Please upgrade your browser for the best Refinery29 experience. Read more.

Saved! Access Favorites in your account profile. Removed from my favorites

Is Couture Still Relevant In 2016?

Photo: Estrop/Getty Images.
Giambattista Valli Couture AW16
Last Sunday Vetements kicked off the couture fashion week schedule with its SS17 show, challenging the conventions of the traditionally top-tier, luxury couture show with a collection consisting of reworked tracksuits, overalls, denim and trench coats, presented in a shopping mall, albeit the Galeries Lafayette. The Vetements show was followed by decidedly more haute couture collections from Versace, Schiaparelli, Iris Van Herpen, Dior, Ralph & Russo, Giambattista Valli, Alexis Mabille, and the 21 other fashion houses that officially make up the five-day event. But as couture fashion week winds down today in Paris with sumptuous shows from Valentino, Elie Saab and Jean Paul Gaultier, it calls into question whether the incomprehensibly expensive, luxurious showcase still has a place within the industry, particularly during the current period of great economic instability across Europe which has hit the fashion industry hard.

According to research results from Kantar Worldpanel, the UK fashion market has fallen into decline for the first time in six years.

2016 marks a monumental change within the fashion world (even before the Brexit result) as the accepted modes and systems have been tested repeatedly by both designers and the consumer. In the past year we have seen the biggest names in fashion, such as Raf Simons, Hedi Slimane and Alber Elbaz, step down from positions at leading fashion houses; we have witnessed brands move away from showing on schedule, if at all, in order to cut costs and we have seen labels merge menswear and womenswear on the catwalk in a bid to save money and operate in a way that makes more sense for buyers and consumers. And above all, businesses and markets worldwide are now dealing with the repercussions of Brexit, as the pound plunges and companies reassess their future. According to research results from Kantar Worldpanel, the UK fashion market has fallen into decline for the first time in six years.

So how and where does couture fit into the fashion landscape? Unlike other fashion weeks held six months before the product is available online or in-store, haute couture is the only showcase in which clothes are created for the season they are shown in. Yet, the production of each garment can cost thousands upon thousands and it's a well-known fact that couture is a loss-leader. No matter how beautiful the gowns and how brilliant the designer, the couture industry is simply not profitable. Period. "Haute couture is what gives our business its essential essence of luxury," Bernard Arnault, the CEO of LVMH told The Telegraph. "Set against the money we lose has to be the value of the image couture gives us. Look at the attention the collections attract. It is where you get noticed. You have to be there. It's where we set our ideas in motion."

As Arnault asserts, in couture’s defence, despite the astronomical expense, losses, and labour-intensive artisanal production, these hand-crafted opulent and ornate collections not only allow fashion houses to demonstrate their technical skill to the highest degree, but also establish the designer’s ultimate vision and elevates the brand by unveiling the most innovative designs, using the most high-quality materials.

That said, the number of couture enthusiasts has rapidly declined. During its zenith, after Christian Dior introduced the New Look in 1947, 40,000 couture customers existed worldwide. Now there are scarcely a few thousand, according to The Independent.

Haute couture originated in the mid-19th century, when Charles Frederick Worth, an English fashion designer working in Paris, started making spectacular gowns for elite customers including royalty. A French governing body, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, founded in 1868, after other dressmakers followed suit, has since stipulated the parameters of couture fashion, occasionally inviting new designers to show as part of the prestigious week.

By definition, a couture house creates made-to-measure, one-of-a-kind pieces for private clients who attend personal fittings. The house must run an atelier in Paris, employing at least 15 members of permanent staff. Additionally, each season (in January and July) the house unveils a collection with a minimum of fifty original creations, featuring both day wear and evening wear.

In the mid to late 20th century couture shows were frequented by an exclusive group of loyal customers (namely an unapologetically elitist set of monied women, aristocrats and French establishment) but now the front rows are filled with actresses (especially in January before award/red carpet season), celebrities, social media stars and an emerging group of surprisingly young, jet-set, super-wealthy customers.
Editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar UK Justine Picardie explained to CNN Style: "Well, there are some very, very, very rich people, who want to buy and wear the most beautiful, hand-crafted, individual clothes in the world… We’re seeing these great waves of new wealth, from China, from the Middle East, Russia and also the emerging markets in Africa and India. What’s interesting is that they are buying these clothes in such quantities that a brand like Valentino, which is owned by the Qataris, has doubled its number of couture ateliers."

Over the past 15 years, Lebanese designers such as Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad and Algerian designer Yacine Aouadi, have also been invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to participate in couture fashion week, jostling in amongst the traditional French fashion houses, which consequently has introduced a new, more international customer base. Though the craft itself may be centuries old, the majority of the money is now new.

As shoppers continue to spend incessantly on the high street, according to data from BMI Research, and the constant demand for new collections and disposable clothing persists, perhaps this is why the appeal of couture and the appreciation for the meticulous skill has not lessened, even if it is a significantly smaller group of new money buying it in 2016. Couture is aspirational, it is the pinnacle of fashion and still the way of selling a dream. Its effects trickle down to the masses and influence the lower levels of fashion design, whether we are directly aware or not. Consumers might be so captivated or transported by the image of a couture gown that they buy a fraction of that fantasy at an entry level price, with a perfume or lipstick. Though we may not all have the bottomless purse of a Nigerian princess or an oligarch's daughter, couture is fashion's most vivid fantasy and we all love to dream.