The Existentialist Quest of Haute Couture

Is haute couture losing its meaning as luxury fashion houses bend down to include the masses and e-commerce, and hence, make more money in the process? Is there a better initiative to help luxury fashion houses bypass the economic crisis and retain their exclusivity as well?

By: HH Alexandra Orloff, CEO, Sacha Orloff Ltd

Posted on: August 10, 2010

Oh.Oh... Haute Couture quand tu nous (Oh Oh Haute Couture when you hold us…)

Chanel fashion showBorn in Paris in the late 19th century, ‘La Haute Couture’ has maintained this home ever since. The origins of Haute Couture go back to Charles Frederick Worth, who created at Rue de la Paix in 1858, the first true haute couture by designing original pieces for individual clients. The term ‘haute couture’ is protected by law and can be used only by “the companies on the list drawn up annually by a committee meeting at the French Ministry of Industry,” says the ‘Chambre Syndicale de la couture de Paris’. Nevertheless, with time, the term has also obtained a looser meaning which expresses all high-fashion custom-fitted clothing.

The term is now mislaid by all affiliated members since they are producing ready- to-wear to survive the economical crisis. In the process, they are losing their intrinsic aim of creating the original and bespoke. Other adepts of the Alta Moda in Milan will be enraged not being seen as the light of true creativity in the face of ‘lesser mortals’ of the fashion world. Milan will always be Milan, from Armani to Valentino, where inspiration from architecture and art are part of the incredible game of the Alta Moda.

The key criteria, established in 1945 and updated in 1992, for being labeled ‘haute couture’ are: the use of at least 15 people in the workshop (ateliers) in Paris, and presenting a collection each season (spring/summer and fall/winter) comprising at least thirty-five runs composed of day and evening wear. However, now you see couture shows at every street - London, Milan, Moscow, New York, Berlin, Deli, Dubai to name only a few. It leaves one perplexed! Who is the next best talent, and why do we cry that the economy is killing Haute Couture?

Most of the time, the pieces shown in couture shows are too beautiful, or too impractical, totally unaffordable for us mortals and sometimes the lines presented are just utterly unwearable, even for the ultimate fashion victim. All this in name of fashion? Who can afford it? Who can afford the impracticality of changing seasons and designs - eliminated at the whim of a visionary designer? We all know (and secretly in turn admire or hate) that only few privileged women can afford these inspirational symbols of status and prestige. The money stitched into the designer tag on their backs, let alone the fluctuation of fashion, is no object.

On the contrary, the ethics of money and its symbolic image have led public figures such as a First Lady to borrow for public appearances. Actresses who grace the red carpets happily endorse dresses and jewellery in the quest to (and status to be able to) get freebies. These fickle few have become the representations of haute couture - a fine line between the beauty of design, and the beauty of public marketing and commercialization..

The notoriety of haute couture fashion is, in fact, part of a cautiously implemented business strategy. They have the inimitable aptitude to create incredible exposure for a design house, which nearly always leads to higher retail sales in the designer’s ready-to-wear collections. This of course opens doors for more simplified versions and trends, which are more affordable versions of the couture pieces. The more shocking the event, design or celebrity (Lindsay Lohan anyone), the more impact on the front page of magazines. And of course for the real public, the one who spends, the combination of haute couture and ready-to-wear will make them buy the precious little perfumes, or lipsticks, making them feel as if they were part of the very happy few to be wearing the famous brand name.

Haute Couture fashion showHaute couture, however, has the risk of disappearing into nowhere. No one is new, no one is embracing another sort of creativity, all has already been invented, all has been created and the options for diversifying a brand are slowly slimming. Armani has opened a hotel in Dubai, Elie Saab is playing with boats, while Jean-Paul Gaultier has gone from shooting men in underwear to creating underwear for La Perla. Now that the easy-spending American women have acquired the deadly virus of the closed wallet (beware - this is spreading fast throughout Europe and Russia), Jacky O is just a distant memory of happier, easier and more stylish times past. Left on the front row of the catwalks are some few Russians, an increased number of Indians, and the ever present Anna Wintour. Of course, we can’t omit the rapidly increasing clientele from China which has inspired many designers to recreate a mythical Shanghai theme in their collections.

Of all consumers, all brands want to embrace and retain at all costs Middle Eastern clients in order to trap them once again. As we all know, the Middle East is one of the few places, aside from China, which has seen a number of stores opening rather than closing. Even the monument that was Harrods, and its chief patron, Al Fayed, has been bought by Qatari’s. Harrods will chase wealth, and Shanghai is the most likely destination to begin its journey into expansion, thus it might lose its iconic status of being the one and only mythical retail destination in London.

The Middle Eastern region is integral to the survival of the couture business and it is one of the reasons why haute couture brands should elaborate their collections with more feminine touches to appeal to the consumerist tendencies of the region. There are three words which reign to succeed in the Middle East: adaptability, flexibility and local flair.

In light of changing times, changing tastes and changing quests, who will rise like the phoenix from the shadows? Who will be the next best designer in town? Will the fashion capitals of the world retain their status?

Trends come and go, but what remains in this fickle industry is quality and excellence, where a woman stays a woman, and where black is always the new black.

HH Alexandra Sacha OrloffRussian and Spanish aristocrat, HH Alexandra Orloff, is the CEO and owner of Sacha Orloff Ltd, a consultancy offering services and products in luxury jewellery, watches, and fashion industry. Having worked in numerous prestigious luxury brands, she has enormous expertise in strategy development for luxury brands across emerging markets. 

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