Is haute couture still relevant in 2020?
Is haute couture still relevant in 2020?
Yves Saint Laurent famously said, “The big difference between couture and ready-to-wear is not design. It is the fabrics, the handwork, and the fittings. The act of creation is the same.”
The Europeans have always boasted a huge reserve of history and culture associated with fashion and none of them is more exemplifying than the art of couture. Couture is defined as the design and manufacture of fashionable clothes to a client’s specific requirements and measurements. To clarify, haute couture is the highest form of couture. The word has been protected by French law under Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris (CCIP). This means no one can use the word to identify their brand and products unless recognised by the members of the Chamber, making the title of Haute Couturier the most coveted both in France and in the rest of the world. While there are several rules to be followed by a fashion house to make haute couture, the clients for haute couture are considered of utmost priority for any luxury house. Be it people from aristocratic backgrounds, royal families, or even wealthiest of the wealthy, haute couture is synonymous with people who possess extreme amounts of wealth, and this is why it is priced at hundreds of times the price of even premium clothes.
Since the early 1900s, couture had already positioned itself as the personification of European luxury. Paris had become the new fashion capital and dainty French women flaunted their exquisite clothes made of lavish fabrics. In the modern context, haute couture has become much more of a marketing activity rather than catering to clients. Haute couture has found its place at the top of the fashion pyramid that affects the trends of all tiers that sit below. In a traditional sense, trends in haute couture are trickled down to prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) lines of the same luxury brand. Premium brands follow the suit and shape their garments according to the ready-to-wear lines, trickling down reduced trends to departmental stores and mass-market brands. This is called the trickling-down theory and has existed for several decades. Some may be familiar with the lines of Miranda Presley from the movie ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ where she explains the trickling down of the cerulean colour down to the sweater Andy wore.
So, haute couture possesses the responsibility of carrying forward trends of the entire fashion industry. But the responsibility has come under an existential threat where trends are now in the hands of the consumer itself. Over the years, there has been a shift in the power to create trends as consumers have become more educated than ever before which has resulted in customer-centric design taking the charge.
Let’s take Chanel, for example. Since 1983, Karl Lagerfeld had been overwhelmingly successful in reviving the luxury house of Chanel and pushing it to one of the world’s most sought after brands. He did so by completely revamping the image of Chanel and directing it into his vision of a youthful and futuristic aesthetic. This is why garments like a neon pink tweed suit, a sequin embellished lilac mini dress and even the faux gold costume jewellery could be sold by a luxury house that was historically known for designs catering to older women. The audience took the younger designs well and Karl never even thought of knowing more about the Chanel customer. He moulded Chanel’s vision into his own and showed customers what they needed instead of customers showing him what they needed. Fast forward to this year’s Fall/Winter 2020 collection where most of Virgine Viard’s collection is comprised of monochromatic looks of white and black. It seemed as if the brand had given up the authority of choosing the vision for the brand to the customers as the garments looked more commercial than ever before. Chanel is not alone in this scenario. Dior, Gucci and Balenciaga have seen a similar trend over the recent years and this is exactly why trends don’t seem to be coming from haute couture anymore.
Secondly, the modern consumer is well past the point of going to a tailor to get their garments stitched for daily use. The immense popularity of ready-to-wear concept, even for the masses, has killed the need to wear couture. Thus, the influence of couture over fashion has declined since its heyday of the early 1920s and 30s. A consequence of this decline in influential power has resulted in people riding the nostalgia wave which gave rise to designs inspired heavily by past works of fashion. This is exactly why the majority of 2010s saw 80s and 90s aesthetics being explored rather than creating a fashion movement from an underground culture.
All this goes to question the relevance of haute couture in the coming decade. Sure, there are many powerful and wealthy people in the world who could be clients of haute couture. This is exactly why fashion houses won’t stop making haute couture. As long as there is demand, supply will follow. Haute couture has often been hailed as an epitome of garment making, and this statement alone explains the relevance of haute couture. It is used as marketing candy to lure in customers so that they are hooked to a brand for aspirational value rather than being attracted for an unhindered display of craftsmanship that should speak for itself. The fact that brands are giving an exaggerated importance to the voice of haute couture means that the voice itself has been finding it difficult to speak for itself in 2020.
In his interview with Vogue, John Galliano said that the house he currently works at, Maison Margiela, has stopped following the current trend of showcasing haute couture shows followed by ready-to-wear shows. The brand, instead, has taken an alternative route of naming their shows ‘Artisanal’ shows where the garments are showcased without any categorisation of couture or ready-to-wear. He said that this approach allowed him to explore beyond the current norms of the fashion industry while establishing a new language with the customer.
All of these cases prove that haute couture may have lost its power to influence fashion and considering the disastrous effect that COVID-19 has had on the global economy, it will be difficult for it to recuperate that power for a very long time. Fashion has shifted its trajectory and it will seek solutions outside couture for inspirations. And if we go by this philosophy, haute couture will no longer serve the purpose of creating trends. It will serve the purpose of fulfilling a need for handcrafted customised clothing instead of influencing the colour of Andy’s sweater.