Haute Couture for All: The Democratization of Haute Couture through Diversity

Olivia Shu / Daily Nexus

What does it mean to be modern? Does fashion consist of those tacky Supreme hoodies? A new Louis Vuitton collection? Thrifty jackets and jeans with suspicious stains?

As a society, we are getting closer to understanding what truly makes someone fashionable. The fashion industry is rooted in elitism and exclusion – it’s for and by rich, white, thin, able-bodied people. As we move into a new era of high fashion, the industry should reposition itself as something for everyone and every body. The industry should strive to bring in new ideas and perspectives from designers and models who can bring something fresh and new, but also embrace diversity as a standard going forward to avoid tokenization and performative representation.

The fashion industry has held the public consciousness for centuries, and now it is especially widespread. These days, fashion month is an event that’s televised, tweeted, and advertised around the world, and suddenly, everyone has an opinion about Heaven by Marc Jacobs and how that dress really doesn’t follow the Schiaparelli house rules. I’m an avid high fashion consumer (Visual. I’m a student. Please disabuse yourself of the idea that I own any of the clothes I’m talking about) and I think these conversations represent the positive in high fashion and haute couture in particular.

To understand any cultural movement, we need to see where we started. In the early 1860s, Charles Frederick Worth started the first “haute couture” house., which in this case refers to any fashion company that meets an exhaustive set of requirements set by the statutory governing body Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. Worth began his career as a court decorator for the Empress of France and was known for his unique, one-of-a-kind designs, tailored specifically to one person. It earned the title of the first house of high fashion thanks to aggressive self-promotion in fashion magazines, which shows the incredibly problematic foundations of high fashion.

The value of haute couture comes from its exclusionary aspect – a garment is something for you and only you. The fact that other people can’t have it and never will is what drives value. At its core, haute couture is a white industry. It is regulated by the French, all four plays are in Europe or the US, and the creative directors are overwhelmingly white.

This concept of haute couture developed into an industry built around a very specific clientele: the rich, thin, white women of Paris, London, New York and Milan. You just have to look Dior collections in the late 1940s: bar jackets with narrow waists and massive hips, A-line dresses with grossly exaggerated hourglass figures, and dresses covered in such exaggerated embroidery and beading that they looked heavier than the models walking the runway. It can be said that it is an artistic aspect of fashion, a game with proportion, but even more, the extreme aesthetics of these clothes are both an inspiration and a reflection of the customers’ taste. The shapes and silhouettes popularized in these collections ultimately set tiny waists and rounded hips as the standard and highest form of fashion. The aesthetics of these garments also reflect the fact that the target market reflects the designer and his idea of ​​beauty.

Fashion is an archive of culture and we can see that the foundation of high fashion is sewn from exclusive, Eurocentric standards.

One of the most notable BIPOC designers in recent times was Ann Lowe, who designed Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress in 1953. Despite big-money clients and an alleged rags-to-riches story—from dressmaker’s daughter to designer—Lowe is still an industry icon. switching off. She never designed a house (despite Christian Dior’s love for her work), and at the height of her career she was penniless as wealthy clients took advantage of her blackness to underpay her for her designs. Excluding other creatives is how the industry controls the narrative of high fashion, what is fashionable and who can wear it.

Very the first week of fashion it happened in 1943 in the midst of World War II. As French designers could not show their creations, American designers gathered in New York for a showcase and started the fashion month tradition. Today, the fashion month rises on a knife edge between art exhibitions and overblown marketing strategy. In reality it is both.

Fashion month is a marketing strategy because it exposes clothing items to potential clients and builds on the exclusionary aspect – it divides people into viewers and clients. It is the clients who buy the garments and the spectators who watch. Value for clients comes from people who want but can’t have and those who are excluded from the industry for various reasons. This leads to the central message of the industry: you have to be rich to be fashionable. Typically, the people who have the money to buy this and the motivation are not BIPOC, and this leads to a lack of diversity in creation and consumption.

Diversity in high fashion is a conversation going on right now, but that’s all it is, a conversation. IN reports from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Glamour, talks about how fashion needs to be diversified, how bringing women, BIPOC and LGBTQ people to the boards brings commercial success. When we see brands promise diversity in fashion, it can seem performative. So far, only one creative director of the “top 10” haute couture houses is colored: Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing.

When models like Adut Akech, Ashley Graham, Aaron Rose Philip or Alton Mason walk in shows, it may seem like fashion is moving in the right direction, but when I think about how high fashion shows are built on showing people what they can’t have, models of color and those with different body types seem like a far-fetched fantasy intended to appease the general public. In reality, the clientele of these houses is still incredibly white and rich – the average haute couture wedding dress from Chanel comes from 100,000 – 250,000 dollars. Creative directors and boards are also overwhelmingly white, and since they are the ones who ultimately lead and represent the brand, it doesn’t seem like real change is happening anywhere.

Diversity in fashion is something that is deeply needed, for a variety of reasons, and it needs to happen now. This means that people of all identities must be involved on both sides of the exchange — creation and consumption.

One of the most controversial issues in fashion is “slow fashion” versus “fast fashion”. The concept of ethical clothing consumption is one that surrounds the industry, especially with the prevalence of social media, SHEIN brands and the thrift renaissance. How we progress in society and how we ethically consume slow fashion drives high fashion. With a prevailing consumption ethic of “more is more”, the democratization of high fashion is a step forward towards a more sustainable form of fashion consumption. Haute couture is built around the notion of individual quality and tailoring and is a consumer ethic of “quality over quantity”. Clients buy maybe one or two pieces a year, but these pieces are extremely well made and can be passed down through the generations. By finding a compromise between the two, consumers can buy pieces that are made to last in smaller quantities and can find the sweet spot between a SHEIN collection and a quarter-million dollar wedding dress.

A key ingredient to bringing haute couture closer to the people and addressing the issue as an industry built on exclusion shifts to inclusion is diversity. By bringing designers of color, different body types, sexual orientations, gender identities, and other identities into the fold of fashion, the industry can reposition itself as an industry for everyone. Where the industry is right now is performative, where different models and creatives feel like figures. There is a gap between true creative control and representation for performance purposes. In order not to feel performative, we need to see new houses and independent designers gaining the name of haute couture houses and a more diverse clientele. People like to stare at Loewe anthurium dresses or Schiaparelli lung necklacebut being able to buy those items is another matter entirely.

How does diversity democratize high fashion?

From an economic standpoint, we can see an influx of brands led by people of color entering the market and giving high fashion houses a run for their money. Designers such as Thebe Magugu, Prabal Gurung and Guo Pei use their unique cultures and experiences to bring new perspectives to the fashion industry. Compared to the latest Dior or Chanel collections, they seem new and innovative, while established houses rely on existing conventions and house codes (certain brand characteristics, ranging from colors, materials and logos) to sell clothes. However, true affordability comes from a diverse set of brands that exist in the price range between fast fashion and haute couture.

In the spirit of brands like Reformation where sustainability and quality are reflected in the price, I see a proliferation of diverse and innovative haute couture brands expanding the markets of their ready-to-wear collections while still maintaining a haute couture presence and catering to an extremely affluent clientele. In the spirit of Miranda Priestly’s famous “bright speech” from the movie “The Devil Wears Prada”, haute couture inspires other brands both creatively and commercially, and by introducing more diverse perspectives at the head of haute couture houses, inspires other brands to create more sustainably and change their business practices.

While Chanel will never get rid of the tweed skirt, and Yves Saint Laurent will never give up pussybow blouse, facing competition from new designers will force them to innovate within the conventions of their house. New designers will also bring more customers into the industry, as young celebrities and socialites don’t want to look like they’ve been dressed by a 60-year-old French woman.

Increased competition and cultural identification allows fashion to shift to an inclusive way, where value comes from the amount of people who wear your clothes, not the people who don’t. To realize this dream, where people feel included and the consumption ethic shifts to quality over quantity, we need to include the frameworks for color designer success.

Honestly, I think it’s already happening. Social media has allowed designers to skyrocket in popularity and undermine traditional ways of being in the high fashion space, and collaborations between established houses and new ones are also allowing new designers to enter an industry that has historically excluded them. (Magugu x Valentino is especially gorgeous). Consumers are also finally starting to realize that just because an item of clothing is Supreme doesn’t mean it’s cute, and they’re moving towards genuinely good design instead of intense brand loyalty.

We can use fashion as a cultural driver for a more sustainable and ethical form of consumption by advocating diversity, as diversity forces fashion houses to compete and evolve beyond traditional ways of consumption and onto new paths.

Because fashion is something so fundamental to culture and self-expression, it has the ability to shape things far beyond the best-dressed list. We can use fashion as a cultural driver for a more sustainable and ethical form of consumption by advocating diversity, as diversity forces fashion houses to compete and evolve beyond traditional ways of consumption and onto new paths.

I believe that subversiveness and continuous pushing of the latest fashion entity will lead us to a world where fashion finally becomes something for everyone.

Suryaansh Dongre thinks fashion still has a long way to go, but he hopes to get there before he dies – only after he has enough money to afford vintage Issey Miyake.

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