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modern haute couture more sustainable than ready to wear fashion?

wearing Nelly Liu demi-couture silk taffeta skirt / Organic by John Patrick oversize shirt / Matt & Nat vegan satchel / Olsen Haus vegan sandals


While knee-deep in wardrobe culling in order to rebuild a more sustainable fashion collection loosely inspired by the minimalist 5 piece French wardrobe as I mentioned in this post, I qualmishly considered the fact of average modern women completely disregarding the history of couture fashion and how it can be emphatically interwoven with the clothing consumption of today. As a fashion stylist in my heyday and now an eco-style editor, it goes without saying that my viewpoint on rising trends, designers, and world news (in context) is a bit more preeminent than the closeted consumer, or those that are decisively ignorant to the going ons of the clothes on their back. When everyone from opinionated bloggers to Cathy Horn of the NY Times are discussing the possible demise or needed appreciation of haute couture, I thought perhaps I might open this up for debatable consideration seeing as how on one hand couture has been allegedly dying since 2009 and on the other, most of us have no clue what it all really means, nor do we likely care. Could naive pedestrian consumers like you and me be to blame? Has the appeal of chains like H&M and Zara or even the infamous designer collaborations for Target made the sub-industry of haute couture so far-fetched for the non-Forbes 500 working 9-5 fashionistas? Who are these girls and women so determined to condemn this age old craft because they never see themselves as one of the elite upper crust, and why can't they just appreciate the medium for what it is? Well, if I was going to endeavor answering these questions I think a little history would be in order first. 

The King, father, don (whatever you want to call someone who did it first) of haute couture was the Englishman, Charles Worth. Now this "originator" term shall be used loosely as the term "haute couture" wasn't penned yet, but nonetheless was very much a percolating business dating back to the 19th century that included notable couturiers such as Rose Bertin whose main and only client was Queen Marie Antoinette. Thus, we start here. As France has remained the high fashion capital of the world since the monarchical 1800's, women looked to royalty and aristocratic society to get their trend fix. Its plausible that here too began elitism and our modern day frustrations with inaccessible couture. So inaccessible of course, that country folk wore cast-offs (what we now know as knock offs) or simply sewed their own reinterpreted versions. The most elaborate of these versions would be passed down from generation to generation and came to be called "folk costumes". And those who feel justified in their distaste of inaccessible, unnecessary couture fashion are not alone, as the ravish extravagances of the royal courts outraged the lower class to the point of the French Revolution* (all things considered). Soon after, fashion then evolved from elaborately decorative to less expensive refined pieces of clothing. 

When couturier Charles Worth came to Paris at age 20 in 1846, it was serendipitously the same year Elias Howe patented his sewing machine invention. As Marie Antoinette appointed Rose Bertin for court minister of fashion, Emperor Napoleon III enlisted Worth for his wife, Empress Eugenie. Fashion dolls were the means in which couture houses that followed Worth (Paquin, Callot, Jeanne Lanvin) sold their designs abroad. Clients would choose a style, mail it back, and have a custom fitted garment arrive at their door. When these little fashion dolls reached the US it was mostly for the purposes of copying, as Americans were one of the poorer countries at the time. However, this all changed when the Industrial Revolution brought about an explosion in advances for textile and ready-to-wear production. The introduction of separates, also known as sportswear, such as blouses and skirts, provided fashions any woman could wear comfortably albeit more affordably. Needless to say this put a major damper on the haute couture business as designer's primary source of revenue. With new houses popping up left and right at the turn of the 20th century like Dior, Balenciaga, Poiret, Chanel and YSL, couture became a means of advertising the houses' main bread and butter which included ready-to-wear, perfumes and licensing projects. Though Worth was the one to initiate using live models for his design presentations, it wasn't until the 1900's that it turned into a all out spectacle and a must see exhibition for the birth of trends to come. And so the cycle was born.

When expenses are of no concern, designers have the creative freedom to create what some might consider covetable objets d'art. And just like any other medium of art, only a few true couture client members are around today. Whether or not this is attributed to the fact that couture has depreciated in value to the fashion public or the world is actually made up of 90% lower class is a question unsolved. But the more pressing issue is how we've forgotten what couture fashion actually stood for during the prime of bustling ateliers producing custom clothing. So who are the women who are quick to disregard couture as any sort of fashion production relevance? Have they themselves never been to a tailor or seamstress at the dry cleaners seeking a custom fit solution? While Paris Fashion Week might see designs executed by the hands of many skilled artisans doing hundreds of hours of labor with the finest selected fabrics and treatments all to end up on a Hollywood debutante, it still doesn't negate the fact that custom fashion can be relevant for the average woman. It's as if to say none of us hail from a generation of women that sat behind a sewing machine one point in their life, or that sewing patterns, knitting circles, and seamstresses or tailors are not part of the cornerstone of society.

In an interview, one my old beloved style icons, Daphne Guiness, was quoted as saying, "People think ‘couture’ just means expensive, and that’s just completely wrong. Yes, if you’re buying something that’s beaded from head to foot of course it’s going to be expensive; but you’re not paying for the name. You’re paying for the artisan, the concentration of the work. And it shows! The more intention you put into something, the more you can see it. If somebody runs something off very, very quickly and just writes their name off, you can see it. And the more you concentrate on something, the more of yourself is invested in it. It just means so much more.” She also goes on to articulate how dressmaking represents jobs, a notion that led me to this post in light of the Bangladesh tragedy that turned an innumerable amount of conscious women off fast fashion. In the scope of all that custom-tailored fashion can be, is it not more favorable (although not replacing altogether) than the less transparent, shamefully unethical, and highly capitalistic nature of ready-to-wear? When an opportunity exists to work with a local fashion designer like Sharon did so admirably here on her blog to create a leather harness designed by her and produced by UK based Tamzin Lillywhite, or when ethical fashion designers like Nelly Liu who offer up locally produced limited edition collections (a term so fervently used for marketing but sometimes is realistically applied) that are based on pre-order basis for the sake of meeting a buyer's exact desires, do we not see it as something to aspire to, to include in our wardrobe building, and to protect as a sustainable more meaningful means of exploring fashion?

What do you think? Does incorporating custom dressmaking (couture) into your wardrobe seem like an accessible and sustainable option?

19 comments

  1. posterboy2:09 PM EDT

    I also forgot to mention that the only difference between an atelier and a studio is that atelier is the french word for studio, but other than that their the exact same thing... maybe because it's french, atelier is often equated with being higher-quality...
    Also... you're list of 'current' Couturier's is actually a list of couture houses that are no longer active. The current list (which consists of both established members as well as Correspondent members* and guest members**) is,
    Chanel
    Christian Dior
    Armani Prive *
    Valentino *
    Elie Saab *
    Jean-Paul Gaultier
    Givenchy
    Christian Lacroix
    Maison Martin Margiela *
    Franck Sobier
    Carven **
    Gustavo Lins **
    Eymeric Francois **
    Anne Valerie Hash **
    Christophe Josse **
    Felipe Oliveira Baptista **
    On Aura tout vu **
    Gerald Watelet **
    Lefranc.Ferrant **
    Nicolas Le Cauchois **
    Cathy Pill **
    Udo Edling **
    Boudicca **
    Adeline Andre
    Dominique Sirop
    Jean-Louis Scherrer
    Emanuel Ungaro
    There are a few more but... well i got lazy and didn't want to look any more for them...

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  2. Charmander2:09 PM EDT

    I love it! Its not like your going to get every piece from each Ready-To-Wear collection either. Who doesn't love a little entertainment anyway, and nowadays the rich are getting richer. I have the theory that in the next 10 or 15 years haute couture will be in much more demand.

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    Replies
    1. Exactly, I agree! Although I thoroughly enjoy the bread and butter accessories from these design houses (Celine, Givenchy, Alex Wang to name a few) I think the idea of running to snatch up favorite pieces from every RTW designer that taps into your subconscious is far from sustainable, rewarding, or even joyful.

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  3. Such a great and interesting post! And I love that skirt! :)

    callmemaddie.blogspot.com

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Maddie. The skirt is amazing in person. Glad you enjoyed the post.

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  4. Hmm.. I think that the concept definitely can be put into a wardrobe and be sustainable, but obviously the pieces you would be going for wouldn't be beaded from head to toe.

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    Replies
    1. Exactly. Perhaps when I find myself rolling around in an 8 figure income I'll go to Lanvin to have a dress made for a wedding party for the hell of it, but other than that, the point would be to seek out those designers who are affordably making one of a kind pieces that can be tailored. What a life that would be.

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  5. Hello I'am Chris From France!!
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  6. Love the skirt! The color looks great on your skin! Beautiful!

    xx

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  7. The color of the skirt looks amazing on your beautiful skin, the outfit is amazing!
    Have a nice day doll,

    ❤lots of love,
    Johanna

    http://www.dreamscolorsandglitter.blogspot.com

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  8. Your skirt looks so unique! I like the design!
    Thank you so much for your nice comment on my blog!
    x
    Stella from a A Shiny Place

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  9. I love your skirt. looks amazing on you!
    hey and the purple/burgundy leather jacket I wasn't able to find anymore since my mom bought it a few years ago (couldnt even find it on the mulberry website..) but i've found a pretty similar one that'd absolutely buy too: http://www.mytheresa.com/en-de/ashleigh-leather-biker-jacket-210574.html
    xx

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    Replies
    1. Ahh thanks for looking something up for me. Funny enough I'm saving up for that metallic pink Burberry so maybe I'll do that over a motor bike style :)

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    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    3. Love this. One of my goals for 2014 is to learn enough about sewing to at leas make my own skirts.

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    4. ^^^ sorry - I actually published under my sister Angelica's account, so I removed the comment and logged in under mine. She's actually the sewing girl in the family. Makes a ton of her own clothes!

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