Each season, Couture Fashion Week passes with little fanfare. Unlike seasonal fashion weeks which often feature 20 or so shows in a single day, the Couture Fashion Week schedule is minimal and uncluttered. The reason for the scarcity of shows is simple: couture is by far the most tightly-regulated division of the fashion industry.
Prime slots are reserved for storied houses such as Dior and Chanel, whose elaborate presentations strengthen their illustrious reputations and provide valuable promotion opportunities. Alongside these industry behemoths are the likes of Viktor & Rolf; avant-garde couturiers using their status to explore the boundaries of garment construction without budget restrictions.
Couture collections are the antithesis of fast fashion. They aren’t trend-driven or disposable; instead, they consist of timeless creations lovingly hand-crafted by scores of skilled artisans. They unite the realms of fashion and fantasy because they aren’t necessarily created to be consumed—it was estimated last year that only around 4,000 couture clients remain worldwide. It’s at risk of becoming a dying art form, and it’s largely viewed as a relic from a golden age that no longer exists.
However, things are getting a shake up this season. The recent announcement that critical darling Vetements had been awarded a guest spot to show at the upcoming FW16 shows raised eyebrows—after all, this is a brand renowned for its provocative slogan hoodies, penchant for PVC and deliberately ugly tea dresses; a far cry from the refined aesthetic favored by couturiers.
Vetements’ founder and Balenciaga’s new creative director Demna Gvasalia recently announced that he was moving away from the cyclical fashion calendar altogether: the Vetements show won’t be couture in the traditional sense, but a blend of SS17 and “some Vetements interpretations of couture,” according to a brand spokesperson.
Vetements isn’t the only brand bucking tradition. On July 9, Pierre Cardin will show his collection encompassing all four seasons at the Château du Marquis de Sade in the south of France, which will also feature menswear and which aims to bridge the gap between ready-to-wear and couture. Alberta Ferretti’s Limited Edition collection, usually shown in salon presentations and technically classed as “demi-couture,” will also be shown at this season’s Couture Fashion Week.
These new introductions to the couture schedule don’t make much sense, because couture’s exclusivity is most of its appeal. The practice can be traced back to eccentric French monarch Louis XIV and his “fashion dolls,” but haute couture became officially recognized and regulated when designer Charles Worth founded the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne in 1868, a regulatory body tasked with determining who would be awarded couture status, and who would not.
A series of rules was introduced in 1945, stating that a couture atelier must create made-to-order designs for private clients (requiring at least one fitting), have at least 20 members of staff and present seasonal collections of at least 35 looks to the Parisian press. The guidelines have not been updated since. These stringent regulations, combined with the rise of ready-to-wear, have seen the number of functioning couture houses drop from 106 in 1946 to less than 20 today.
However, as these figures declined, the prestige associated with the couture label increased, and official recognition became a badge of honor in its own right. These days though, even avid fashion fans struggle to present a unified definition of haute couture, due to a shifting emphasis from artistry to exclusivity.
Despite the reign of regulations established almost a century ago, it’s worth noting that designers such as Martin Margiela have been challenging couture culture for some time now. The elusive Belgian provocateur established Maison Margiela Artisanal back in 2006; a label which quickly gained a slot at Couture Fashion Week. Margiela remained adamant that Artisanal wasn’t haute couture: in keeping with his deconstructed aesthetic, the Artisanal range was created from rare fabrics and found-objects which were then disassembled and transformed into one-off pieces.
There has also been discussion of a “demi-couture” market in the past: clothes which are crafted according to the construction regulations of couture, but made in limited qualities as opposed to being custom-made for clients. Designers such as Mary Katrantzou, Sarah Burton and Haider Ackermann have all dabbled with this formula in the past, but demi-couture has never truly cemented its status.
The Rise of Fast Fashion
No one has used Couture Fashion Week to experiment with the debut of new ready-to-wear designs—yet. The fashion industry is currently in a state of flux: Raf Simons resigned from his post at Christian Dior last year and blamed the industry’s pace, and designers have been reconsidering the seasonal model long-favored within the industry. Gargantuan brands such as Burberry and Tom Ford are reconsidering the importance of the fashion calendar, and, for the first time in recent memory, anything seems possible. Men are appearing on the womenswear runways and vice versa. The old rules are out the window.
Despite these shifts, the couture industry has always seemed uniquely set in stone; so for a brand as provocative as Vetements to storm onto the schedule still seems improbable. Gvasalia has come under fire for Vetements’ high prices in the past, and recently stated that even he wouldn’t pay the price of his own merchandise. The Fashion Law described the brand as a “cult for fashion victims,” and the brand’s controversial reputation has become just as marketable than its aesthetic. Perhaps storming onto the couture schedule is an excuse for Gvasalia to garner more hype and justify raising his prices even further.
The Future of Couture
It’s natural to be cynical about these new additions to the couture schedule, but they do illustrate the industry’s need for revival. As fashion coverage migrates online, collections become more ephemeral than ever before: they’re ubiquitous one day, and gone the next. The increasing speed of consumption challenges the couture industry, because the depth of detail in couture pieces isn’t meant to be appreciated instantaneously. The garments are designed for close inspection, and there’s a risk that online photography won’t do them justice.
Barely anybody buys couture these days, and for big brands, couture shows are seen more as a marketing exercise than anything else. But if fashion fans stop viewing couture altogether, the practice is in danger of dying out. Enlisting the hype of Vetements may seem disingenuous to those still loyal to the artistry of couture and its historic guidelines, but given that it’s one of the most anticipated schedules in recent history, it may be just what couture needs to remain relevant.
These new additions to the couture schedule might also spark a long-overdue revision of couture’s guidelines, meaning that more designers can upscale the quality of their designs without committing to individual fittings. Demi-couture is a sustainable concept; it’s arguable that consumers would be willing to pay higher prices for better quality garments and, as a result, a modified version of couture could become a commercially viable option.
If anything, these guest appointments are helping to erode the antiquated stuffiness surrounding haute couture, and proving that no practice—no matter how old—is truly sacred.
For more on Vetements, check out our debate about this polarizing brand.
- Words: Jake Hall