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October 21, 2014
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Illustration by Shingo Shimizu.

Thick and smooth like slabs of chocolate, and promising just as much delight, most of the invitations arrived to my Paris address by post. But Donatella upped the game, and sent hers hand-delivered via a delicious male model, who courteously asked me to sign a confirmation of receipt. Paris haute couture week was on. 

From Elie Saab's Haute Couture
F/W 2012-13 collection.
Source: Vogue Italia.

That same week, on an unusually cold and rainy summer's day, I walked down Boulevard St Germain to find throngs of students pouring out of the Sorbonne to cheer on the new French President as he made his way to his new office. The irony of the new Socialist President's inauguration happening within weeks of the world's most expensive - and exquisite - fashion event, shown to a tiny minority of journalists, buyers and celebrities didn't escape me. Were my peers and I living in a bubble, blinded by reality by the obsessive focus of our work, or was couture still relevant?

Certainly, the economics of couture are far from bullish. Even when sales from a show are high, the designer will not necessarily make money. With metres of the finest fabrics, tens of thousands of sequins, pearls or beads, dozens of trained ateliers, embroiderers, pattern cutters and lace makers spending hundreds of hours stitching, it is easy to justify the astronomical price of a dress (generally comparable to that of a small car, or if the materials are especially rare, a large flat). But it's also easy to imagine the low profit margins: with costs so high, profits are understandably low. Which begs the question: why bother?

Well, mainly, it's the prestige of being granted haute couture status. Designers are closely regulated by the official registering body for couture designers, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. The Chambre determines which fashion houses may be eligible to use the label "haute couture," and deals with issues of style piracy and co-ordination of runway schedules.

In order to gain entry into the haute couture inner sanctum and thus use the label in advertising or any other way, a maison must adhere to an number of rules, including designing made-to-order clothing for private clients and having a workshop in Paris that employs a certain number of technical craftsmen. The prestige granted by couture status is then conferred to the design house's other, more profitable creations. In short, designers use couture as a marketing device for their diffusion ranges: perfumes, accessories and ready-to-wear.

As Bernard Arnault, head of LVMH group, which owns Dior and Givenchy amongst other luxury labels, explained in an interview with London's Telegraph: "Haute couture is what gives our business its essential essence of luxury. The cash it soaks up is largely irrelevant. Set against the money we lose has to be the value of the image couture gives us. Look at the attention the collections attract. It is where you get noticed. You have to be there. It's where we set our ideas in motion."

Whilst haute accreditation and prestige is granted through traditional legal channels in the Old World, this scenario is slightly different in new markets. Rich with royalty and still gushing oil money, the demand for haute couture ranges in the Middle East, for example, is high.

Whilst haute accreditation and prestige is granted through traditional legal channels in the Old World, this scenario is slightly different in new markets. Rich with royalty and still gushing oil money, the demand for haute couture ranges in the Middle East, for example, is high. Despite the fact that the Arab, Chinese and Russian nouveau riche comprise a large portion of the big European maison's clients, many of these women prefer to order dresses from local houses that cater to regional tastes. 

Diala Makki, a television presenter in Dubai, for example, told me it was essential for her to buy couture for red carpet events, but due to time constraints and personal preference, she tends to wear local designers' creations, such as those of Rami al Ali, who dresses her often and considers her his muse. She loves her frequent fittings in his Dubai-based studio because "there is something so special about having a dress made to fit. It acts like a glove, fitting me perfectly in every way. Of course, the fact that it was especially made for me and is the only piece of its kind makes it well worth the purchase."

Like many designers in Dubai, al Ali is foreign (hailing from Syria) and expends a great amount of his focus on couture. He explained why in an interview: "I feel that couture is where each designer's identity lies, as the scope for creativity and versatility is much more open than the ready-to-wear designs. I do appreciate that there is a demand for prêt-à-porter, though, so I'm definitely looking to launch a range soon, but couture will always be the founding style of the Rami al Ali house."

Michael Cinco is another unaccredited couture designer who was born outside the Gulf (in the Philippines). He believes Dubai is perfect for couturiers due to the abundant talent of locally-based (mainly Indian) pattern-makers, dressmakers, embroiderers, beaders and finishers, all of whom come much cheaper than they would in Europe.

Cinco and al Ali do not adhere to the strict rules of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, and are therefore not considered true couture designers by the Chambre; unofficially, however, they are certainly perceived as couturiers by those who count: the buyers. "Most of my clients are women from the UAE and the neighbouring Gulf region. Dubai has given me the opportunity to grow and build my brand, which is now slowly becoming recognised internationally," Cinco says. Key to this international recognition was Tyra Banks, who hired him to design eco-couture creations for America's Next Top Model

The popularity of other designers based in the Middle East is also spreading: Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad are already well-established couturiers, while Rami al Ali, Aiisha Ramadan and Furne Amato are all on their way to global success. They have already dressed many high profile celebrities for the red carpet, music videos and television, and have also created some rather elaborate wedding dresses. In fact, due to marriage being almost compulsory in the Gulf and China, this has proven to be a rather lucrative market for couture designers. After all, weddings are not only an ostentatious opportunity for the bride, but for guests as well. 

Dubai-based designer, Rami al Ali is gaining
attention around the world for his couture creations.
Source: Nowfashion.com.

Still, despite their penchant for "unofficial" haute couture, Arabs still continue to buy European designs as well. At times, they're even buying the whole company. Valentino was recently bought by Mayhoola for Investments, an investment company (reportedly owned by the Qatari royal family). The Qataris also own Harrods in London, as well as shares in Tiffany & Co and a small stake in LVMH. However, these types of buyouts run two ways; ambitious, emerging luxury brands in status-conscious China, for example, are being snapped up by European companies. Shang Xia, a Chinese apparel and lifestyle brand, is backed by Hermès, and Shanghai Tang is just one of many foreign labels bought by the Swiss Richemont group, which also owns Cartier and Chloe.

Perhaps the most important point here is that due to the association of couture with luxury, the question is not whether couture is relevant, but whether luxury brands are. The Qataris are renowned for their savvy investments, so their purchase of Valentino bodes well for the industry as a whole. On a smaller scale, as anyone who has purchased a minor item from a major house can attest to, whether it's a $100 perfume, a $1,000 bag, or even a gold embossed, hand-delivered invitation, the concept of couture undoubtedly adds to a label's allure. And that's what really counts.

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