The couture shows are officially underway in Paris, kicking off several days of over-the-top runway looks and lots of peacock-like parading around. But there's more to the week than made-to-order dresses you'll never afford.
While the word "couture" may be thrown around a lot in common parlance -- especially where it has no business being, i.e. "Juicy Couture" or J-Woww's "Filthy Couture" -- there are actually very few fashion houses that can technically refer to themselves as a couture house. (In fact, the very term haute couture is protected by law by the Paris Chamber of Commerce.) To claim such status, one must design made-to-order clothing for clients (unlike pret-a-porter, or "ready-to-wear" clothing, which is produced in sizes one can buy off the rack), and one must have a workshop in Paris that employs a certain number of people full-time.
Right now, the houses that can claim couture collections include names like Armani, Chanel, Valentino, Givenchy, Christian Dior, and Elie Saab. Other high fashion brands like Yves Saint Laurent and Versace may make spectacular gowns, but they do not have a couture business.
While the business of making hand-sewn clothing with stratospheric price tags might seem ridiculous now, it was really the only name-brand game in town up until the 1960s, when Yves Saint Laurent became one of the first reputable designers to announce a full-scale pret-a-porter collection, in addition to his haute couture line. Needless to say, in the decades that followed, ready-to-wear has quickly eclipsed couture in terms of scale and profitability, and now the vast majority of designer produce incredibly elaborate, upscale garments that are, in fact, designed to be purchased straight off the rack without stepping into the designer's studio for a fitting.
Even so, the industry continues to look to the vitality of the couture collections as a kind of litmus test for the strength of pure, unadulterated fashion overall -- as opposed to, say, the instant gratification of growing "fast fashion" giants like Topshop and Forever 21. When the number of couture shows dwindles, insiders tsk-tsk over the state of fashion; When the couture shows are strong, editors are quick to make pronouncements that fashion is back.
After Christian Lacroix filed for bankruptcy last year, many feared it was yet another indication that the world of high fashion was on its last legs, but in fact many couture houses have been seeing a rise in customer demand, according to a recent WWD article, mostly because it's so season-less (unlike ready-to-wear, where fall's hottest jacket quickly seems "so last season").
Even smaller couture houses like Elie Saab or Stephane Rolland have seen a bump in their couture business because of the constant demand for new, ever-more-spectacular dresses on the red carpet. In fact, one of the even more interesting reasons to pay attention to the couture shows is to guess which dresses will make it onto the Academy Awards' red carpet, like the frothy purple-skirted Givenchy dress Zoe Saldana sported, or J.Lo's white Armani Prive stunner. Heck, the red carpet spotlight has become so immense that Gucci has even started up a couture line for that exact purpose -- Salma Hayek was the first to debut one of the gowns in Cannes this past season.
So whether you're watching to gauge the global appetite for high fashion over fast fashion, or watching just to try and spot J.Lo's next Oscar dress, just watch. You never know what high-waist silhouette will sneak its way into next season's ready-to-wear collections, or onto J.Lo for that matter.