More overused than headshots in Hollywood, the word Couture means a lot more than 'Juicy' to the French government, who reserves the right to appoint only the most qualified fashion designers to a special council, Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Inductees must be invited, and only then may they operate with a couture business license, and show at Couture fashion week. The list is light on Americans, Ralph Rucci begin the only US designer still in business, but currently only showing Chado Ralph Rucci, the ready to wear line. Some names that you'd still recognize include Balenciaga, Alexis Mabille, Lanvin, and my personal favorite Giambattista Valli.
Couture is the product of an elevated set of skills, more difficult to master than the average fashion design process. My mentor, Michael Bevins, costume designer of Amazon's Alpha House, attended Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris, and gave me a few tid bits on his experience there.
Can you imagine going to school in a foreign language? I can't. But Michael, a graduate of FIT, moved to Paris, and jumped in whole heartedly to sharpen his skills.
One interesting difference was what we call a "French seam" they call "couture anglaise" or English stitch. The class consisted of getting a sketch from the instructor, which we would drape on a dress form in a "toile" or inexpensive muslin to get the desired shape. These muslins were then critiqued by the professor, and then unstitched and changed as necessary to use as a template. These muslin pieces became the pattern that was used to cut directly on the chosen fabric, instead of making paper patterns from the muslin as we do in the states. During the course of the semester, we draped approximately 16 garments.
Then, the most exciting part…
Once you finish the semester, you are responsible for finding an internship or "stage (stahgh)" at a couture fashion house for two months. I interviewed with Yves Saint Laurent and Jean Paul Gaultier, and was offered a place at YSL. That job was basically working in the design room translating the designer's sketch into a viable pattern. I had the choice of working in one of two departments, "tailleur" or "flou", which meant either tailored pieces or flowy pieces. I opted to work in the flou department. It was interesting to see the sewing tables with several women hand stitching elaborate evening gowns by hand with the majority of the gown tucked under one arm. A unique skill that is unfortunately dying out, as the majority of a couture garment is now stitched by machine with very little handwork. One of the perks of working at YSL was the ability to eat lunch at the "canteen", an upscale version of a cafeteria where you could choose from a daily variety of meals for just a few euros. There was always a buzz in the room when Yves and Pierre Berge would eat there.
Lunch with Yves and Pierre Berge in their Paris atelier… the stuff of fashion girl dreams…
After my time at YSL, I wanted to continue my education in Haute Couture, so I took a class at the venerable embroidery house Lesage. They are the embroiderers for all the couture houses, and I learned an immense amount on what goes into the embellishments on a couture garment. It is a very labor intensive process, where speed and dexterity as well as a delicate hand are coveted. When the 3 month course ended, we were invited to a private tour of their archives. Seeing the original swatches for designers like Dior and Schapareilli wrapped carefully in tissue, and handled wearing white gloves was a once in a lifetime experience. I was also able to have Monsiuer Lesage sign my copy of their book!
Michael's extensive and passionate couture education is what sets him apart from most costume designers. You can't tell this man not to custom make a Chanel suit by hand for a scene- he's gonna do it, and it's gonna look better than the $5,000 one in the store.
So remember ladies, just because it says 'Couture' doesn't mean it is… kind of like how it's 'sparkling wine' unless it's from Champagne, France. The damn French, so fancy and specific.