Now the couture shows have ended for another season. And my semester classes, brim full of enthusiastic new fashion students eager to launch themselves, have begun. The intersection of these two seemingly unrelated events provides me with the perfect junction to set up my soap box. A sort of Speakers’ Corner like in Hyde Park. I promise not to use profanity or to incite riot so no police on horseback needed. Unless sarcasm sets you off.
Listen to me, students––and not only students, some industry veterans need to coil their ears around this as well. Enough with the mistreatment of the word “couture”. Enough. It is a cherished word, infused with Gallic pomp, to be whispered in high ceilinged salons while wearing a sophisticated hairstyle involving lots of pins and a veil, not hollered, Ka-two-wah, over a can of Coke, with the peak of a baseball cap shading your eyes. Snobby, me? Just trying to redress the balance.
Haute Couture: a term that describes a tradition of “high sewing” originating from the Parisian ateliers first ascribed to the designer, Charles Frederick Worth, in the mid nineteenth century, refers to custom made, custom fit garments using the most exquisite materials and of such superior craftsmanship that the skilled individuals who create, bead and embellish these pieces of artistry are reduced to the title Petites Mains (Little Hands).
Students, I have seen your sewing. And you, industry veterans, don’t look so superior, I’ve seen yours too. Less said, soonest mended, but suffice to say, we have some way to go before those hands will be described as little. If your days are spent grimacing before a sewing machine, engaged in a sweaty tug of war with those feed dogs (been there, done that, wrote the book!) that automatically excludes you from the ranks of great couturiers like Galliano, Lacroix, and Gaultier.
All of the sewing in haute couture is done by hand with immaculate precision. At your level of study most of you struggle to set in a sleeve correctly. Couture dresses cost $20,000. You routinely work with fabric that costs $10 a yard. I can’t get you to visit Barney’s; don’t talk to me about Armani Privé.
Students, never, in a bout of confidence, be tempted to put the word couture on your business card either. Please.
Lose this obsession you have with gowns. There are some steps to be made before you will dress Beyoncé for the Met Ball. Ready to wear is where it’s at. You will begin your career doing flat sketches and tech packs for Chinese production and that’s fine. Take my advice: perfect the jacket. Study lapels, closures, shoulder lines, construction. You will work your way up from tech packs, if you are lucky, maybe to some catwalk experiences. But you won’t work your way up to couture.
Here is the origin of the word’s demise; the Ground Zero, if you like:How ironic that a range of pastel colored velour sweats ubiquitously worn with Uggs by celebrities traveling through airports rendering every wearer the same came to be associated with glamour. The best I can say is I’ve no doubt they were comfortable. And it was a whimsical, tongue-in-cheek name choice: Juicy Couture. But little did we know it would take us to a place from which we would struggle to recover. “Couture” is bandied about now with the same pragmatism as “spreadsheet” and “Pre-Spring drop”.
Just a reminder––yes, I believe it needs saying: There is no velour in the world of haute couture, comfort is not a priority and you don’t tend to spend $20 000 to look the same as everyone else.
This past season saw the first woman, Bouchra Jarrar, earn the title “Couturier” in thirty years. You’re as likely to win an Oscar, kids. But, now with Chanel’s couture sneakers, I foresee the confusion will continue:
So for all of us not swathed in Swarovski and feathers, wafting froths of tulle, sporting shoulders of operatic dimensions, and headdresses fit for exotic princesses, we can still enjoy haute couture’s great artistry. Here, accompanied by the words of Yeats, are some beautiful moments from the Godfather of Couture, Charles Worth, along with looks from Paul Poiret, Schiaparelli, Christian Lacroix, Christian Dior, and last week’s most stunning, Valentino…
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
My novel set in the international fashion industry is available. You can buy Silk for the Feed Dogs here.