In light of the Fall/Winter 2014 couture shows, which are currently underway in Paris, Alexander Fury, fashion editor of The Independent posed a question that piqued my interest: When does your status as a "couture" house expire? While Fury questioned this on the heels of the Givenchy Spring/Summer 2015 menswear show (he clarified that is was not a "a pointed menswear comment, just prompted by their Instagram" in reference to the brand's tag line, which reads "GIVENCHY OFFICIAL INSTAGRAM OF THE COUTURE HOUSE"), his question raises some interesting points beyond Givenchy.
In an article that Fury subsequently penned, he noted the mystery that surrounds couture. In particular, there is uncertainly due to the lack of 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), how long each individual garment takes to produce, and the vague estimation of how many couture customers are out there ("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), etc. What we do know is this …
Couture (aka haute couture) is governed by Fédération française de la couture, du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode (hereinafter "Fédération française de la couture"), a more modern version of the Chambre syndicale de la haute couture parisienne, the body that historically governed couture creation in France beginning in 1868. More than merely a organization tasked with scheduling the bi-annual couture weeks, ready-to-wear and menswear weeks in Paris (even though Fédération française de la couture is in charge of this, as well as many other things, including an array of intellectual property matters), the Fédération française de la couture is responsible for maintaining the relevant couture quality standards and policing the use of the "haute couture" designation, a title that is reviewed and awarded to houses annually, and thus, the list is subject to change ever year.
Because "haute couture" is a legal term of art, garments and accessories may only be labeled as such if the design house meets the standards established by 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 workshop in Paris that employs no fewer than twenty 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.
In terms of the aforementioned staff of at least 20, I must elaborate a bit, as this is not an ordinary bunch of employees. Instead, it is a team of tailors, seamstresses, embroiderers, lace makers and other craftspeople, who spend hundreds of hours assembling couture pieces by hand and who are the most skilled in the world. Chanel, for example, maintains 25 seamstresses, and for show collections that number increases by as many as fifteen. Examining the ateliers of an array of houses for Vogue in 2008, Hamish Bowles wrote:
Traditionally, in the hierarchy of the haute couture workrooms, with its courtesy titles and unquestioning respect for the designer king, the premières (heads) are responsible for a single workroom, where they specialize in either flou (soft dressmaking) or tailleur (tailoring). "The people who work with chiffon can't work with tweed," says Chanel's head tailor, Jacqueline Mercier, firmly. "It's a question of sensibility." Head dressmaker Cécile Ouvrard (who trained at Christian Lacroix with her mother, Janine Ouvrard) agrees: "Each worker has a different hand, like artists. There are girls who are better with chiffon, others with velvet, others lace."
Thus, the level of expertise and sophistication in couture ateliers, where mobile phones are often forbidden, and the garments under construction are covered in cotton capes to protect them from dust, light, and prying eyes, is exceptional. Individuals (designers, that is) and design houses are granted the "haute couture" designation by the French Ministry of Industry, a list that is reviewed annually. The current list of houses (which consists of official members and correspondent members (those located outside of France), as well as guest members), as of the Fall/Winter 2014 season, includes: Fred Sathal, Stéphanie Coudert, Atelier Versace, Schiaparelli, On Aura Tout Vu by Yassen Samouilov and Livia Stoianova, Christian Dior, Giambattista Valli, Alexis Mabille, Chanel, Bouchra Jarrar, Stéphane Rolland, Julien Fournie, Giorgio Armani Prive, Alexandre Vauthier, Maison Martin Margiela, Frank Sorbier, Elie Saab, Raf Hourani, Jean Paul Gaultier, Adeline Andre, Valentino, Viktor & Rolf, Serkan Cura, Zuhair Murad, Ralph & Russo, and Dice Kayek. There are some big named no longer in the frame (think: Yves Saint Laurent, which ceased making couture collections in 2002, Lanvin, Balenciaga, Balmain, Paco Rabanne, Rochas, and many more).
But back to Givenchy, which was noticeably absent from the list of couturiers (and has been since Spring/Summer 2013). The house officially bears the title, Givenchy Couture Group (as indicated in documents corresponding to the sale of the brand to LVMH in 1988), but has failed to show a couture collection for over two years now. In December 2012, Givenchy announced that it would not show a couture collection for Spring/Summer 2013, after failing to show the season prior, as well, initially citing the busy schedule of creative director Riccardo Tisci. In addition, a spokesman for the house stated that Tisci would be taking a break from couture activity, after scaling back its couture runway shows to intimate presentations in 2010 and cutting the collections down to fewer and fewer looks each season (the Fédération française de la couture outlines the number of looks required to be shown (at least 25 looks). Thus, more than ten, the number Tisci showed for Givenchy's Spring/Summer 2012 collection.
However, it was not always like this for this Paris-based design house. In fact, the house was founded in 1952 by Hubert de Givenchy, a master of fabric, who studied under Cristobal Balenciaga (the reigning king of couture, as he was known to Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and the industry at large) and was celebrated for his vision of an easier couture, based on separates in simple fabrics. At the time, this was noteworthy. Givenchy's debut collection, Les Séparables, culminated in rave reviews. “The biggest salon ovation heard in five years,” Life reported. The New York Times' published an article praising the designer, who was 24 years old at the time, entitled, "A Star is Born." Vogue wrote of "the debut of Hubert de Givenchy, a couturier specializing almost exclusively in separates, many of them ready-made, some requiring one fitting, and just a few strictly made-to-order.”
The news in December 2012 that Givenchy would be taking a "hiatus" from showing a formal couture collection was "somewhat unexpected," per British Vogue, considering Tisci's fervent interest in the couture arm of the business. According to a statement from the brand in late 2012, Tisci will continue to produce one-off couture dresses for clients, "special projects" and high-profile red carpet events, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Ball, while continuing to concentrate on its ready-to-wear line.
So, what has Tisci's "one-off couture dresses for clients and 'special projects'" come to look like? Well, he has created looks for the past two Met Galas, for the Oscars, and other red carpet events, as promised. The gowns for clients include a gown for stylist/consultant Vanessa Traina Snow's 2012 wedding (pictured above) and a gown for reality star Kim Kardashian's wedding, as well as a dress for her daughter and Kanye West's tuxedo. Most interestingly, maybe, are the creations for "special events." In this category certainly falls the costumes Tisci created for the Paris Palais Garnier de l'Opéra National's production of Maurice Ravel's Le Boléro ballet in 2013. And how could we forget the tour costumes for Rihanna and Beyonce; you may recall that Tisci designed the costumes for Jay Z and Kanye West's 2011-2012 Watch The Throne Tour and for Madonna's 2012 Super Bowl performance costumes, as well.
These are all certainly "scores" for the house in terms of sizable paychecks and a vast amount of exposure, but that does not change the fact that Givenchy is no longer really a couture house, not in accordance with the Fédération française de la couture's rules, anyway. And Givenchy is not the only one. In fact, not many houses are official haute couture houses anymore. In 2000, the number of official couture houses had dwindled down to just 18.
With the extravagant costs to couture buyers and the enormous financial losses to couture houses as a result of production, I think a natural question to ask is: Why does couture still matter? Have we as a larger society grown out of couture, not terribly unlike Givenchy, who saw the need for a more casual approach to couture? My answer is a definitive no; we have not. Instead, we have certainly reached a point of innovation. Much like Fury wrote recently, "Times are changing, and couture has to change too - adapt or die." And adapting, designers are. Bouchra Jarrar, a young Paris-based designer, is a good example, especially this season. For Fall/Winter 2014, she showed designs that feel effortless and new by way of biker-aesthetics and athletic wear; certainly not bogged down by the weighty legacy of couture. WWD summed it up quite nicely, writing: "Couture is undergoing something of a youthquake, and Jarrar is doing her part to project the genre into modern times and daily life."
Despite the immediate monetary losses that houses endure in connection with couture, which actually amounts to less than 10 percent of the output of the French clothing industry, it is, nonetheless a moneymaker, albeit not directly. Couture serves as a sure fire way to garner international press and prestige, as the runway dresses gain maximum exposure on the world's most heavily watched red carpets - the Oscars, Grammys, the Golden Globes, the Met Gala. (In 1987, Pierre Bergé, the co-founder of YSL, spoke to this point saying: "We don’t make a profit from couture but it’s not a problem. It’s our advertising budget.”). Additionally, couture serves as a means for houses to establish lucrative licensing agreements.
However, fresh from viewing Ulyana Sergeenko's Fall/Winter 2014 collection, a picturesque folktale set in Russia’s revolutionary period, complete with "monkey-fur coats, floor-length capes over keyhole gowns and floral dresses sprouting three-dimensional blooms" (Vanessa Friedman's words, not mine), I want to believe there is something more romantic to the current existence of couture than that, and I actually think there is.
It is something that Riccardo Tisci, when still designing couture collections, seemed to know well, as demonstrated by his weaving of high and (seemingly) low elements (think: bejeweled gowns worn over tank tops - the tank tops were cashmere, or t-shirts - which were not your average t-shirts, though, as they were adorned with ostrich feathers), his utter attention to detail (there was the lace catsuit decorated with a Swarovski crystal skeleton that took 1,600 hours to create for A/W 2010; for Spring/Summer 2011, one look required 2,000 hours of cutting and 4,000 hours of sewing; another garment included organza that was laser-cut and appliquéd on layers of chiffon and tulle to create a three-dimensional spread of vermilion wings), and his modern influences (whether it be basketball or the gypsies you encounter in present-day southern Italy). In fact, Tisci always seemed to bring some much-needed sense of modernity to this old tradition.
So, while couture may be dated and seem lacking in terms of nearly all practical utility, maybe this is its greatest appeal. Could it be the ability of designers to connect a practice that is inherently very dated to our extremely modern times that is the beauty of couture, the reason we still have a use for it when it seems we need it the least? I suspect so.