Jan 26, 2015
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Didier Grumbach: "There are a lot more haute couture customers today than there were in the 60s"

Jan 26, 2015

Haute couture, with the Paris Haute Couture fashion week taking place this week, has in a century evolved from having a competitive industrial status to being a prestigious showcase for houses that also do ready-to-wear, explains Didier Grumbach, former chairman of the Fédération Française de la Couture and author of Histoires de la mode about this French-specific feature.

Didier Grumbach

Where does the designation "haute couture", the founder of which was British designer Charles Frederick Worth in 1858, come from?

Didier Grumbach: Worth was the first to consider that a couturier could be creative and propose new ideas and a signature for their creations in the way of the artists. Until the Second World War, haute couture was a customary label, based on qualitative criteria. If the Delegate-General of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, Daniel Gorin, found that the premises of Mr. Balenciaga were comfortable and spacious enough to host the international press, he would register it in the Chambre Syndicale's official calendar. Monsieur Balenciaga hence became a grand couturier. During the war, it had to be arranged that the biggest exporting houses could obtain fabrics without ration cards. These house were called and had to be "haute couture" houses. The ranking committee still exists today, more than half a century later. The quantitative criteria were established in 1943, notably a minimum amount of workers and designs, even though, since 2001, the Ministry of Industry may grant exceptions. Thus, Adeline André, which doesn't have 20 workers, retains the haute couture designation. In contrast to the term haute couture, anyone can use the term couture.

How has haute couture, a French-specific feature, evolved since its beginnings?

DG: In a free exchange world, it was an extraordinarily competitive industry. There were 300,000 in France until the crash of 1929. Afterwards, it was the design office of the planet. Buyers from all over the world came to Paris to buy designs by Balenciaga, Dior, Givenchy, Grès, etc, to be reproduced in their countries or their factories. Until the 1960s, ready-to-wear did not exist in France. Then, for a long time, the two entities were divergent. Today, haute couture has become the superior of the two, a savoir-faire and no longer an industry. On its own, it can be enough for a couturier to live on, but definitely not to live lavishly. The most manifest haute couture houses are now also the biggest French exporters of ready-to-wear. The haute couture activity sprouts up in all the facets of a brand. The haute couture designation makes it possible for a brand to gain international renown more quickly, giving it more visibility.

What differentiates a ready-to-wear piece from a haute couture creation, which may cost up to 100,000 euros? Who is the clientele?

DG: Haute couture is handmade, using the customer. There are designs that can only be made in the haute couture style because they have a very specific cut, such as in the accessories, stitching or embroidery that accompany them. But there are pieces that can be made just as well, if not better, as ready-to-wear, namely thanks to laser cutting. For haute couture, Chanel and Dior say that they each have around 1,000 customers. There is an increasing amount of rich females in the world. Before the First World War, France's first customer was from England, the second from Argentina, with the United States only sixth after Switzerland. America became France's leading customer as of 1918. Today there are also customers from China, India and the Middle East. The haute couture clientele has expanded. There are a lot more couture customers now than in the 1960s but they also purchase ready-to-wear, which wasn't the case at the time. Today, a woman dresses in ready-to-wear and occasionally in couture. A woman who dresses only in couture is exceptional.

Interview provided by Anne-Laure MONDESERT

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