What is Haute Couture?
Haute couture, literally “high sewing,” is a type of fashion design in which each garment is made by hand from start to finish. It is most often used to describe clothing made by hand by a small number of specialized designers, based on the principle that “a dress looks new when it is 10 years old.” Haute couture designers produce just a few dozen pieces per season and sell them to a select clientele. The garments are often made of expensive fabrics, are tailored to fit each individual customer, and are therefore uniquely created, with no opportunity for resale. Haute couture was first established in France in the mid-19th century, although it has been present in other countries as well. It is distinguished from other types of high-fashion dressmaking, such as prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) and couture-sédentaire (custom-made), as being made by hand and usually of high-quality fabrics.
How is Haute Couture Made?
In the past, an haute couture piece involved a dressmaker sewing the layers of fabric together by hand. Today, most of these garments are made with a technique called “raglan sleeves,” which uses a machine. Since the garment is one piece of fabric, the designer has to use darts and tucks to create a flattering shape for the body. Haute couture garments are so intricate that they often take more than 2,000 hours to make! Traditionally, haute couture fabrics are made by hand. The designer chooses the fabric, dyes it, and weaves it by hand. The fabric is then sent to a loom, which is a machine that weaves the fabric together. To make each haute couture garment truly unique, most designers use fabrics that have a pattern because it would be impossible to find two identical swatches of fabric. To make a multi-coloured dress, the designer would have to dye a different coloured fabric for each section.
Perhaps the most recognized French fashion house in the world, Louis Vuitton's eponymous brand has made its name by combining the best in high fashion with luxurious, timeless pieces that transcend trends. Founded in 1854 by a trunk maker whose goods were used by Empress Eugénie and the Duke of Windsor, it has been a favourite of the world’s most stylish since the 1930s, when its iconic Keepall bag first hit the runway. The house’s creative director is José Luis, whose bestseller is the Damier Canvas Tote, which has a cult-like following. His seasonal collections are typically defined by luxurious materials, bold colours, intricate patterns and a subtle, modern sensibility.
Famous for his draped and structured silhouettes, Christian Dior’s designs have been an inspiration to fashion houses across the globe. In 1947, after noticing that Parisian women had stopped buying fabric due to the financial crisis following World War II, Dior created a new look that used crinkled fabric that could still be used in his collections. This aesthetic was a hit and helped to put Dior on the map as a leading French fashion designer. His style is characterized by opulent fabrics, structured gowns and delicate accessories. His bestsellers include the bar jacket and the “New Look” dress, which features a crinkled fabric that is gathered at the waistline and a crinoline that is used to create fullness.
Founded by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in 1909, the house of Chanel is known for its innovative designs and timeless aesthetic. In the 1920s, Chanel became a leading force in couture fashion when she introduced her “little black dress” and “sack dress” silhouettes. Her designs were a departure from the overly embellished garments of the time and featured minimalistic elegance. Chanel’s bestsellers include the “little black dress” and the “sack dress,” as well as her “Chanel jacket” and “bras coupe” gowns that feature Chanel’s signature lightweight fabrics, clean silhouettes and feminine details. Chanel’s couture collections are typically defined by luxurious fabrics and intricate, modern designs.
Other Famous Designers
Givenchy - Famous for his glamorous eveningwear, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s former paramour, Givenchy was one of the leading French fashion houses in the 1950s and 1960s. Famous for his silk shirts and formalwear, Givenchy is known for his glamorous aesthetic that is both stylish and timeless. Lanvin - Famous for his lightweight and modern designs, French fashion designer, Jeanne Lanvin was a leading force in French fashion in the early 20th century. Her designs have been worn by a number of famous figures, including Joan Crawford, Eva Peron and Mae West. Hermès - Famous for the Hermès Birkin bag, Hermès is one of the leading French fashion houses in the world. The house was founded by Thierry Hermès, who began by making silk ties in 1837.
The Bottom Line
French fashion houses like Chanel, Givenchy and Dior are known for their luxurious fabrics and timeless aesthetic. While Italian fashion houses are known for their ready-to-wear pieces and edgy styling, French fashion houses are known for their haute couture designs, which are hand-made with intricate details and luxurious fabrics. Though haute couture is often associated with the rich and famous, there are many affordable brands that offer high-quality fabrics and intricate designs. When shopping for haute couture garments, it is important to shop at reputable stores and avoid buying counterfeit goods.