The term "couture" is often used generically to refer to high fashion, but it has a very specific meaning in France. Within France, the term is used to refer to the custom making of garments by high-end design companies for their clients, using workshops and staff members based in Paris. Outside of France, the term is used to refer to any sort of extremely expensive fashionable garment, no matter whether the garment has been custom fitted. With the rise of very high quality ready-to-wear fashion, couture is not quite as popular among the wealthy class as it once was, but the tradition has endured among people — particularly celebrities, like Gwyneth Paltrow, below — who want to look unique and stunning at public events.
The word is part of haute couture, a French phrase that means "high dressmaking" but has come to be used to refer to the custom-made garments themselves. This fashion tradition dates to the mid-1800s, and to be considered haute couture in French, a garment must have been produced by one of the members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, a fashion trade association that is part of the Fédération Française de la Couture du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. This fashion term typically refers specifically to womenswear, although some designers produce menswear lines as well.
A couture garment must be fitted to a specific client, with at least one personal fitting to ensure that the garment looks correct. Furthermore, the company itself must maintain a workshop in Paris with French staff members and present a collection during both of the annual fashion weeks in January and July. As of 2011, official members of the Chambre syndicale included Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Chanel, and Givenchy, among other designers.
The reason couture fashion can command such a high price is because of the long tradition of high fashion in France, as well as the materials and work that goes into each item. Pieces are made to fit the specific client, or as part of a collection to be worn by models in a fashion show. Such garments are designed to look absolutely stunning on clients, with fits customized to the client's body, way of movement, and personal style.
Moreover, the price of these garments is also determined in part by the quality of the materials used to make them. With such clothing, there is no limit on the types of fabrics that may be used: silks, furs, leathers, and cashmere are just a few possibilities. The detailing on these garments, such as beading and embroidery, is always done by hand and might take hours or even months of labor. Colors and patterns may be unique, designed for a specific dress or client.
Couture vs. Ready-to-Wear
Many companies that produce couture garments also produce ready-to-wear or prêt-à-porter styles. The distinction between the two, therefore, has become blurred in the eyes of many consumers. In part, this is because of a conscious decision by fashion houses that want to tap into the market that exists among people who seek the symbolism that wearing a high fashion brand might provide but who cannot afford expensive, one-of-a-kind items.
Many designers make more money on ready-to-wear fashions than they do on clothing that is custom made. In addition to producing prêt-à-porter lines that can be purchased in department stores and boutiques, many of these companies continue to offer traditional haute couture to clients who are willing to travel to Paris and pay high prices. A few design houses, however, have stopped making bespoke or custom-made garments altogether because they are not profitable.
Couture designers usually have a distinct look that differentiates them from other fashion houses. Chanel, for example, is known for it's understated, tailored style and luxuriant fabrics — in addition to the classic little black dress — while Christian Dior is associated with avant-garde, theatrical designs. Maurizio Galante, Stephane Rolland, Valentino, and Christian Lacroix also produce couture lines.
Couture Fashion Shows
Despite their exclusivity, many fashion houses show haute couture collections during industry events, such as fashion weeks in Milan, New York, Paris, and London. In many ways, these shows act as an advertisement for the brand itself, beyond just the specific pieces being worn on the catwalk. When celebrities and other well-known people wear couture fashions, it can create interest in the brand from all levels of consumer. In addition, elements that are featured in the show may be echoed in the ready-to-wear line, although in modified or less expensive ways.
Videos showing couture collections are usually readily available, and can provide a glimspe of different designers' styles.