What is Haute Couture?
Uncovering the business of high fashion
by David Johnson
The term "haute couture" is French. Haute means "high" or "elegant." Couture literally means "sewing," but has come to indicate the business of designing, creating, and selling custom-made, high fashion women's clothes.
To be called a haute couture house, a business must belong to the Syndical Chamber for Haute Couture in Paris, which is regulated by the French Department of Industry.
Members must employ 15 or more people and present their collections twice a year. Each presentation must include at least 35 separate outfits for day and eveningwear.
The syndicate has about 18 members, including such fashion giants as Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, and Pierre Cardin. The houses generate more than $1 billion in annual sales and employ close to 5,000 people, including 2,200 seamstresses. Workers often specialize in one area, such as feathers, fabric, buttons, shoes, etc. Before World War II, 35,000 people worked at couture houses.
Made from scratch for each customer, haute couture clothing typically requires three fittings. It usually takes from 100 to 400 hours to make one dress, costing from $26,000 to over $100,000. A tailored suit starts at $16,000, an evening gown at $60,000.
A Small Market
Today only 2,000 women in the world buy couture clothes; 60% are American. Only 200 are regular customers. Often, designers will loan clothes to movie stars or other public figures for publicity.
During fashion's "golden age," after World War II, some 15,000 women wore couture. Socialites such as the Duchess of Windsor, Babe Paley, and Gloria Guiness would order whole collections at a time.
Despite the small market, designers maintain haute couture operations partly because the prestige helps sell other products, such as perfume, cosmetics, and their ready-to-wear lines available in stores.