Couture. It’s one of those French words Americans love to use often, even if incorrectly. Yes, couture refers to fancy clothes that are made-to-measure — the word is thrown around a lot during red-carpet season — but the French use it much more stringently. In fact, in order to even be able to use the term, a design house must meet rigorous and unyielding criteria by a centuries-old federation (FHCM) that is bien passionate about a French tradition of custom, innovative, and super-refined “dressmaking.”
Each January and July during Haute Couture Week, a newly-confirmed class of couture houses show their high-fashion pieces in runway presentations for editors and clientele at some of the most Instagram-worthy locations across Paris. Familiar names including Chanel, Dior, and Jean Paul Gaultier present along with lesser known houses such as Maurizio Galante and Alexis Mabille.
There is even a foreign contingent, non-French houses who get the French approval to show. Giorgio Armani, Fendi, Valentino, and Versace have long managed to maintain their spots alongside their Parisian counterparts, as well as more obscure guest members such as Aganovich and Xuan.
Each of these houses must demonstrate that they make made-to-order designs for actual clients, employ at least 15 full-time staff and have at least 20 full-time technical people in a Paris atelier, and show a minimum of 50 pieces every season. Pieces must show an incorporation and mastery of handiwork, or “métier," the crafts of artisans who specialize in things like embroidery, lacework, feathers, and button-making.