that's impossible and it's not really "couture" but a gown in the couture style, meaning one-of-a-kind, dazzling, and with tons of immaculate details hand-sewn and luxurious fabrics. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for writing this! It annoys the you-know-what out of me when people call anything, especially RTW luxury items, couture. THEY ARENT! gr!


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