Schiaparelli, Juicy, and the Legality of Couture

Schiaparelli made headlines in early 2017 when the Chambre de commerce et d'industrie de Paris in partnership with the Fédération française de la couture, du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode (hereinafter "Fédération française de la couture") announced that it added the Paris-based design house to the elite ranks of Paris haute couture houses. One of the most immediate implications of this, which are known to some but largely unknown to others, is that Schiaparelli – the historic brand founded by the Elsa Schiaparelli, the great rival of Coco Chanel in the 1930s – is legally able to label itself a haute couture house ... again.

Fashion brands that have not been appointed by the Fédération française de la couture, the French body that regulates and oversees the industry of couture, are not legally permitted to refer to themselves as such. Despite this firm legal rule, and in light of mixed applications of the word “haute couture” (which is commonly shortened to just “couture”), it is still very vague to most parties what the tenets of the Fédération française de la couture are exactly and what a house must be able to show in order to be considered for such an elite title.

Put simply, haute couture – a term that dates back to the 1800s – refers to custom garments created as one-off pieces for specific clients. But the term cannot be used indiscriminately. “Haute couture” is a legal term of art: a word that bears legal significance. In order for a house to be deemed a creator of haute couture – and thus, in order for said house to legally label their garments and accessories as couture – it must meet the following requirements:

(1) Design made-to-order clothes for private clients, with more than one fitting per design,

(2) Maintain an atelier that employs at least 15 full-time staff members;

(3) Employ 20 full-time technical workers in said atelier; and

(4) Present a haute couture collection of no less than 50 original designs — both day and evening garments — bi-annually in January and July. [NOTE: This requirement has been relaxed after being cut down to 25 garments in 1992. Now, "a qualitative assessment" from the Fédération, exists]. 

The requirements, established by Fédération française de la couture in 1945 (and subsequently updated in 1992) must be met consistently and continuously in order for a house to maintain its haute couture status, as the title and membership in the Fédération française de la couture may be revoked.

A few additional points as set forth by the Telegraph are as follows:

Who Actually Makes Haute Couture Garments?

'Les petite mains' (which literally means small hands) refers to the collective 2,200 seamstresses who painstakingly bring haute couture creations to life. Working in the ateliers, this talented, patient breed are often fiercely loyal to a fashion house, spending their whole career solely at one brand.

How Much Does Haute Couture Cost?

Anything made-to-measure is going to be pricier than plain old ready-to-wear, but haute couture is a whole other story. With some pieces taking upward of 700 hours to create, and a minimum of twenty people working on it at a time, the price tag will reflect that tenfold. Daywear pieces start at approximately £8,000, with evening and formal wear rocketing far above that. The use of rare fabrics and precious embellishments will hike the price even higher; it's not unheard of for some items to fetch up to the millions.

Who Buys It?

The main buyers of haute couture today are no longer French socialites, but buyers from Russia, China and the Middle East. Fine clothing items can escalate in value over the years, and are often regarded as collectors' items, making for a clever investment.

Who Are The Key Players?

There are now 15 fashion houses with the elite credentials, including established labels such as Dior and Chanel, as well as relative newcomers like Alexandre Vauthier and Alexis Mabille; seven correspondent members, including Giorgio Armani and Azzedine Alaïa, plus 15 guest members.

The new January 2017 guest members are: Antonio Grimaldi, Galia Lahav, Georges Hobeika, Hyun Mi Nielsen, Maison Rabih Kayrouz, Xuan. Reappointed guest members are: Aouadi, Francesco Scognamiglio, Guo Pei, Iris Van Herpen, Julien Fournié, Ralph&Russo, Schiaparelli, Ulyana Sergeenko, Vetements, Yuima Nakazato and Zuhair Murad.

So ... What About Juicy Couture?

Juicy Couture, the Los Angeles-based brand known for its terry cloth and velour sweat suits, proves an interesting example of what brands can and cannot do in connection with the term “haute couture,” which we have already established is a legal term of art. Since a brand may not call itself a haute couture house without being designated one by the Fédération française de la couture, how is Juicy Couture legally in the clear?

This is something Juicy Couture founders Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Nash-Taylor address in their book, entitled, “The Glitter Plan: How We Started Juicy Couture for $200 And Turned It into A Global Brand.” According to Skaist-Levy and Nash-Taylor, “The term ‘haute couture’ is protected by French law, but the term ‘couture’ is not.”

Speaking of the process of naming their brand, the founders stated: “We needed a name that made our shirts sound not only colorful and fun, but like the most luxe T-shirts out there ... and came up with every word we could think of that could help elevate our product to the nth degree." They continued, “The word 'couture' has become part of pop culture. It's been taken by nearly every other company on the planet. There are couture bathroom tiles and kitchen faucets. POM Wonderful pomegranate juice had a 'Juice Couture' ad campaign. There are the Disney Couture and Wildfox Couture clothing lines. 'Couture' is a massive word in the name game.”

As noted in by Lynsey Blackmon in "The Devil Wears Prado: A Look at the Design Piracy Prohibition Act,” a 2008 Pepperdine Law Review article, “The Juicy Couture clothing line is an example of the use of the term ‘couture’ to gain elite status. Although Juicy uses the term ‘couture’ in their name, the collection is not hand-made for individual clients.

Rather, the line is mass-produced and sold in department stores across the country, and therefore, is not couture.” And this is something the brand’s founders do not shy away from. Per Nash-Taylor told Women’s Wear Daily in 2006, the line is all "about wearable, accessible clothing. It is couture for the masses. The name is really a spoof, it's the opposite of couture."

With this – and the strict rules of the Fédération française de la couture – in mind, the savvy businesswomen behind Juicy Couture found a loophole that enabled them to benefit from the “couture” moniker while also staying within the bounds of legality.

And to be frank, their linking of the Juicy Couture brand to the practice of haute couture, even if just in name, has proven to have elevated its standing in the eyes of consumers and in some cases, proven confusing. According to a “Buying Guide” on eBay, entitled, “Juicy Couture Is Not Really Couture?,” it seems some consumers have been misled by the name. The article informs eBay users, “Even some our most popular labels that name their clothing "couture" are not really couture even if they are specially made for a customer. Juicy Couture, Balenciaga, Jimmy Choo, Gucci and many others are not official couture.”

Luckily for Juicy Couture and co., unlike trademark law –  which states that a trademark holder’s rights stand to be infringed when another party uses that mark or a similar one, thereby creating a likelihood of confusion among consumers – the French law that governs the protection of haute couture does not operate similarly. Instead of operating based on consumer confusion, it merely outlaws the use of the term “haute couture” by non-approved houses and thereby, leaves Juicy and its tracksuits firmly in the clear.