The name “haute couture” is a familiar term, bandied about so freely, it’s true meaning gets lost in the commotion. This corner of the fashion world is an exclusive realm where clothes are sewn for one specific customer. The use of the word couture in most designer collections refers to the high end of their line, and prêt-à-porter the ready to wear part of the line. But haute couture is an entirely different animal.

In an earlier post I mentioned that when ordering clothes from a store or a trunk show, those items come in sizes closest to your size. They are then altered to fit you. This isn’t remotely close to haute couture.  A closer comparison is any designer that custom makes a unique piece sewn specifically for one wealthy or celebrity (or both) customer - a couture piece.

While it’s literal translation means “high fashion,” the fact is, haute couture is a protected name in France. Protected by law. Haute couture is regulated by a commission called the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris. Each year this commission determines which fashion houses are permitted to carry the haute couture classification.  Among those will be names such as Chanel, Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier. No fashion house outside of Paris is legally or literally permitted to use the term haute couture to define their collection. While the criteria for being an haute couture house are strict and somewhat complicated, the basic rules are these:

* Design made-to-order garments for private clients, with one or more fittings.

* Have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least fifteen people full-time.

* Must have 20 full-time technical people in at least one atelier or workshop.

*  Each season (twice a year), present a collection to the Paris press, comprising of at least thirty-five runs/exits with outfits for both daytime wear and evening wear.

The origins of haute couture go back to the mid-nineteenth century when Charles Frederick Worth’s collections graced the closets of upper crust royalty such as Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, and Elizabeth of Austria. It wasn’t until 1945 that the criteria above were established, and then updated in 1992. 

In Paris, a couture house consists of a workroom of ateliers, crafting the garments under the scrutinizing observation of the designer. For instance, at Chanel that would be Karl Lagerfeld. The garment’s design begins with sketches, then moves on to muslins that are cut and fit to one customer. Fittings include flying the designer and seamstresses from Paris to, let’s say a customer in Beverly Hills, three or four times. This form of dress making is the ultimate indulgence and those lucky enough to partake in it never look back.

I recently watched a very well done BBC program entitled “The Secret World of Haute Couture.” It is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at what takes place in the private caverns of haute couture. I learnedthat fewer than 200 women in the world are members of what is reported to be “a club.” As the reporter explains, “There is no invitation, no member list, no rules.” Instead, it is an unwritten code that determines which customers are permitted in, thus becoming “the chosen ones.” The reporter herself had a difficult time breaking through to investigate haute couture’s inner workings. What she discovered is mesmerizing. It is more than a philosophy of dressmaking, it is a cult. One of the key points I took away from viewing the broadcast is that the women who purchase haute couture consider the pieces investments in works of art. And rightly so. The fabrics, the tailoring, the hand detailing and precise fit are intoxicating - “Wearing haute couture is so light, it is like wearing a second skin.”

At five and six figures or more, it ought to be.

I included a link so that you can watch the program on YouTube. “The Secret World of Haute Couture” documentary is in six parts and worth every delicious second of viewing. It is a peek at quintessential Parisian haute couture that is a must see for any fashionista.

Cathy Ann Sauer is a buyer for Nina Raynor in Delray Beach and fashion contributor to Boca Raton magazine and our sister publication, Salt Lake magazine.

[Photos: Christian Dior Haute Couture Spring 2012, Christian Dior atelier workroom, Pierre Balmain fitting a dress, Chanel Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2012]