Fashion is ridiculed by many as being frivolous, or, at best, an impractical, unnecessary occupation. Historically, it filled the pages of magazines and provided superficial girls with a hobby: something to accumulate and to talk about endlessly. More recently, it also stirs controversy with the constant rise of the infamous fast-fashion, as lower price points and constant demand for new clothing have resulted in an additional ecological hazard, with tones of garments being wasted each year.
And yet, there is another dimension to fashion, one centred around fabulous designs and handmade, exquisite items – so expensive, and so exclusive that only a very select group of high net worth individuals can afford, and indeed, collect. Think of the precious gowns of Elie Saab, flowing in mesmerizing rows of beads and crystals, or the perfectly constructed suits of Giorgio Armani, shimmering in opalescent shades. This is the universe of Haute Couture. There is no space for waste, and the delicate processes of creating such items make them valuable enough to be later displayed in museums and exhibitions throughout the world.
However not any fashion designer can or is allowed to create couture. The French Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture makes sure of that. Dating back to 1868, the association includes all the fashion houses which were invited and designated by the French Ministry of Industry.
Yes, haute couture is a serious matter in France, and whether or not you follow fashion, some of the members of this association will ring familiar to you. The likes of Chanel, Dior and Valentino are not only part of popular culture; they have marked history with their creative vision, shaping the way we dress to this day.
The association’s choice of Maisons is not by any means random, every potential member having to meet strict conditions – one of which being to own an atelier employing at least 20 seamstresses.These have been known as the petites mains – whose exceptional skill and meticulous work can be admired on the catwalks every Couture season in Paris. The name may not be used as much nowadays, but I like the matter-of-factness of it.
So behind every successful couturier and away from the limelight, lies an army of swift, expert hands, painstakingly manipulating fabrics, feathers, embroideries and beads into exceptional artworks, thus giving life to the couturier’s vision collection after collection…
Speaking of vision, this is where I think one more aspect needs to be clarified. Couture can be extravagant, and frankly, quite over-the-top. I can still remember my father’s remarks of atrocious dislike whenever runway models would be walking down dressed up in some unlikely-to-be-ever-worn-in-real-life garments. He failed to see their purpose, and I suppose many people do.
I can understand how you might be put off by a given concept, a shape, or colour of a couture outfit, but do not dismiss it at first glance. Look closer.
Couture creations – the way we see them during fashion shows – are an expression of artistic creativity, and most of all, of utmost skill. Their purpose is not necessarily to be worn as such, but to reveal what that particular House can implement, what innovations it came up with recently, where their heritage and expertise lies. When clients later order pieces from a Haute Couture collection, these are quite often customized to suit their preferences.
Coming back to the behind-the-scenes process, it all starts with a sketch. Once the designer’s idea is transferred onto paper,it is up to the petites mains to make the magic happen – first in the form of a toile (a white cotton sample) and finally by constructing the actual garment. Then, once the runway show creates the stir, and orders come flying in, it’s again time for the seamstresses to help recreate the items as per each client’s shape and individual requirements. And so we come full circle.
There are some fashion documentaries and videos out there exposing what I would call the labour-intensive yet gratifying activity of these ladies, in the Roman studio of Valentino or the Parisian ateliers of Chanel or Dior, for instance – and I recommend taking a look at them, if you haven’t already.
My first impression after watching such films was that the atelier is, generally speaking, a highly hierarchical, extremely organised work environment, and, as you can imagine, there is little glamour behind the scenes.
The workspace is split into 2 departments: tailoring (for all structured pieces) and flou (for the more“fluid” garments, such as gowns). Each one is run by a Premiere d’atelier (the head seamstress) whose job is to interpret the sketch, coordinate the activity of her team, and communicate with the designer on any later adjustments. If that wasn’t enough, the Premiere is indispensable during client appointments, her knowing eye and experienced hands directing the fittings, and the necessary alterations.
Then there are the secondes and, of course, the petite mains, or couturiere tailleurs, whose responsibility is to construct garments, entirely by hand.
Becoming such a seamstress is by any means no easy job, as Madame Riviere, the Director of Haute Couture at Dior explained recently in an interview. It takes at least ten years to train someone to be “fully competent” in the atelier, which is why young talent is much sought after. The well-known Maisons require fresh pairs of hands so that the techniques can be passed down, and the tradition of Haute Couture preserved. Dior for instance currently allows ten lucky apprentices to develop their skills in their couture atelier.
These young trainees will in turn be writing the following chapters of high fashion history. In their hands rests the continuity of Haute Couture.
Have a closer look
Here is a video interview with the two creative directors of Valentino, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, explaining the importance of the Haute Couture and of the great hands behind it.