Where can you experience museum worthy fashion including pieces by Dior, Christian Lacroix, Galliano, Chanel, Fath and Balmain all in a jewel box of a building vintage 1895? Only in Paris at the Palais Galliera.
The Galliera began building its Haute Couture collections in the 1950s. Then, in the 1970s when fashion mavens like Princess Grace of Monaco, the Duchess of Windsor, and Baroness Rothschild donated pieces from their own wardrobes, the collections took on a distinct haute couture cachet.
When you are next in Paris, put on your fashionable frock and head to 10 avenue Pierre 1er de Serbie, for an experience that you will not soon forget. And, to help you enjoy the experience, here are a few facts about techniques, craftsmanship and history of Haute Couture.
Haute couture (“high fashion” in French) is mandated and protected by French law to feature unique creativity, precise draping and fine craftsmanship, distinct from “made-to-measure” and “made-to-order.” To be certified, a house under-goes a complicated application process and meets a series of stringent criteria. The application must be approved by the French Ministry of Industry.
Charles Frederick Worth, a France-based English dress-maker, is considered the father of haute couture, founding Worth and Bobergh in 1858. A marketing genius, he pioneered the practice of pre-designing model dresses, which he revealed at fashion shows, while simultaneously initiating the practice of fitting his samples to his real clients (a novel idea at that time) in his own workshop. It was a fashion revolution. In 1868, his son Gaston further strengthened the industry by establishing the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris.
In today’s haute couture process, embroiderers supply their sketches—audacious and creative visions—to designers for the designers’ inspiration. A dress is usually embroidered by several embroidering houses working in concert. In the end, the embroidered pieces are assembled at the designers’ studios. In general, it takes 10 days to embroider eight dresses. What are the differences between haute couture and ready-to-wear embroideries? The embroideries for haute couture are often denser and more complex in design, one reason for haute couture’s expensive price tags. Yet the difficulty with embroidering ready-to-wear clothes is that each piece of clothing needs to be embroidered in the exactly same way.
In the past, French ladies’ dresses were usually pleated. The folds were embroidered, and sometimes adorned with feathers or painted. Pleating is a very delicate, involved job requiring manual dexterity. Individual fabrics and their folds must be baked, at varying temperatures depending on the fabric, and then cooled for a day.
Major Parisian Haute Couture Houses
In 1937, the mysterious Cristobal Balenciaga founded his haute couture house. This is a time-honoured label known for ultra-gorgeous and exquisite tailoring. A bias cut is this brand’s trademark. Balenciaga cleverly exploits optical illusions and understands strategic sightlines, lowering the waistline or raising it above the ribs, creating perfection. Balenciaga dresses suit every body type.
Few people know Jacques Fath’s claim to fame. However, many influential fashion designers, including Givenchy, Valentino and Guy Laroche, were once under Jacques Fath’s tutelage, giving Fath the status of legend in European fashion history. Jacques Fath’s designs often highlight the wearers’ elegant carriage.
Balmain, one of the three most influential companies of post WWII haute couture, along with Dior and Balenciaga. The house was founded by French couturier Pierre Balmain in 1945. Balmain represents a unique interpretation of elegance and clothes royalty and movie stars. Its clients are universally recognized style icons like Brigitte Bardot, Katherine Hepburn, and Marlene Dietrich.
On February 12, 1947, Christian Dior borrowed loans to organize a haute couture fashion show which shocked the world: a dress piled high with an ultra-extravagant use of fabrics coaxed out long-lost femininity, completely different from pre-war jackets with padded shoulders. Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow exclaimed, “It’s quite a revelation. Your dresses have such a new look!” Dior created a peacetime momentum in fashion, forever after known as the “New Look,” reflecting people’s post war optimism.
Is Haute Couture dead?
Should you, after enjoying the Palais Galliera collection, find yourself wondering if Haute Couture still has a place in today’s world of fashion, here’s a quick look at how Chanel is preserving traditional couture crafts for the 21st century.
Chanel’s Métiers d’Art
Five decades ago, customers from the Americas would travel by boat across the Atlantic to Paris to purchase new attires. In order to complete at least three fittings, they had to stay for a month at a time. Nowadays, who has such a leisurely and carefree schedule? The shrinkage of the haute couture industry has rendered many ateliers unsustainable. Some are facing closure. The house of Chanel however is going strong by collecting and preserving companies with a history of supplying to the haute couture houses.
In 2002, Chanel acquired couture embroidery atelier Maison Lesage, costume jewelry manufacturer Maison Desrues, fashionable feather and flower house: Lemarié, high-end shoemaker Massaro and couture milliner Maison Michel.
Jeweler Gossans and floral artisan atelier Maison Guillet later joined Chanel’s Métiers d’Art artisan partners. This launched Chanel’s new atelier collection positioned between ready-to-wear and haute couture. The best of both worlds; Chanel has preserved the traditional couture crafts and it ensures the quality of its own products.
Although the French luxury fashion industry is gradually being occupied by luxury ready-to-wear clothing, couture still plays avant-garde roles and leads trends. It is the stuff of dreams, after all what lady doesn’t dream of wearing haute couture fitted just for her?