Clothing: Fashion: The Grand French Haute Couture Houses


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© 2001 Elegant-Lifestyle.com Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Ultimate Indulgence for Today's Luxury Woman

These days the international fashion society jetsets between New York, London, Milan and Paris. Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, Vivienne Westwood, Valentino, Versace, Chanel, Dior and the like have created temples of fashion and luxury. Elegant-Lifestyle wanted to find it out once and for ever: What is the ultimate indulgence for the pampered luxury woman of today, the wife of an important husband, the international film star, the princess or those celebrities who want to be ahead of tomorrow's fashion trends? There is only one answer: Haute Couture. Full stop.

'Haute Couture' is the French word for the highest, most exclusive work a big fashion house produces. However, not every fashion house also creates haute couture. It is basically an outfit created by one of the big designers such as Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, John Galliano for Dior or Yves Saint Laurent/Tom Ford for Yves St Laurent specifically for you - or let's say nearly. Most haute couture (French for ' high tailoring') houses only produce 1,500 dresses or so a year. 

© Chanel Haute Couture Autumn-Winter 2000/1
© Photo by Karl Lagerfeld
Also, haute couture dresses and outfits are hand-made and made to the measures of the client. Not only do women wearing haute couture look like the outfit has been made on them, some couturiers like the legendary Balenciaga (1895-1972) were and are able to improve the figure of their clients through their magic art of tailoring.

Having an Haute Couture dress specifically made for you ensures that the outfit you are wearing is absolutely unique. It also has the advantage that you normally avoid seeing anybody else in the same dress. Haute Couture is the elevated art form of international fashion design. With Haute Couture a creator's vision, such as Christian Lacroix or Jean Paul Gaultier for example, can be rendered to the specific demands and shape of the client. Needless to say that this alone can be a tremendous feel-good factor - quite apart from the fact that going for an Haute Couture outfit often presents a chance to meet the designer in person. Being an Haute Couture client usually also means that you receive an invitation to the fashion show that takes place twice a year (January and July) in Paris. The Haute Couture fashion shows for the Spring/Summer 2001 collection have just been in Paris during the week 20-24 January.

Paris - The Epicenter of Haute Couture  
Ever since the extravagances of the court of Louis XIV (1638-1715), French fashion trends have been closely monitored by the rest of Europe. Later on in the 18th century Rose Bertin, who was Minister of Fashion to Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), was the first celebrated French fashion designer. From then on dresses from Paris went to London, Venice, Vienna, St. Petersburg and Constantinople (today's Istanbul). The inimitable Parisian elegance established the reputation of French couture throughout the world. Haute Couture as we now know it these days originated in the 19th century. It was Charles Frederick Worth, the Father of Haute Couture, who can be called the first modern couturier. When he founded his couture house in 1858 he introduced some important innovations such as showing his dresses on live models, which pleased his clients such as the Empress Eugénie of France (wife of last French Emperor Napoléon III who reigned from 1852-1870) and the Princess Metternich (wife of Austrian diplomat Metternich) immensely.

However, Worth not only launched the first - though be it private - fashion show. He and his sons founded the 'Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne' in 1868, which is the Association of Haute Couture Houses, which specified what kind of criteria a fashion designer needs to fulfil in order to call himself a 'couturier'. These days the term 'Haute Couture' is a term that is regulated by the French government and is still governed by a number of precise criteria. Only

© Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture Autumn-Winter 2000/1
© Photo by Patrice Stable
an exclusive circle of haute couture houses is allowed to make use of this label. Every year the eligible haute couture houses are determined by a commission (the 'Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture') that meets at the Ministry of Industry.

In order to qualify for the distinction of 'haute couture', established couturiers are required to make the designs at their own premises with a staff of at least 20. In addition, they have to present their collections consisting of at least 50 garments to the press in Paris twice a year. Furthermore, the haute couture collection has to consist of day as well as evening wear and has to be shown on a minimum of three models. The collection must also be shown in-house in dedicated salons. Needless to say that the fulfilment of all these criteria contributes to making haute couture a highly prestigious and exquisite affair and that the outfits are made for a very exclusive clientele.

Why is Haute Couture so special?

© Christian Lacroix Haute Couture Autumn-Winter 2001/2
© Photo by Guy Marineau
So who are the customers that go for Haute Couture? Well, the couture houses are generally quite cagey about who their current clients are. Fair enough. However, most haute couture houses were willing to give Elegant-Lifestyle a glimpse into their list of past clients. There are the unforgettable actors of the era of glamorous cinema: Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, Romy Schneider, Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot and Liz Taylor. Then there are the crowned heads of Europe and of the world such as Princess Grace of Monaco, the Queens of Belgium, Denmark, Spain and Thailand, the Empress of Persia, Arabian Princesses - the list is endless. However, also rock stars such as Madonna or Jennifer Lopez, women from big industrial and banking empires such as the Onassis', the Gettys, the Thyssens and the Rothschilds of this world are to be found.

Elegant-Lifestyle has come to the conclusion that if you are or want to feel like a VIP, opting for an haute couture outfit is the way to go. But haute couture goes further than that - female Wall Street bankers, women managing or owning large enterprises, lady politicians and wives of wealthy entrepreneurs all have one thing in common - they need to represent, look elegant and feel good. It is all about that feel-good factor when you walk around in a made-to-measure outfit that has been created for you by somebody like Oscar de la Renta, who is artistic director for the 

House of Balmain. So is it all about feeling like - and paying - a million dollars? Luckily not! 

There are only a few thousand women world-wide buying haute couture today. Although being worth the money it is of course expensive. Laurence Benaim wrote in issue No. 23 of 'France Diplomatie' (the magazine of the French Foreign Ministry) that the price for an haute couture model dress can range from 16,000 - 20,000 USD. Made-to-measure a grand evening dress can cost up to 60,000 USD; sometimes even more. Putting a price tag on haute couture fashion is obviously difficult as prices vary between the different couturiers, vary from outfit to outfit, the type of material and vary according to the amount of work that goes into making it for you. However, before you think of buying your second, third or fourth car why not go for an haute couture dress with style and enjoy all the VIP treatment in Paris that goes with it?

Haute Couture in Practice  
Extensive work goes into the creation of an haute couture garment. About 100-150 hours of manual work go into the making of a day outfit such as a suit. Evening dresses with embroidery can require several 1000 hours of work. The process is the creation of a work of art - specifically for you. With Chanel for example, couturier Karl Lagerfeld starts with a sketch. Then each design is first sewn entirely in a canvas 'toile' before the real dress is made. After the fashion show, designs are entirely made-to-measure for clients with a minimum of two fittings. For regular customers Chanel keeps their own tailor's dummy, which is made to the customer's measurements. 

For today's luxury woman, there are many reasons to go for the ultimate fashion indulgence. There are those big special occasions in life such as an engagement, your wedding, a christening, a special birthday, rewarding oneself for managing a special achievement, the payment of a good annual bonus, the opening night of a grand evening at the opera, attending a big ball, an important invitation to the house of a governor, a president, a royal family or a celebrity - any excuse will do. Ever thought of celebrating your engagement in Ungaro, getting married in Christian Lacroix, arriving at your son's 

©  Jean Louis Scherrer Haute Couture Autumn-Winter 2000/1
© Photo by Bruno Pellerin
or daughter's wedding in Dior, signing a big business deal in one of Yves Saint Laurent's famous suits or arriving at an important social event in that classic Chanel costume? If not, this is the time to have a think about it.

A note of advice - the couture houses cater to an international clientele and as a consequence, the couture model dresses are often being presented outside of Paris. It is therefore essential to make an appointment prior to your visit to Paris so that the respective couture house can ensure that all model dresses are in the country and ready for you to see. If you would like to have a preview, most couture houses will send you a video prior to your coming to Paris featuring the various couture models. A more modern alternative is to view the haute couture collections online (where available).

Overview over Today's Grand French Haute Couture Houses

The Duchess of Windsor, alias Mrs. Wallis Simpson, had her wedding dress made by French couturier Mainbocher when marrying King Edward VIII in 1937. The House of Lanvin made the wedding dress for the Spanish Princess of Alcantara. Queen Fabiola of Belgium's wedding dress was made by Balenciaga in 1960. Many big names of the past such as Mainbocher (which was taken over by Balenciaga), Paul Poiret, Madeleine Vionnet, Robert Piguet, Elsa Schiaparelli and the like don't exist anymore. Others such as Balenciaga, Nina Ricci, Paco Rabanne, Ted Lapidus and Thierry Mugler have abandoned Haute Couture. Since 1994, Pierre Cardin has chosen not to present his couture models publicly, but only to a small group of private clients. The fashion world is in constant change but other world famous houses such as Chanel, Dior, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent offer their clients haute couture now and today. Newer houses such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix have also joined the show. Elegant-Lifestyle presents the full list of the grand French Haute Couture Houses of the present (the listing is by when the Haute Couture Houses were founded):

  1. Coco Chanel (founded 1915)
  2. Pierre Balmain (founded 1945)
  3. Christian Dior (founded 1946)
  4. Hubert de Givenchy (founded 1952)
  5. Louis Féraud (founded in 1955)
  6. Yves Saint Laurent (founded 1962-2002)
  7. Jean-Louis Scherrer (founded 1962)
  8. Emanuel Ungaro (founded 1965)
  9. Jean Paul Gaultier (founded 1976)
10. Christian Lacroix (founded 1987)

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