Haute couture, which is French for ‘high dressmaking’ and ‘high fashion’, refers to clothes that are exclusively crafted for the client, from start to finish, by a team of highly skilled and experienced seamstresses. Every detail is hand sewn and only the most exquisite fabric and embellishments are used. In fact, there is even a committee in France, the Chambre Syndicale de la Hate Couture, that decides which fashion house can be called an haute couture house. It is that exclusive and privileged.
Haute couture shows are held twice a year, in January (Autumn/ Winter collection) and in July (Spring/Summer collection). Those who are invited to the shows (often reserved for existing VVIP clients of the fashion houses) get to see the collection, and are invited to make an appointment with the atelier thereafter, for a private viewing of the collection. A proper working Haute Couture atelier must have two ateliers: a Taillure (suiting) atelier and a Flu (dresses) atelier.
During private appointments in the salon, they will get to try on the sample pieces and decide of them to buy. Following the selection, detailed measurements of the customer are taken and recorded. Usually muslin is prepared on the body after all the measurements of the body are taken. There will be a team of seamstresses on hand to ensure that all measurements and requests are duly noted. A client can change the color of the fabric, material, length of the sleeves or dress, skirts, even some fine details to suit her body shape, but the true design is always honored and there can be no major alteration to the original design.
Once the purchase decision is made, with all the requirements taken into account and approved, a 50 per cent deposit is paid and the production of the haute couture piece commences. A full-length bust model mannequin is made according to the client’s exact measurement, with her name on it; the team will work on the garment according to the bust model mannequin. This ensures that every inch is cut and sewn exactly to the client’s body shape.
A second fitting is set up in approximately a month’s time from when the deposit was paid and the balance payment is made. Sometimes a client may require more than two fittings and, of course, fitting requirements are accommodated.
The entire process is a four- to six-month-journey from selection of the piece until completion of the garment. Once it is ready, the piece will be delivered to the client’s address in the most exquisite packaging imaginable – in a box, and often, with a small purse in the same fabric as a gift, or the accompanying accessories, like hat, gloves and/or costume jewelry, as shown on the runway, for the complete look.
In addition to private viewings at the Paris salon following the shows, the haute couture team makes visits all over the world with specific appointments set up in major markets like North America, Middle East, and Asia (typically in Hong Kong). Likewise, such appointments are very exclusive and typically reserved for existing VVIP clients of the house, even if they are not haute couture clients yet.
A team of seamstresses will be flown to the city along with the head of the haute couture department. The sample pieces will also be flown in for clients to try and view up close. The experience will be just as exclusive and special as the one in Paris. These are very expensive well-made clothes, and naturally the entire experience from start to end has to be exceptionally luxurious and meticulous.
Sometimes, an haute couture client may not be an existing client. These are often brides-to-be who are looking for a really special wedding gown for which budget is not an issue at all. They will scour through photos of the collections, and if a gown catches their eye, they will make an enquiry with the boutique and book an appointment with the atelier in Paris, or at the overseas trunk show if one is scheduled in their city.
Haute couture, at its core, is very exquisitely made clothes, exclusively for the client. It is not restricted to just fancy ball gowns for special occasions. In fact, a core part of the business is ‘normal’ regular clothes like cocktail dresses, suits, blouses, jackets and sets.
I recall watching a documentary on haute couture called ‘The Secret World of Haute Couture’, and the interviewer asked the head of haute couture at a major French Couture House, “Where do these ladies wear these pieces to? Like do they board the plane in them?”
“Oui! I do! They are just clothes, but very well made clothes.”