Why Couture is No More
There’s a fallacy in the fashion industry, and it’s an elitist one at that.
There’s a tale of two extremes: on the one hand there’s costly ‘high fashion’, the pinnacle of a designer’s ingenuity and a standard to be sought after. On the other, there’s fast fashion, made up of ready-to-wear garments that have been made cheaply, quickly and in severe, exploitative conditions.
In her seminal book, ‘Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion,’ Tansy E. Hoskins considers high end and high street fashion by the same definition, “changing styles of dress and appearance adopted by groups of people.”
The Cost of Couture
So let’s unpick the seams that separate high-fashion from the rest of the industry. Synonymous with high fashion is the word ‘couture.’ Couture is simply a French word that means ‘sewing’ or ‘dressmaking.’ By that definition, everyone’s grandma is a couture designer. It’s clear that there’s more to the word than its literal meaning. So why does the word carry such elitism? Crucially, couture is custom-made for the people who wear it, most often models and wealthy clients.
Haute Couture, or ‘high sewing’ is a misused phrase. Notably, this type of dressmaking has strict rules for qualification. Le fédération française de la couture, the governing body of the French fashion industry, decides who’s in and who’s out in the world of haute couture. Only a select few fashion designers are granted the honour of calling themselves a haute couture designer or ‘grand couturier.’ Currently, 16 designers reserve that right. Houses like Dior and Chanel make that list.
Couture’s elitist appeal is born from its exclusivity. Many people will be unable to fit in it. Most people will be unable to afford it. No two people will be seen in the same outfit. Couture’s clients will never run the risk of dressing the same as the masses who shop at the high street or online.
Depending on the design house and the level of embellishment, the cost of a single couture garment starts from around $20,000. Chanel Haute Couture usually costs between $40,000-80,000. A fashion house like Dior will make about 20 couture bridal gowns a year, easily costing between $100,000 – 150,00. A couture house will have about 150 regular clients, who are likely to attend the two shows a year, taking place in January and July.
Yet there’s more to unravel with extravagant high fashion houses.
Granted, a haute couture dress is not made in a sweatshop factory. In fact, a single dress is typically slaved over for endless hours. Take this Dior gown, worn by Nicole Kidman at the Cannes Film Festival. It took 1000 hours of labour, made in the fashion house’s Paris atelier.
So if we compare 1000 hours of labour to make one dress to the many garments made with just 1 hour of child labour in a sweatshop, is high fashion more ethical? No, it is not. There’s a shrinking distinction between high fashion and high street fashion. Couture, lovingly made, may boast superior design quality, but high fashion bears no right to a moral superiority.
A Merging of Extremes
High fashion cannot exist without the high street.
The high fashion houses that produce couture garments also rely on the high street to survive. They use these retailers to popularise their ideas and brands. Versace, Alexander Wang, Erdem and Stella McCartney have all designed collections for H&M. Proenza Schouler has worked with Target, Jil Sander with Uniqlo and Matthew Williamson with Debenhams.
The high fashion/high street symbiosis is evident in the very fact that the catwalk is a reliable indicator of what will be sold in stores in the upcoming season. Copies of high end designer goods are sold at a reduced price in retailers both in store and online. Stores like Topshop provide templates of each season’s catwalk stores at high street prices, where others use the aesthetic of couture tailoring as its trademark. This percolates down to a street vendor level, with copies of designer bags often sold in markets or blankets on the pavement.
All of the resources that high fashion relies upon are socially produced. That is to say, the materials and skills that high fashion requires to exist are the result of large groups of people contributing to the economy in meaningful ways. The fabrics that couture designers use, the paper and pencils that they create with, the education they receive, the administrators and domestic staff that they employ, are all part of a wider economy. Couture is not produced in a vacuum.
Let’s look at textile manufacturing, the industry that supplies couture’s fabrics. Cotton farming is a deadly industry. Gallons of toxic chemicals are dumped into rivers and oceans, effluents are discharged into streams from the dyeing process, and poisonous gases are churned out of factory chimneys in the cloth manufacturing process. Fashion is guilty at every level, with excessive pollution a dirty stain at even the top of the production chain.
Surviving on Ancillary Goods
Selling the occasional $20,000 couture dress will not sustain high fashion on its own. With its extreme exclusivity, and so few clients, couture runs at a loss. Profits from the sales of haute couture garments are essentially negligible, particularly when you take into account the sheer quantity of hours and wages funneled into their creation.
You may ask why fashion houses continue this high-cost yet fruitless practice? The answer is that they sell a fantasy of luxury. Couture fashion shows often draw huge media attention, gaining enormous publicity. The logic lies here: if the consumer can afford a bottle of perfume, jewellery, makeup or handbags, they are still getting a taste of the couture house’s seductive exclusivity.
So why is it acceptable to discuss the pollution caused by fast fashion, when a couture designer’s ‘it bags’ are being made in the factory next door? Why do we act like overconsumption is a problem only with regards to high street brands? Why are we only abhorred by high street fashion’s use of sweatshops?
Buying designer clothes is often seen as the moral option, but an expensive label is no guarantee of ethical practices.
According to the Clean Clothes Campaign report, several high-end brands, including Prada, Hugo Boss and Dolce and Gabbana have factories in the “Euro-Mediterranean textile cluster.” These working conditions are no better than those found in fast fashion’s production facilities in underdeveloped parts of the world.
The report illuminates the harsh conditions inflicted on its workers. The gap between the legal minimum wage and a realistic living wage is “even larger in Europe’s cheap labour countries than in Asia.” Taking Croatia as an example, the report highlights how suppliers for Hugo Boss pay only a third of what would constitute a minimum living wage.
Burberry, a British high fashion label, decided to close its domestic factories in 2007, instead relocating manufacturing to china, aiming to make £1.5 million in additional annual profit by using cheaper labour. In the pursuit of cheap production, major fashion brands often employ anyone capable of working, including children.
High fashion’s exclusivity is its downfall. The paltry rate at which it produces couture garments means that it offers too little to contribute to the economy in a significant way. Banking on its brand identity, it churns out cheaper goods, aiming to make luxury accessible. In turn, it damages the environment and exploits workers in the same manner as fast fashion, an industry that it both disdains and depends upon.
It seems to me that high fashion is just as guilty as the areas of the industry that it looks down upon. Haute Couture doesn’t have the right to think so highly of itself.