When Charles Frederick Worth opened Paris’s first modern fashion house in the 19th century, he also established a new philosophy for how clothes should be made and the body to enforce it: the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couturep. Established in 1868, and now part of the more recently created Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, it determined which houses were deserving of the couture name. Over the years these rules were refined and codified; strict criteria that covered everything from the size of the workforce to how many outfits had to be produced each season dictated who could legally claim the coveted label of ‘grand couturier’, and who were merely ‘couturiers’.
But at the start of the 21st century many members were collapsing under the strain of these demands. By 2000, the number of haute couture houses had dwindled from 60 in 1952 to just 18. Following Yves Saint Laurent’s retirement in 2002, just 12 remained, despite a slight relaxation in the rules. Survivors included Chanel, Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier and Givenchy: fashion stalwarts able to weather changing business climates. Predictions of the end of haute couture proved premature, however; when Raf Simons took the helm at Dior in 2012, his reputation for refined elegance heralded a new dawn for couture in the modern era.
A necessary decline
This modernisation was in part caused by the evolving ready-to-wear industry, whose heightened price point and increasing level of quality threw couture’s identity into flux. Rachel Ward, a global specialist in fashion and luxury, perceived the decline as a necessary stage in the industry’s natural metamorphosis. ‘[Couture’s] decline and near disappearance occurred at the same time as increased quality from machines and a vanishing point of craft, only to be followed by a grand resurgence of the authentic,’ Ward explains.
This resurgence is seen on various levels. At the revived heritage brand Schiaparelli, then creative director Marco Zanini espoused themes and colours that surprised, sending models out in sludge-green fox fur teamed with casual leopard-print booties, and dresses in prints featuring rats, moths and squirrels. The Dutch duo Viktor & Rolf presented an autumn/winter 2014/15 collection that was a commentary on fashion’s courting of celebrity; every look featured a model draped in red carpet.
Another phenomenon is the ‘casualisation’ of couture, as championed by Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, where humble sneakers, skirts paired with tailored tweed cycling shorts and cross-body bags have all featured. Even so, while these informal details enliven couture, they don’t define it. ‘While his work feels youthful, you can see a life for it with people who aren’t just the Caras [Delevingne] and Jourdans [Dunn] of the world,’ observes Lou Stoppard of fashion film-maker Show Studio.
For Angelo Flaccavento, one of Italy’s most prominent fashion commentators, couture’s modern relevance is all about invention. ‘I have seen evidence of invention in a few collections, notably the Artisanal at Maison Martin Margiela and at Valentino: creations that reflect the pure joy of creative freedom and manual dexterity and clothes that are just plain beautiful rather than merely useful,’ he says. The commentator also references Giambattista Valli, whom he describes as ‘an inventor’, a new addition to the couture scene who is winning plaudits for his investment in pure beauty.
Dreaming of fashion
And what of the customer? Where once European enthusiasts dominated haute couture, today demand from emerging markets such as Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Russia is increasing. The result is that the whole cycle of couture is transcending its roots as houses strive to accommodate a constantly changing clientele. It’s another demand to add to an already exhaustive list, and acts as reminder of what a tricky business couture can be. ‘A modern couture house to me is one that marries traditional savoir faire with a keen attention to the moment,’ explains Flaccavento. ‘It balances craft and innovation, and nurtures true uniqueness in taste and execution. A modern couture house is the last bastion of fashion as a dream.’
It is a sobering thought, but one that is tempered by the pre-existing dynamic between haute couture and ready-to-wear. ‘The contemporary productions rely on haute couture’s ongoing presence, almost as a reminder of greatness, in the same manner that we need the classics of literature, or masterworks in any genre,’ explains Ward. ‘Not that haute couture could replace the system of fashion as we know it, but its integrity has a necessary endurance of its own.’ One imagines that it will be this ‘necessary endurance’ that continues to carry the industry forward.