I’d like to begin with an unfortunate disclaimer: Juicy Couture is not real couture.
The phrase Haute Couture is French for “high sewing.” Its implications developed out of a 1945 decision made by France’s Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, which determined that “Haute Couture” should become a legal designation for fashion houses who qualify to become members of the Chambre Syndicale. Today, just over 150 designers in the world boast the auspicious designation.
Why, you might ask, did any of this hierarchical legal action begin in the first place? And in response, dear reader, I will remind you that “high” fashion’s origins lie within a hotbed of European elitism. The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture was started upon such a foundation in 1868, when a group of Parisian dressmakers, couturiers, came together in hopes of regulating one another with regards to counterfeiting, collection release dates, number of models per fashion show, proper relations with the press and issues of fashion-related laws and taxes.
Today, the Chambre Syndicale exists within the jurisdiction of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, whose mission is to “promote French fashion culture, where Haute Couture and creation have a major impact by combining traditional know how and contemporary technology at all times,” according to their website. The Fédération is responsible for maintaining virtually every aspect of Parisian high fashion, but perhaps most integral to the city’s reputation as the world’s fashion capital is the Chambre Syndicale’s highly-curated list of members, who have the opportunity to show collections as part of the prestigious semi-annual Couture Fashion Week.
There are many key differences between ordinary Fashion Week collections, often referred to as ready-to-wear, and couture. I’ll scratch the surface: Ready-to-wear garments are factory-made in standard sizes, and are available to most anyone willing to shell out the cash for a 900-dollar t-shirt. The same can’t be said for couture collections, which boast one-of-a-kind, handmade pieces made to measure for fashion’s uppermost echelon of clientele (i.e. royalty and Julianne Moore). Other notable criteria for Haute Couture status include ownership of a workshop, or atelier, in Paris that employs at least 15 full-time staff members and 20 full-time technical employees, and the presentation of at least 50 original designs to the public every season, in Jan. and Jul.. It is ultimately up to Fédération executives to determine who earns the title of couturier, along with which designers should be chosen as “guest members” for a given season.
Outside of tangible requirements, couture designs tend to be more outrageous than their commercially-sold counterparts. Couture Week Spring-Summer 2018 just wrapped up, and featured a refreshing quantity of textures, colors and voluminous feather headpieces. Standout pieces were seen at Dior, where newly-minted creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri at last seemed to find her footing, within Giambattista Valli’s tulle-laden paradise and at Giorgio Armani Privé, where watercolor reigned supreme. Guest members like Guo Pei and Iris Van Herpen breathed new life into the institution’s deeply homogenous framework.
Greater diversity in member brands’ leadership is making Haute Couture more exciting than ever. This season saw the rise of the female creative director — namely, Grazia Chiuri at Dior and Guo and Van Herpen at their eponymous labels — along with non-European brands, like American expat Proenza Schouler and Lebanese fan favorite Elie Saab. Fashion has a long, long way to go, but to see its most discriminatory subgroup making progress is exciting, no doubt.
Let’s circle back to that Juicy tracksuit you wore every week in middle school. It was special, yes, a fundamental ingredient to the anxiety-filled casserole that was your formative years. But make no mistake: There’s no way a legacy upholstered in velour could make the Haute Couture cut.