The new season of The Rachel Zoe Project aired on Bravo last Monday, and already the world’s most famous celebrity stylist is running into some trouble. The show opens with Zoe in January 2009, just days away from huge award shows such as the Oscars and the Golden Globes, and Zoe doesn’t have enough gowns for all her clients – A-list stars such as Cameron Diaz, Anne Hathaway, Demi Moore and Eva Mendez. And the problem doesn’t stem from a lack of competency from the Zoe team, but instead from the lagging economy. Dealing with restricted budgets, designers have literally stopped producing haute couture gowns, in favor of pieces that have mass-appeal and stand a chance of selling amidst the financial downturn. The decline of couture, however, has a history reaching back much farther than the dawn of this modern economic crisis.
Many people today are unaware of what the term haute couture really means anymore. Often times the word couture is mistaken for “fashion” in the general sense, and then brands with deceptive names, such as Juicy Couture, propagate the misunderstanding. In reality, couture refers only to the construction of exclusive, custom-fitted clothing, made to order for a particular individual. Whether it is a man’s suit or a woman’s gown, the creations are always made from the highest quality materials and sewn with tremendous care and attention to detail. Furthermore, designers seeking to officially join the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture must also have a workshop in France which employs at least 15 people full-time and they must present a collection of at least 35 looks for both day/eveningwear to the Paris press twice each year.
With all of the requirements, it easy to see why many fashion houses have closed down their haute couture departments. While producing couture does lead to a more prestigious image for the brand and provides more exposure for the designer, the time and money spent making couture (and producing two additional fashion shows each year) often greatly outweighs the aforementioned benefits. Once upon a time, Versace, Lanvin, Pierre Cardin, Pucci, Feraud, Nina Ricci, and Yves Saint Laurent all showed couture collections. Today, none of them do, leaving the labors of creating true couture to only 15 fashion houses (11 French, and 4 foreign correspondent members), the better-known ones being Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Armani, and Valentino.
While it is easy to focus on the designers who have stopped producing couture fashion lines, one has to wonder if they are not simply shifting to meet customer demands. Dana Thomas writes that during the 1950’s, over 200,000 women in the world wore couture, as it was expected as a part of everyday life for rich, society-women; by contrast, a mere 200 women buy haute couture today. With suits that cost upward of $25,000 dollars and gowns which start around $100,000 dollars (one-of-a-kind, custom-fitted Chanel wedding dress at $200,000) it is easy to see why even wealthy customers prefer to buy ready-to-wear. More than that though (as the ultra-rich population has really only grown in the last sixty years), haute couture has become a bit passée. Thomas quotes French-film actress Leslie Caron, who said that she “stopped buying couture, because, frankly, it was considered really old-fashioned… You can’t wear hats anymore, you can’t wear gloves or a bra, and you look really old-fashioned if you wear couture dresses.”
Sure, haute couture may be a little old-fashion. Yes, a bit impractical. And of course, terribly expensive. But the fact remains that modern fashion originated from couture, and if fashion detaches itself completely from its roots, then where is this industry headed? No longer will fashion be about design, creativity, luxury, and quality – instead it will be entirely about what sells and what does not. So, go ahead and poke fun at fashionistas as they complain about losing their frivolous and expensive clothing, but let’s see how you feel when your favorite actors and actresses trade in their haute couture for Juicy "Couture" tracksuits at the next big awards show. Joan Rivers wouldn’t even know where to start.