Op-Ed: Is Haute Couture Losing Its Meaning?

Op-Ed: Is Haute Couture Losing Its Meaning?




Each season the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (CSHC) meets to decide which guest designers get to show during the haute couture calendar in Paris. These designers, while not being formally accepted into the rarefied couture club, are considered as worthy of showing alongside the likes of Chanel and Dior. Its selection process is supposed to be rigorous and extremely selective, in order to reflect that haute couture is the pinnacle of fashion design and craftsmanship.

This week the CHSC announced its new guest designers – J. Mendel, Yuima Nakazato, Francesco Scognamiglio, Iris van Herpen and Vetements. If the last brand in that list has made you do a double take, you are not alone (my inbox got flooded yesterday with “WTF?” messages). Vetements is probably the hottest label in fashion right now, having made its name most recently by selling oversized graphic sweatshirts and logoed security jackets, in addition to deconstructed jeans and trench coats. It is the darling of the fashion press and retail stores. But does it make haute couture or anything approaching it? By inviting Vetements to show on the haute couture calendar the CSHC implies that it does.

In that case the next question is what constitutes haute couture? Curiously enough, there is no published definition from the CSHC that I could find, nor did the CHSC return my request for definition. I called Dr. Valerie Steele, the director of the FIT Museum and a respected fashion scholar, but even she was at a loss to give a clear definition. Still, there exists somewhat of a consensus on what haute couture is. Literally, “haute couture” means “high dressmaking.” Generally speaking, haute couture involves creating intricately constructed garments, usually eveningwear, often involving time-consuming, painstaking manual labor by expert dressmakers, and usually made for private clients. The price of such garments often runs into tens of thousands of dollars and more. Dr. Steele pointed out that the CSHC has had to loosen its originally rigid definition in order to accommodate changes in fashion, “We’ve seen streetwear influencing haute-couture since the 1960s, by the likes of Saint-Laurent, Courreges, and Cardin, who brought in trousers and different kinds of fabrications. Conversely, we have seen the likes of Alexander McQueen who showed what clothes that could easily qualify as couture on a pret-a-porter schedule.”

Still, where does Vetements and its hoodies and jeans fit into haute couture? It seems that they don’t. Which presents a conundrum. Either the CSHC needs to loosen the definition of haute couture yet again, or we may accept that the term no longer has any meaning.

It is not the first time the CSHC makes a questionable decision (remember Rad Hourani? That’s ok, few people do.), but it is the first time it seems particularly egregious, a desire to yield to the hype surrounding the brand, and not to appear as stuffy old men in suits who get to declare from above what constitutes what. Not a bad idea in general, but here is the rub – haute couture is supposed to be elitist. That is its entire point. It exists not to dress the world, but to show it fashion’s full potential and the awe-inspiring capabilities of human creativity and skill.

Dr. Steele was optimistic about Vetements showing during haute couture. “It does seem like a contrast, but I think that they (the CSHC) are not just doing is because Vetements is flavor of the month,” said she. “Maybe additional support is for them to do something special, which might bring more attention to haute couture overall.” Dr. Steele pointed out that fewer journalists, and even fewer buyers come to haute couture schedule than ready to wear. Maybe Vetements is helping the CSHC and not the other way around? Be that as it may, according to an article in Vogue Vetements is not going to show haute couture but its Spring 2017 pret-a-porter collection for men and women, with normal delivery schedule. (Vetements PR did not return my request for comment.)

Vetements are often described in the fashion press as some kind of revolutionaries (by Vogue, no less), but irony is their real modus operandi. Perhaps showing ready-to-wear streetwear during the haute couture calendar fits within the general direction of how Vetements has toyed with the fashion system.

But, the larger point here is the meaning of the term “haute couture.” I have argued previously that today, when everyone from Chanel to H&M and via Nike claims to make fashion, the word itself has lost its meaning. And now it seems that its haute couture’s turn. At the end of the day it all may not matter much to retailers and consumers. The problem is this – the only way for the fashion community to carry on an intelligent conversation about fashion is to use clearly defined terms. Otherwise, as terms lose meaning, so does the conversation. When everything means everything, there is nothing left to discuss.


About the author

Eugene Rabkin

Eugene Rabkin is the founder of stylezeitgeist.com. He has contributed articles on fashion and culture to The Business of Fashion, Vogue Russia, Buro247, the Haaretz Daily Newspaper, and other publications. He has taught critical writing and fashion writing courses at Parsons the New School for Design.


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