Seducing the Masses:
How Haute Couture sells Prestige for Fashion Houses
By Angel Ackerman (December 2010)
Anyone who has ever watched “Style with Elsa Klensch” on CNN, noted the dresses of
female celebrities at the Oscars or flipped through the pages of a fashion magazine like Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar has seen the fantastical creations of modern French high fashion or haute couture.
While the industry technically caters to celebrities and the wealthy, the importance of modern haute couture depends on it building an image of pizzazz for a fashion house.
Individual houses rely on haute couture not to sell extremely labor intensive art pieces from the runway, but to promote mass market merchandise such as ready-to-wear, perfumes and franchise goods (cosmetics, sunglasses, purses and ties).
The glamorous image of haute couture draws everyday consumers to cheaper more mainstream goods by offering them a small attainable piece of luxury.
In simple terms, this paper will look at why haute couture still exists and concludes that the answer rests in the image high fashion creates and how it influences consumers to buy perfume and ready-to-wear.
To understand this interaction, it may be beneficial to offer a definition of haute couture today. Claire Shaeffer, not a scholar but a sewing expert, provides a relatively succinct and precise definition of this aspect of the fashion industry. She states:
“To earn the right to call itself a couture house and use the term haute couture in its advertising or in any other way, a member of the Chambre syndicale (1) must design fashions that are made to order for private clients and involve one or more fittings, have a workroom in Paris with at least 20 full-time workers, present a collection of at least 50 designs, day and evening garments, to the press in Paris in January and July for the spring/summer and autumn/winter seasons and show the Collection to potential clients in the respective couture houses in a determined place.” (Shaeffer 2007: 7-8)
These rules cannot even begin to explain how incredibly complex haute couture construction is, though Shaeffer also provides a summary of the buying experience of a 21st century client in the Dior couture house.
As Dior is one of my case studies for this project, I will devote some space to this so that the reader may see exactly how this industry remains old-fashioned, labor intensive and as a consequence, cost-prohibitive. The mechanics of this sales and service process are nearly identical at every house.
After the January show for the press, the fashion house will host weekly shows for clients. Each client books appointments with the head saleswoman (directrice) with their individual saleswoman (vendeuse). A client always has the same vendeuse, so that the vendeuse can understand the client’s style. Most of these saleswomen speak fluent English in addition to French.
The client will try the sample garments, usually unzipped because of the small sizes, but the vendeuse is adept at working around this. Changes are discussed, items like the fabric or length of skirt are all customized. On a client’s first visit to a house, the première (literally, “first” or head of the sewing workshop) will take about 30 measurements of the client’s body, head to toe, so the staff can make a dress form to replicate that client’s shape.
The première main (or “first hand,” the top-skilled seamstress in the workshop) will create a muslin toile of the garment. The workshop staff will cut real fabric with the toile as a pattern. The garment is sewn together loosely (basted) for the first fitting. The client tries the garment, the staff evaluates it and marks changes before returning it to the workshop. They
remove every stitch and every piece of the garment pressed before being reconstructed for the second fitting.
Embellishments such as embroidery or beads are added. A second fitting occurs
and if everyone is satisfied the process may stop there. Significant changes mean deconstructing everything to press every single piece again. The final step is always to add the label, which at Dior includes the date of the collection and the fabrication number. This summary is extremely
simplified, and does not address a complex garment or a fashion show (Shaeffer 2007: 14-16).(2)
As this summary demonstrates, haute couture embodies everything old-fashioned.
Everything in haute couture is done by hand, from seams to sleeves, beads to feathers. If a fashion house does not employ the “hands” (“mains” as called in French) for these jobs, it hires outside contractors for it.
Chanel is famous for its 2002 purchase of House of Lesage, France’s oldest embroiderer that traces its origins to Charles Worth, the founder of haute couture. This house provides lace and other embroidery work for three of my case studies: Chanel, Dior and Lacroix.
Imagine in today’s world of sewing machines and cheap international labor, an army of people in France with jobs as intricate as being the “little hand” (“petite main”) that sews sequins or, my personal favorite, the left-handed “hand” who finishes zippers (Shaeffer 2010: 96).(3)
Despite its old-fashioned methods and its roots in the mid-19th century, haute couture always has embraced a global business model aimed at surviving in the roller coaster environment of the early 20th century.
This model depends on image. Trends in demographics of wealth, exploitation of global media, creative franchising, incorporating international business partners and, perhaps most importantly, connection with technology that allowed the manufacture of ready-to-wear and mass market merchandise have allowed haute couture to survive. This project will discuss how image and clientele intersect in haute couture to promote ready-to-wear and other consumer goods.
To explore this, I have compiled chronological timelines of major trends at several haute couture houses, using three legendary French houses as case studies: Chanel (founded 1909), Dior (1946), and Yves Saint Laurent (1961). I extrapolated data on licenses for mass market goods, sales and the performance of haute couture throughout the 20th century.
I applied my findings to two newcomers, Jean-Paul Gaultier (ventured into haute couture in 1997) and Christian Lacroix (1987). The traditional houses of the former trio developed mass market practices as a means of survival in the face of World Wars, economic crashes, globalization and the information age.
The latter two are different. Gaultier opened his ready-to-wear house in
1977, waited twenty years to delve into haute couture and earned his official designation in 2001. Lacroix opened his doors in 1987 but declared bankruptcy in 2009. Now, Lacroix is known for scents marketed by Avon.
Business books on fashion argue whether or not fashion is a success or if it will continue to have world influence. The End of Fashion by Teri Agins, a Wall Street Journal reporter covering fashion, calls the modern fashion industry a failure because of declining profits (even though mainstream brands like Levi Strauss continue to make millions, they are making less millions than previously).
Fashion Brands by Mark Tungate, a marketing specialist, studied how
fashion brands develop and use their image. I built on their observations by studying both French and English language sources (books by people in the industry, biographies, newspapers, magazines, interviews with designers and corporate representatives, official web sites, and
I tried to interpret data regarding who bought haute couture, its effect on the French economy, global profits in the luxury market and how specifically perfume and ready-to-wear increased profits for fashion houses.
Many of these items cannot be directly compared. For instance, sales figures are
presented in the literature as French francs, Euros, dollars and even pounds. Even when they do correspond in currency, the years are so far removed from each other that the figures cannot be compared without adjustment for inflation.
My goal is to explore the relationships between haute couture, an industry which costs fashion houses millions of dollars a year, and mass market fashion goods. Agins blames the lack of haute couture profit on the industry’s indulgence in art and talks about how multinational
entities — including two big French corporations: LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey) and PPR (Pinault-Printemps-Redoute– purchased fashion brands in the nineties.
She proclaims haute couture a failure and implies that fashion as an industry will continue to decline. Agins neglects to consider fully the impact of image and marketing these mass market licensed items, something Lou Taylor focuses on in “The Hilfinger Factor and the Flexible Commercial World of Couture.” Similar to how the lower-end brands like Tommy Hilfinger use the specific selling of a lifestyle image, that’s exactly how haute couture incurs profit. Image leads to the sale of overpriced designer goods. Taylor calls this phenomenon “brilliance in commercial flexibility” (Taylor 2000: 129)
While Taylor addresses mainstream American fashion entities, his findings are supported in the business realm by Alain Chaffel, a French economist, also credits the success of haute couture to “brilliance” but he refers to handicraft and creativity (2008: 46).
Haute couture often sparks a debate about whether or not high fashion sewing influences everyday clothing trends. Fashion scholars argue about whether fashion trickles down from haute couture or “mops up” from the street (for example, Jenkin Jones 2002 vs. Hastreiter 1993),
but a bigger lesson can be learned.
On one hand, scholars like Taylor study mass market goods, while haute couture attracts scholarly attention for its artistic value and impracticality. No one seems to acknowledge that haute couture spawned the modern fashion industry, and it did so by incorporating global business practices at its very origins. Its sensitivity to the global market and its adherence to French values makes haute couture a relevant topic that combines the preservation of culture with international economic success.
Haute couture follows strict French trademark and production rules, as an appellation d’origine contrôlée, despite tracing its roots to Charles Worth, mentioned earlier as a founder of
House of Lesage. Worth was an expat Englishman who made Paris the center of the fashion universe.
While fashion seems quintessentially French in reputation, only two designers from my five case studies are French. All three of my iconic French houses are led by non-French designers. Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld is German. Dior’s John Galliano is British. Yves Saint Laurent’s Stefano Pilati is Italian.
This offers a direct contradiction to the stereotype that the French do not like foreigners involved in their business, another reason why haute couture is a
pertinent industry to study today.
(1) Already Shaeffer introduces a complexity into this deﬁnition. Producers of haute couture must belong to the ofﬁcial French fashion union. They can only join the union if they have a “godfather” who is already a member of the union who attests to their craftsmanship and worthiness and fulﬁll all the other criteria in Shaefferʼs deﬁnition.
(2) To get a small taste of the craziness before an haute couture show I highly recommend “The Day Before: Jean-Paul Gaultier,” part of a reality series on the Sundance Channel. The Day Before, Season
1, Episode 4, featuring Jean-Paulʼs spring 2009 collection.
Valentino: The Last Emperor is a feature-
length documentary ﬁlm about Valentinoʼs last collection.
(3) Shaeffer points out that itʼs rare to ﬁnd an ambidextrous “hand” who can easily sew both sides of a zipper, so many houses have an employee whose primary job is to be left-handed. This level of detail
and intricacy is typical of haute couture.