What is highly exclusive, discreet and can cost as much as an apartment? The rarified world of haute couture. There are only 200 - 500 members worldwide and these ladies are territorial, even if you have the means and desire to afford the most revered clothing in the world, it remains a private club and you have to earn your spot! If you are wondering how this all began, you can thank Charles Frederick Worth. A name you've probably never heard of, but the fashion industry wouldn't be what it is today without him. In 1858 Charles created the first haute couture house, House of Worth. If you made the upper-class and were a wealthy woman, you would be treated to a complete wardrobe: morning, afternoon and evening dresses. Plus lavish nightgowns, and of course ball gowns for those special occasions.
So what does it mean?
The phrase haute couture (pronounced oat-koo-toor) was first coined in 1908 and it essentially means 'high sewing' or 'high fashion' in France. It is a protected phrase, and you can't throw it around willy-nilly. In order to use it, fashion houses must meet the strict requirements, including two collections a year with production occurring in ateliers in Paris that have at least 20 staff members. At the height of this illustrious world, there were over 100 designers presenting collections in 1945. Turn to Fall Winter 2014 that wrapped up this week and members only have 19 collections to choose from. Some notable players like Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix and Peirre Balmain have fallen into the former member category. Obviously this is due to the expense involved, which has been reported to produce little profit.
How much are we talking here?
Prices for haute couture are hush hush, but it's reported that a suit can start around $10 000, with cocktail dresses and gowns fetching up to six figures. Some have even been reported to be in the millions! But if you are a part of the teeny tiny global super-rich, then spending $100 000 on an embroidered dress is regular, as is spending $6 000 on sneakers. The hours spent on these pieces are unimaginable, for example, Valentino's embroidered organza dress (pictured in the gallery below) took 600 hours of workmanship! But the luxury houses who continue to present haute couture collections, like Dior and Chanel, do so because it shows their financial strength as leading fashion houses, and translates to sales in perfumes, makeup and handbags.
Hold up, who are these ladies?
Much like the prices, clients are kept out of the limelight with designers being tight lipped about their identity. But clients like Betsy Bloomingdale (Yes… as in the department store) and Becca Cason Thrash (wife of a mega rich Texan oil and gas tycoon) are philanthropists, which according to Becca is "the only way she can remotely justify it." Or like Caroll Petrie (heiress to the enormous Toys R Us fortune), haute couture is seen as a collectors investment. If you no longer want it, no biggie as you can write it off as a tax loss and donate it to a museum.
So if you were unable to make the shows this week, don't fret you can still get a taste of the couture experience with us! Flick through the magic of haute couture past and present below to get you inspired xx
- The Secret World of Haute Couture | BBC Documentary | 2007
- Who wears Paris haute couture? Very few, apparently | SMH, Kellie Bush | 2010
- Charles Fredrick Worth (1825 - 1895) and The House of Worth | The MET, Jessa Krik | 2004
- Turning Points New Look | Voguepedia
- The History of Haute Couture | Harper's Bazaar, Bridie Wilkins | 2014
- Style.com and Getty Images for Pictures