Last night's Grammy Awards provided us with a good lesson in luxury branding and shed light on why couture plays a rather significant role in fashion despite its overarching sense of impracticality and outdatedness. Case in point: Rihanna, who attended the awards ceremony in a gown from Giambattista Valli's Spring/Summer 2015 couture collection. Last to arrive at the Grammys, Rihanna's look was easily one of the most talked about, blogged about, tweeted about, Instagrammed, etc., look of the evening. Her pink sherbet 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 last night's 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 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 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. 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.
In an article that Alexander Fury penned for The Independent this past July, he spoke to these points, namely, a few 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 (“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).
Also up for debate is the profit that houses actually derive from couture. For the most part, couture is generally 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 media and on red carpets. Other brands’ ability to consistently bring in a 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 Givenchy, 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 have been relying on since at least the 1950's: Licensing. And instances like the Grammys last night are precisely why.
Last year, nearly 30 million people tuned into the Grammy awards. Even more people likely came across photos from the red carpet (and its stand out looks) thanks to an array of websites and the various forms of social media we all utilize. Rihanna's Giambattista Valli couture dress, with its truly voluminous two-tiered skirt, certainly falls into the camp of "stand out" looks and thus, garnered quite a bit of media attention both last night at the Grammys and last month when it was unveiled in Valli's S/S 2015 couture show in Paris. In addition to having its dress strewn across the internet, Giambattista Valli'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 indirectly very effective. Instead of primarily aiming to sell couture by outfitting actresses or other celebrities in its wares, these fashion houses aim to sell more accessible items, such as ready-to-wear collections, diffusion collections, or fragrances and cosmetics. As many couture houses learned early on, couture collections allow them to not only reach a large audience, but they allow them to establish and/or maintain a reputation for luxury and high fashion.
As a result, they can sell more accessible items, such as bags for over $3,000, fragrances for $100+ or lipstick for $40 - in the case of Chanel, which shows bi-annual couture collections - in large quantities. Thanks, in part, to the press and prestige derived from its couture collections, Dior maintains successful eyewear, jewelry, lingerie and hosiery licenses. Because of its inclusion in the area of high fashion, Giambattista Valli's little sister collection, Giamba, a newly launched venture, can likely be sold at higher price points than your average ready-to-wear collection.
As such, there is a lot more to couture than meets the eye.