When Oscar de la Renta passed away in October 2014 it signaled to some the end of an era. Trained by Balenciaga, having worked for the iconic couture houses Lanvin and Balmain before founding his own eponymous firm, he dressed the international elite from Jackie Kennedy to, most recently, Amal Clooney, George’s wife, designing her wedding gown. Some have argued that as an institution couture is past its prime. But it sells a dream that’s very much alive and well.
High-end, prestige, luxury. “Couture” conjures all this. But what does the term actually mean? “Couture” derives from the French “couturier” meaning literally “dressmaker.” Dating back to the age of Marie Antoinette highly skilled dressmakers began fabricating exquisite one-of-a-kind gowns, catering to royalty and nobility. High society demanded high fashion, haute couture, for elegant soirees and social functions. Dress design rose to the level of art. The couture experience was born.
By the mid-nineteenth century major firms such as the House of Worth arose to provide the epitome of fashionable design for society’s top echelon. The couturier working with rare finest fabrics – silk, cashmere, hand-made lace – provided elegant, extravagant gowns stitched entirely by hand and custom tailored for their fortunate clientele.
Today the Parisian Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture regulates which firms may be certified as “couture.” Requirements are exacting. The design house must produce two shows a year consisting of at least 50 new and original designs of day and evening wear for each collection. They must employ a minimum of at least 20 full-time technical people in at least one atelier or workshop.
Dior, Chanel – the major fashion houses are legendary. The crème of society attend their shows. There are perhaps 3000 women worldwide who can afford – and have the inclination – to wear couture. It’s not for the faint of heart. A dress may cost $50,000 and require repeated fittings. If a sleeve does not drape properly it is ripped out and redone until perfect. An elaborate evening gown may require hundreds of hours of labor and a team of workers, especially if intricate detail such as beading is involved. Each piece is stitched entirely by hand.
The haute couture division of fashion houses may operate at a financial loss. Labor intensive, the cost of production is not offset by sales to a limited clientele. But the real value of the couture division is in selling a dream – branding, promotion, PR. A new garde of young designers is currently infusing fresh vigor into the industry. Couture provides the life-blood for the pret-a-porter or ready-to-wear mass market divisions of elite houses. Just as our red carpet at the Academy Awards showcases top designers on Hollywood A-listers setting trends for the entire fashion industry, the Paris, London, Milan and New York designer fashion shows energize the market. They sell the dream.
Couture jewelry also is aspirational. Designer, high-end, elegant, it features original designs, finest materials, including high karat gold, platinum and precious gems, exquisite workmanship, and one-of-a-kind pieces tailored for the elite client. It inspires and sets the tone for the season. Fashion editors and trend setters attend couture events to take the pulse of the industry, glimpsing first the fresh looks for the upcoming year – colors, styles, materials, themes. Couture trends generate mass market appeal. Couture dazzles. It stirs the life-blood. It sells the dream.
Call it custom, bespoke or one-offs, jewelry that’s uniquely personalized is what the contemporary client craves. Millennials especially seek jewelry as experience, designed by an individual with a story and a distinctive look rather than a more generic, mass-market product. They want to share a memorable event. They still seek the dream, the dream embodied in fabled couture. If you’re tapping into this impulse you’re tapping into the couture experience. You’re selling the dream.
Mia Katrin founded her company JEWEL COUTURE LLC in 2003 inspired by the beauty of jewels and the couture experience. Her Collections are now featured in 100 top stores and galleries nationally. Mia loves sharing with clients at Trunk Shows, providing a taste of couture. She also speaks at shows and conferences on jewelry and design. www.jeweljewel.com, 877 JEWEL-MY (539-3569).