Written By: Tony Engelhart
Members Only Club
Flip through any copy of Vogue and you will see haute couture spreads by Grace Coddington. If you are like me, you’ve probably wondered “who buys this stuff?.” Believe it or not, there is a customer for these outlandish pieces and it’s not who you think.
History of haute couture
Haute couture was born, and remains, in Paris. Pronounced ōt ko͞oˈto͝or, is French for high sewing and unlike prêt-à-porter, otherwise know as ready-to-wear, each garment is made by hand which can take up to 150 hours. Haute couture can be traced back as far as the 1700s when fashion designer Rose Bertin was designing for Queen Marie Antoinette. She is credited for bringing haute couture to the affluent French society. However, Charles Fredrick Worth is said to be the father of haute couture as we know it today. While he created one of a kind garments for his wealthy customers, he is best remembered for creating ready to wear during the 1800s.
Who is in this exclusive club?
There is an exclusive club of around 200 members made up of all women who have the money and desire to buy the most expensive clothing in the world. The elite club is made up of mostly Americans with new money like Becca Casson Thrash, the wife of a wealthy gas and oil tycoon. However, there are still some club elders such as Caroll Petrie who met and befriended Christian Dior after the war. About half of her haute couture collection consists of Dior, though she does have quite a few Chanel pieces as well.
Couture is considered an art form and club members are no different from art collectors according to Becca Casson Thrash. What you see on the runway is not the end product. Once you go for a fitting, it is entirely up to you what modifications you want or need to make it a wearable garment or in her words “a wearable piece of art.”
What is the cost of couture?
Because a suit, blouse or a skirt can run $20,000 to $30,000 and an embroidered dress can run $100,000 or even millions, the price tag suits the top 1%. In 2004, Samantha Mumba wore a Scott Henshall diamond encrusted gown to the Spiderman II premier. The price tag on this jaw dropping gown was around $9 million. You read that right, $9,000,000 for a dress.
After the shows, comes the fun part, shopping! But this isn’t any ordinary shopping. First thing about shopping haute couture is, you need to make an appointment. Secondly, there are no price tags. If you are thin enough to fit into the garment the model wore, you get a 30% discount. If they have to make a dress for you then you have to pay the full price.
Haute couture was once a booming industry as after the war it employed close to 46,000 workers, but it is down to roughly 4,500 today. And the shows themselves are also seeing a decline in popularity. Following the war, there were close to 100 haute couture shows in a season. Now there are maybe a dozen. The reason behind this is the emergence of ready to wear during the last half of the 20th century.
How to maintain your elite status in the club
There are rules to maintain your status in the club starting with, it’s not enough to wear the clothes, you have to appreciate the textiles, the craftsmanship and the time invested in making a single garment. Another club rule is to maintain your elegance no matter what you are doing or where you are going, it’s haute couture 24/7 and there are no exceptions. Betsy Bloomingdale, wife of the owner of Bloomingdales, has a collection of over 80 pieces of haute couture, but it is clear she does not wear a single item more than a couple of times – another rule from the club, don’t wear the same thing too much.
Though it’s a bit snobbish, club members do not take kindly to overweight people, including designers. Even Karl Lagerfeld slimmed down to conform to the club rules. And celebrities are not allowed to join under any circumstance.
According to members, there is something very unique about wearing a haute couture garment. Seattle socialite and PR director for Luly Yang, Rose Dennis owns a couple of pieces of haute couture,“You feel amazing wearing a couture gown!” said Dennis, “Because each dress is personally created for me and they enhance and fit my silhouette perfectly. Being one of kind makes it special also.”
It is a thrill to know that you are the only woman in the world that owns an exclusive hand tailored piece according to members. That is why haute couture is special and though it has seen a decline in popularity, it is here to stay if these women have anything to say about it.
By: Tony Engelhart, Fashion journalist