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How Haute Couture Went International

This season, fewer than half the couturiers showing in Paris are French. BoF investigates how haute couture has gone global and the opportunities for fledgling brands.
Ulyana Sergeenko Spring/Summer 2014 | Source: Courtesy
  • Robin Mellery-Pratt

PARIS, France  Paris' haute couture is rightfully regarded as the very height of fashion: the petites mains who work in its ateliers, and the craftspeople of the savoir-faire maisons that supply them, work with a level of precision and skill unparalleled in the industry. The seasonal presentations, staged by historic houses like Chanel and mavericks such as Giambattista Valli, to woo clients and wow the press (in that order) can lead to individual pieces commanding hundreds of thousands.

Despite couture's prohibitively high cost, loyal clients from around the globe jet in religiously for the annual shows in January and July. The Financial Times reports that both Dior and Chanel's couture sales were up year-on-year in 2015. Armani Privé and Atelier Versace's sales grew by 30 and 50 percent, respectively, in 2015, according to statistics supplied by the brands. At €650 million (about $705 million), the couture market represents one percent of luxury fashion apparel, estimates Mario Ortelli, a senior luxury goods analyst at Sanford C. Berstein.

“You have two kinds of players,” says Ortelli. “For big, global brands, couture is more of a marketing exercise: you have to stress you’re exclusive [and] build up from zero, unique pieces for the richest and most sophisticated clients in the world. It creates the opportunity to increase the allure of the brand name. On the other side, you’ve got small, more original ateliers. They’re reaching a specific region that is buying these dresses. It’s not surprising that many of them have a link to an emerging market such as the Middle East. “

Mention of the Middle East is significant. Although couture is inextricably tied to Paris, and controlled by the French ministry Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne throughout its history, Paris couture has welcomed non-French designers. "Paris has always been at the centre of creative capital because it is very adaptable. I know that it doesn't seem that way to some, but it is quite flexible — Paris couture does not mean only French fashion couturiers," says Pamela Golbin, chief curator of fashion and textiles at the Musée de la Mode et du Textile.

This season, only 38 percent of the designers showing on schedule are French. Newer names like Ulyana Sergeenko, the ex-wife of a Russian oligarch who found fame in the early years of street-style photography, Chinese designer Guo Pei, who designed Rihanna's much 'memed' yellow Met Ball gown, the Jordanian-Canadian Rad Hourani, Turkish sisters Dice Kayek and Syrian-born Rami Al Ali are changing the face of haute couture.

Barriers to Entry

Surprisingly, the barriers to entry in the couture market can often be lower than those of ready-to-wear. Although materials and labour are cost intensive, there are other benefits for a small business if they take the haute couture route. "I think the competition in the haute couture is much less than the pret-a-porter. For a small business, I find it a faster return and easier to manage. Once you finish the show, it's an immediate order most of the time," says Al Ali, a UAE-based couturier who shows-off schedule in Paris, but hopes to make it onto the main schedule soon.

‘Haute couture’ is a legally protected label; only the brands designated as haute couturiers by the Chambre Syndicale are entitled to show during Paris’ haute couture weeks — and the group of companies that enjoy the status is reviewed annually.

In the past, the specifications were arduous and costly: haute couturiers had to operate a Parisian atelier that employed over 15 craftspeople full-time, and present two seasonal collections of over 50 looks (which traditionally closed with a wedding gown).

“Since its foundation, the Chambre Syndicale has often changed the rules. I mean, as early as 1910 they reviewed the rules. After the war, the rules were reviewed again. This isn’t the first time that Paris couture has gone through a transformation. From the end of the 1930s to the beginning of the 1950s, there were over 100 fashion houses in Paris. In the 1960s, with the rise of ready-to-wear it was down to under 20, so it was a major shift,” says Golbin.

The Importance of New Blood

The Chambre Syndicale has a vested interest in the haute couture schedule retaining a dynamic and interesting line-up. Particularly as both Saint Laurent and Givenchy, brands with strong couture legacies, have recently decided to show off-schedule or by appointment only. On the flipside, both Versace and Armani have both accepted guest memberships of the Chambre Syndicale over the last decade. Other Italian brands, such as Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana, have elected to build couture-like "Moda" brands independent of the Chambre, on home turf.

"The more new blood, the more you accumulate creativity, the better for everyone — it makes it alive. It's a way to reflect what is going on in the world and [addresses] the [Chambre Syndicale's] main challenge — continuing to make Paris the capital of couture," says Serge Carreira, programme director of Mode et Luxe at Paris' Sciences-Po University.

The ministry's main aim is to support traditional savoir-faire businesses located in the French capital — such as the world famous embroiderers of Lesage, the milliners of Maison Michel and the plisseurs (pleaters) of Lognon. For such businesses to be healthy and capable of growth, it is imperative that Paris remains the undisputed capital of handmade clothing manufacturing.

When Ralph and Russo, British couturiers who showed on schedule for the first time in Spring/Summer 2014, were announced as members of Chambre Synidcale, Didier Grumbach, then president of Chambre, said: "We expect savoir-faire, which is being lost, and Ralph & Russo have it." Prior to the announcement, the Chambre Syndicale visited the British couturiers in London a number of times, assessing the craftspeople involved in the atelier.

New Clients, New Couturiers

The changing faces attending Paris' couture week are intrinsically linked to the changing faces of global wealth. According to a 2015 report by ultra high net worth (UHNW)-focused research firm Wealth-X, 26,000 or 20 percent of the world’s UHNW individuals now reside in Asia-Pacific. This geographical shift will only become more pronounced in the coming years, and with it, the growing demand for couturiers that speak to global as well as European tastes.

“Haute couture is really spreading outside of its historical borders into Asia, Russia and the Middle East,” says Carreira, “We heard for so many years that no-one wanted haute couture anymore, but we have seen in the last few years that on the contrary, a new haute couture clientele is emerging.”

The Chinese couture client, in particular, has only very recently emerged, says Guo Pei, one of China's most high profile designers who has been designing for 30 years. "I feel that the understanding of couture, attendance and demand has only surfaced in China the past five years. Ten years ago, no one was aware of true French haute couture. People in China assumed that mediocre custom designs or bespoke tailoring was haute couture."

Although Americans appear to dominate the client lists (they also house 49 percent of the world’s UHNWIs), that dominance is eroding. “The Chinese are becoming more and more couture-conscious and we have a lot of customers from the Middle East,” says Ayse Ege, a Turkish designer who, along with her sister Ece, owns Dice Kayek, which produces both ready-to-wear and couture lines. “I would say 85 percent are from the Gulf countries, the remaining 15 percent are American and Eastern European [and a few] Asians,” adds Rami Al Ali.

Traditional Craft, Modern Opportunity

"The clothes I did in Paris are not for a 'Grande Dame de Paris,'" said Donatella Versace in 2015, following her Atelier Versace presentation. Indeed, the archetypical pearl-clad doyenne with immoveable hair is a dying breed — creating an opportunity for the new designers to muscle in.

“They are, crucially, from a different cultural background and social background. The big brands are still attracting the customers, but the [new customers] are willing to be different and look to these young couturiers for unique garments. They are much more open to innovation than maybe a few years ago.” says Carreira.

“Young couture clients, which my clients mostly are, love to discover and make their own world — apart from their mothers’ and their grandmothers’,” says Al Ali.

“They even order online,” agrees Ege. “We sold a piece on Moda Operandi for €30,000 (about $32,568) without a fitting! Normally, the couture customer needs at least two fittings. It’s a product of globalisation. You find the same collections everywhere, from Paris to Istanbul to Bangkok. People want to look different.” Dice Kayek have been contacted by both Moda Operandi and Lane Crawford to sell their couture, the latter seeking to place it in a new “Couture Room” in its Hong Kong IFC flagship.

As the rich become ever more diverse, and the global ‘haute couture’ brand is trumpeted on social media by megabrands like Chanel and Dior, the internationalisation of the schedule is set to continue. However, as couture becomes more international, more accessible and distributed via new retail channels, the barriers to entry, which have traditionally favoured emerging international couturiers, may soon rise, presenting their own challenges.

“It’s a very niche market,” concludes Ortelli. “I see that very few of these haute couture brands can ever enter in another category or become a global brand. There’s a sort of volatility: you’ve got some brands and some houses that are on the schedule forever, and some brands that arrive for some seasons and then they disappear.”

Editor's Note: This article was revised on 27th January, 2016. A previous version misstated that Ralph & Russo showed on schedule in Paris for the first time in the Spring/Summer 2016 season. That is incorrect. The couturiers first showed on schedule in the Spring/Summer 2014 season. 

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