Yet unattainable for most, Haute Couture might be more relevant than ever. And not only because the Autumn-Winter 2013-2014 collections have just been presented. With industrialisation rapidly decreasing in favour of craftsmanship, Parisian ateliers remain a beacon of the French savoir-faire, luxury and attention to detail. In fact, this was one of the key points of the recent exhibition “Paris Haute Couture”.
It all started in 1858, when Charles Frederick Worth, who is considered the Father of Haute Couture, opened Worth and Boberghs, a studio in the Parisian Rue de la Paix. He would create sample dresses and clients had to either attend a fitting or discuss the ideas with him, so that afterwards a team of seamstresses could make up the final piece. By 1873 over 1,200 people worked for Worth and Boberghs and over the next decades many designers copied this concept, such as Poiret in 1903, Chanel in 1915 and Schiaparelli in 1935.
In 1911, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture was established, a body that regulates the guidelines of couture and accepts requests from designers and fashion houses to join this elitist and meticulous world. To be part of it, the designs must be made-to-order after at least one fitting, following Worth’s procedure, and the team must be composed of at least 15 full-time artisans. Their magic is presented to the world twice a year in Paris in no less than 35 runs of both daytime and evening wear that still represent today the epitome of luxury, design and craftsmanship.
Last week, the 10 permanent houses that still stand showed their collections in the French capital. This exclusive group is comprised of Christophe Josse, Christian Dior, Alexis Mabille, Giambattista Valli, Chanel, Stéphane Rolland, Atelier Gustavolins, Maison Martin Margiela, Frank Sorbier and Jean Paul Gaultier. They were joined by 5 correspondent members (Versace, Armani Privé, Elie Saab, Valentino and Viktor&Rolf) and 8 guest members (On Aura Tout Vu by Yassen Samouilov and Livia Stoianova, Iris Van Herpen, Julien Fournié, Alexandre Vauthier, Bouchra Jarrar, Yiqing Yin, Rad Hourani and Zuhair Murad).
Although the number of houses has dramatically decreased (in 1946 there were 106), the excitement and creativity surrounding haute couture week does not seem to have deflated. Romanticism is always present, especially in shows like Giambattista Valli, who sculpted blooming gardens over transparencies hugging the female body. However, there is a new sense of change and modernity, as reflected in the main topic of the Chanel show: a transition from an Old World into a New World with added touches of science-fiction. The Raf Simons for Dior show was surrounded by an aura of freedom that allowed him to decontextualise couture from Paris. His designs were not only European, but also American, Asian and African, all sharing the same diverse and global catwalk. Margiela continued playing with anonymity and the whole show was a transformation -reutilising fabrics, remaking pieces, restoring garments- explaining how something new and artisan can be created out of vintage.
More varied, transgressor and probably more difficult to delimit than ever, there is no doubt that couture is the quintessential of fashion.