Haute couture is a term that is widely used in vintage clothing circles and often misused, particularly in recent years. The French term, translated literally, means “high sewing” or “high dressmaking” and does have an official definition in France. As a matter of fact, the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie de Paris established legal guidelines for those who wished to call themselves haute couture back in 1945 and then revised them in 1992. Their criteria are:
- Must design made to order clothing for private clients with at least one fitting
- Must have a work shop in Paris that employees a minimum of fifteen people
- Must present a seasonal collection to the Paris press made up of at least thirty five runs
The French take their fashion very seriously. Just recently, their culture minister Frederick Mitterand, nephew of the famous Socialist president, got involved in the preservation of one of France’s thirteen haute couture houses, the struggling Christian Lacroix, a vintage clothing fan favorite. The other houses are Adeline André, Giorgio Armani, Chanel, Christian Dior, Emanuel Ungaro, Jean Paul Gaultier, Givenchy, Elie Saab, Dominique Sirop, Franck Sorbier, Jean-Louis Scherrer, and Valentino. According to the French definition, they are the only true haute couture houses in the world.
The Italians, much to the chagrin of the French, have their own haute couture houses. Though contested as a classification that is purely French, you’ll see many vintage clothing sites advertise the fashions of Valentino, Armani and Versace as haute couture. Milan and Florence both run annual Pitti Immagine Events very similar to the runway shows of Paris. In fact, the very first Italian fashion show, organized on February 12th, 1951 by Marquis Gian Battista Giorgini in Florence, was billed as a haute couture fashion event.
Not to be out-done, many American designers are using the term haute couture when describing their exclusive stores and galleries on Rodeo Drive and Fifth Avenue. Though not accurate by French or even Italian standards the description seems to bring high end clients in the door. If you are a vintage clothing shopper and the term means something to you, be careful. The fashion world itself still tends to follow the French definition. Italian designers produce high quality original designs and are respected as leaders in fashion and rivals to the French, but they are not haute couture. Americans just borrow words from everyone.