Haute Couture on the Red Carpet: A Lesson in Luxury Branding

Red carpets often prove a worthwhile 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. Consider, Rihanna, who attended the 57th annual Grammy Awards in February 2015 in a gown from Giambattista Valli's Spring/Summer 2015 couture collection. Last to arrive at the ceremony, 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 - an oft-paid for occurrence with brands footing the bill - is noteworthy for a number of reasons, but for our purposes, it warrants a bit of extra attention because it is haute couture, and the display is demonstrative of one of the core goals of couture.

As you may know, “haute couture” is a legal term of art in France, 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: 

(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.

Given the extraordinary quality of the materials utilized, the level of skill employed in creating couture, and the resulting price attached, couture is not exactly the most practical and/or affordable of garments.

In an article that Alexander Fury penned for The Independent not too long ago, 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, for one thing. He noted that since the practice of haute couture is shrouded in a bit of mystery (for most people, at least), 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 there 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 most, 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 the resulting exposure in the media and on red carpets. Other brands’ abilities 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; comparatively, not many houses are official haute couture members 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 - what some call demi-couture, which provides designers with 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. 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, Christian Dior is, and its modernization and growth during Raf Simons's tenure 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 and other highly-watched red carper events last night are precisely why.

In 2015, 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 at the Grammys and when it was unveiled in Valli's S/S 2015 couture show in Paris a month prior. 

In addition to having its dress strewn across the internet, Giambattista Valli's name was accordingly on many people's lips and timelines on the heels of the Grammys red carpet. This is arguably 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 actually do? Well, it is often indirectly quite effective. Instead of primarily aiming to sell couture by outfitting actresses or other celebrities in couture, these fashion houses aim to sell more accessible items, such as ready-to-wear and accessories, garments from their diffusion collections, and/or fragrances and cosmetics. As many couture houses learned early on, couture collections allow them to not only reach a significantly sizable audience, but they allow them to establish and/or maintain a reputation for luxury and high fashion.

As a result, these same brands can turn around and 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, Christian Dior maintains successful eyewear, jewelry, lingerie and cosmetics licenses. Because of its inclusion in the arena of high fashion, Giambattista Valli's little sister collection, Giamba, a somewhat 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.