Why Couture Is Still Relevant (Even Though Fewer People Are Buying)

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Giambattista Valli Couture AW16
Last Sunday, Vetements kicked off the Couture Fashion Week schedule with its spring '17 show, challenging the conventions of the traditionally top-tier, luxury couture show with a collection of reworked tracksuits, overalls, denim and trench coats, presented in a shopping mall, within the palatial Galeries Lafayette. The much-hyped Vetements show gave a new energy to the week, but was followed by decidedly more haute couture collections from Versace, Schiaparelli, Iris Van Herpen, Dior, Giambattista Valli, and the dozens of other fashion houses that officially make up the five-day event. But as the week winds down today in Paris, with sumptuous shows from Valentino, Elie Saab, and Jean Paul Gaultier, it calls into question whether the incomprehensibly expensive showcase still has a place within the industry, particularly during the current period of great economic instability across Europe, which has hit the fashion industry particularly hard.

The U.K. fashion market has fallen into decline for the first time in six years.

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This year marked a monumental shift within the fashion world (even before the Brexit result) as the accepted modes and systems have been tested repeatedly by both designers and consumers. In the past year, we've seen the biggest names in fashion, such as Raf Simons, Hedi Slimane, and Alber Elbaz, step down from positions at leading fashion houses; we've witnessed brands move away from showing on schedule in order to cut costs; and we have seen labels merge menswear and womenswear (as well as main lines and diffusion labels) in a bid to save money and operate in a way that makes more sense for buyers and consumers. And above all, businesses and markets worldwide are now dealing with the repercussions of Brexit, as the British pound plunges, and companies reassess their futures. According to research results from Kantar Worldpanel, the U.K. fashion market has fallen into decline for the first time in six years.

So how and where does couture fit into the fashion landscape? Unlike other Fashion Weeks held six months before the product they show is available online or in-store, Haute Couture is the only showcase in which clothes are created for the season in which they are shown. Yet, the production of each garment can easily cost five figures, and it's a well-known fact that couture is a loss-leader. No matter how beautiful the gowns, and how brilliant the designer, the couture industry is simply not profitable. Period. "Haute Couture is what gives our business its essential essence of luxury," Bernard Arnault, the CEO of LVMH told The Telegraph. "Set against the money we lose has to be the value of the image couture gives us. Look at the attention the collections attract. It is where you get noticed. You have to be there. It's where we set our ideas in motion."

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Alexis Mabille Couture AW16
As Arnault asserts, despite the astronomical expense, losses, and labor-intensive artisanal production, these handcrafted collections not only allow a fashion house to demonstrate its technical skill to the highest degree, but also establish the designer's ultimate vision and elevate the brand by unveiling the most innovative designs, using the best materials.

That said, the number of couture enthusiasts has rapidly declined. During its zenith, after Christian Dior introduced the New Look in 1947, 40,000 couture customers existed worldwide. Now there are scarcely a few thousand, according to The Independent.

Haute Couture originated in the mid-19th century when Charles Frederick Worth, an English fashion designer working in Paris, started making custom gowns for elite customers, like royalty and celebrities. A French governing body, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, founded in 1868, after other dressmakers followed suit, has since stipulated the parameters of couture fashion, occasionally inviting new designers to show as part of the prestigious week.

Though the craft itself may be centuries old, the majority of the money is new.

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Willow Smith, Will Smith and Jessica Chastain front row at Chanel Couture AW16
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The seating at Chanel Couture AW16
Editor-in-chief of Harper's Bazaar UK Justine Picardie explained to CNN Style: "There are some very, very, very rich people who want to buy and wear the most beautiful, handcrafted, individual clothes in the world… We’re seeing these great waves of new wealth, from China, from the Middle East, Russia, and also the emerging markets in Africa and India. What’s interesting is that they are buying these clothes in such quantities that a brand like Valentino, which is owned by the Qataris, has doubled its number of couture ateliers." By evolving with the times and capitalizing on and catering to the new couture customer, Valentino has maximized its output. Though fewer people may be buying couture in 2016, the clientele come from all over the world, with more varied taste and deeper pockets.

Over the past 15 years, Lebanese designers, such as Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad, and Algerian designer Yacine Aouadi, have also been invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to participate in Couture Fashion Week, which has introduced a new Arab customer base. Though the craft itself may be centuries old, the majority of the money is now new.

As shoppers continue to spend more on fast fashion, as data from BMI Research shows, and the constant demand for disposable clothing persists, perhaps this is why the appeal of couture and the appreciation for the painstaking craft has not lessened, even if it is a significantly smaller group of new money buying it in 2016. Couture is aspirational, it is the pinnacle of fashion and still the way of selling a dream. Its effects trickle down and influence all other levels of fashion design. Consumers might be so captivated or transported by the image of a couture gown that they buy a fraction of that fantasy at an entry level price, with a perfume or lipstick. Though we may not all have the bottomless purse of a Nigerian princess or an oligarch's daughter, couture is fashion's most vivid fantasy, and we all love to dream.
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