Awards season is under way, and far from serving as a purely sartorial topic of discussion, events like the Golden Globes, Grammy, and Oscars, for instance, provide us with a very apt lesson in luxury branding. Moreover, they shed light on how significant a role couture plays in practice despite its overarching sense of impracticality and outdatedness. Case in point: Cate Blanchett, who attended the Golden Globes awards ceremony in a gown from Givenchy’s Fall/Winter 2010 couture collection (note: yes, Givenchy creative director Riccardo Tisci showed the dress in his Spring/Summer 2016 show, but all of the couture looks that season were from collections past).
One of the last to arrive on the red carpet, Blanchett’s look was easily one of the most talked about, blogged about, tweeted about, Instagrammed, etc., look of the evening. Her pale pink, fringed frock's appearance on the red carpet is noteworthy for a number of reasons, but for our purposes, it warrants a bit of extra attention because it is couture, and the Golden Globes red carpet display is demonstrative of one of the core goals of couture.
As you may know, “haute couture” is a legal term of art, and as a result, garments and accessories may only be labeled as such if the design house meets the standards established by the Fédération française de la couture in 1945 (and subsequently updated in 1992). Accordingly, in order for a house to be deemed a creator of haute couture by the French Ministry of Industry, it must: Create made-to-measure clothing for private clients and offer personal fittings; maintain a full-time atelier in Paris that employs no fewer than twenty highly-trained technical staff members; and present two couture collections a year (in January and July) that consist of both daytime and formal evening wear. There are other rules, as well. For instance, hand-construction is required, as is a specific number of hours per garment. Given the extraordinary quality of the materials utilized and the level of skill employed in creating couture, the results are not exactly the most practical and/or affordable of garments. Hence, the relative decline of the practice of couture.
In an article that Alexander Fury penned for The Independent in July 2014, he spoke to these points, namely, a couple of the reasons couture is not exactly in its heyday: price and the lack of willing consumers. He noted that it is difficult to point to definitive figures regarding revenue and the cost of individual designs (sources suggest, however that daywear pieces start at approximately £8,000, with evening and formal wear beginning far above that). Moreover, it is largely unclear how long each individual garment takes to produce and just how many couture customers are out there. However, the market is “rumoured to fall between a couple of thousand and mere hundreds,” many hailing from Russia, China and the Middle East and ranging in age from late twenties and early thirties on. As we learned from Dior and I, the Frédéric Tcheng film that documents Raf Simons first couture collection for Christian Dior, there are clients in New York, who spend €350,000 a year on Dior couture.
Also up for debate is the profit that houses actually derive from couture. With Christian Dior likely serving as an exception (as it has widely been reported that under the direction of Raf Simons, the house’s couture division saw an increase in sales), couture is largely considered a loss. As Pierre Bergé, the original business partner of Yves Saint Laurent, notably said in 1987: “We don’t make a profit from couture. But it’s not a problem. It’s our advertising budget.” He was referring to resulting exposure in the media and on red carpets. Other brands’ inability to consistently derive profit based on couture collections can likely be implied from the swift decrease in houses that are official members of the Fédération française de la couture, du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode; not many houses are official haute couture houses anymore.
In 2000, the number of official couture houses had dwindled down to just 18. The number is down even more in recent years. This speaks volumes to the state of couture, as does the movement towards a more couture take on ready-to-wear, which provides designers the opportunity to show a handful of garments of heightened craft without having to meet the standards of the Fédération française de la couture to be legally designated as a hate couture house.
This is all to say that couture is certainly not at the height of relevance at the moment. However, there are some exceptions to the rule, as Bergé noted. While Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Balenciaga, Balmain, Paco Rabanne, and Rochas, for instance, are not considered official couture houses, Dior is, and its growth over the past several years under Raf Simons is promising and suggests that couture may not be a total windfall after all. However, in addition to couture for couture's sake, this form of ultra-high fashion has yet another benefit, one that couture houses, like Givenchy, Dior and Chanel, have been relying on for decades: Licensing. And instances like the Golden Globes are precisely why.
This year, nearly 18.5 million people tuned into the Golden Globes. Even more people likely came across photos from the red carpet (and its stand out looks) thanks to a huge array of websites and the various forms of social media we all utilize. Blanchett’s Givenchy couture dress, with its fringe-tiered skirt, certainly falls into the camp of "stand out" looks and thus, garnered quite a bit of media attention both on the evening of the awards and this past September when it was unveiled (again) in Givenchy’s S/S 2016 womenswear show in New York – a noteworthy event for the brand that regularly shows in Paris. In addition to having its dress strewn across the internet, Givenchy’s name is accordingly on many people's lips and timelines. This is the equivalent of an expensive advertising campaign. As such, the couture collection is doing its job and garnering a lot of attention for the design house.
But since the vast majority of people cannot afford couture creations, what good does such advertising do? Well, it is often extremely effective – albeit indirectly. Instead of primarily aiming to sell couture by outfitting actresses or other celebrities in its wares, these fashion houses rely on the sale of more accessible items, such as ready-to-wear, diffusion collections, or fragrances and cosmetics. As many couture houses learned early on, such as Monsieur Dior in the 1950’s, couture collections are only so profitable. However, the fanfare associated with such collections allows houses to not only reach a large audience (at least in theory), but the staging of such collections allows them to establish and/or maintain a reputation for luxury and high fashion, which can be beneficial in other ways, as well.
Take Givenchy, for instance. As a result of its couture stagings and various, subsequent red carpet placements, the house has achieved a level of luxury notoriety in the minds of consumers, which is absolutely crucial to the maintenance of a high fashion house, since, so much of luxury fashion is founded upon image and reputation, in connection with quality and construction. Houses with luxury reputations are perceived as providing more value, which often allows them to charge a premium – something that is absolutely essential in the luxury sector, where bags cost at least $1,000 and dresses even more.
But as indicated above, the market for ready-to-wear and licensed fragrances and eyewear, etc., is much larger due to the far lower price points, and thereby, serves as a significant source of income for high-end brands and an important mechanism for them to reach a wider audience.
With this in mind, there is a lot more to couture than meets the eye and despite its old world roots, this practice still has a very important role in modern day fashion. Be sure to stay tuned for our coverage of upcoming awards show red carpets, which are sure to be home to an array of couture creations.