Haute couture was once the pinnacle of what was considered fashion across the world. Fashion was about selling dreams and artistry, and the work Paris couturiers put into their creations for their clients was legendary. Some of the biggest names in fashion, from Christian Dior to Coco Chanel, made legendary names of themselves thanks to their couture collections.
Over time, as pret-a-porter, or ready-to-wear, came into fashion, the number of couture collectors declined. When department stores like Barneys, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bergdorf’s began carrying European designers ready-to-wear, rather than wait a full season for a custom wardrobe, it was easier for customers to shop off the rack.
A new generation of couture collectors is born
What makes a collection haute couture? Haute couture is a legally protected term, first set in 1945, and is a label that is given by Paris’s Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. For a brand to qualify for haute couture status, they must create made-to-order garments in an atelier of 15 full-time staff, as well as 20 full-time technical workers in one of their ateliers. Collections must be presented with a minimum of 50 original designs, including day and evening looks, be created for private clients, and each piece must require more than one fitting.
In 1950, there were around 20,000 couture collectors in the world. Now, that client base has shrunk to 4000 worldwide. Paris Couture Week is still considered one of the most preeminent Fashion Weeks on the Fashion Calendar, despite the customer base being so small. However, couture is coming back, and in a big way.
Elie Saab once revealed that 45 percent of his revenue comes from his couture collections. An average couture dress can cost between 50,000 dollars and 300,000 dollars. Karl Lagerfeld once did an “Haute Fourrure” collection of furs with price tags rumored in the 800,000 dollars and up range. In total, the entire haute couture market is still valued at 500 million dollars, and while it might not be the cash cow ready-to-wear and cosmetics are, it’s still lucrative.
Haute couture is still lucrative to the point that Balenciaga’s creative director Demna Gvasalia revived the brand’s couture collections after the brand closed its historic couture salon in 1968. No one had designed couture for Balenciaga, aside from Cristobal Balenciaga himself, making Gvasalia’s revival a deeper establishment of his own place in fashion history. The designer is already credited with revolutionizing Balenciaga for a new era and helping to make the label the second most profitable in its parent company Kering’s portfolio right behind Gucci.
Although Gvasalia’s designs, from his destroyed sneakers to leather trash bags, are viewed as confusing and controversial by many, he has a masterful understanding of consumer psychology. With many of Balenciaga’s products known to sell out, if Gvasalia thinks Balenciaga needed to bring back couture, that alone is a sign the couture market is still strong.
While the future of fashion markets is never easy to predict, as trends in buying are incredibly cyclical, haute couture is in a steady place right now. With younger consumers now having sparked interest in couture thanks to brands like Balenciaga, couture is here to stay.