The (not so) Secret World of Haute Couture

In the BBC documentary The Secret World of Haute Couture British filmmaker Margy Kinmonth flies from Paris to New York to California in search of the elusive ladies that make up the top secret haute couture club that attend the invite only couture shows across the world given by Chanel, Dior, YSL, etc. In this much talked about but little understood pocket of the fashion industry, there are strict unwritten rules for belonging to this exclusive shopping club. What are they and why is it all so hush hush? Margy asks why wealthy women are prepared to spend $100,000 on one dress? Is haute couture now an art form as valuable as any masterpiece?


I love my fashion. I really do, and this blog has given me such a wonderful avenue for talking about what I like and why I like it. This documentary, The Secret World of Haute Couture, was something else. It was beyond fashion and I guess that is the point of haute couture.

haute couture

ˌəʊt kʊˈtjʊə/
 noun  expensive, fashionable clothes produced by leading fashion houses.
Versace Haute Couture

Versace Haute Couture

In reality it means more to the ladies Margy seeks out. These items of clothing are unique. “I don’t want to be seen in something the entire US is wearing.” Says one lady. Another has a quarter of a million dollars worth of dresses, some worn once.
So what does it mean to be a house of couture? You learn in the documentary, after talking to Chanel’s Karl Largerfeld and Dior’s John Galliano that the couture shows push the envelope. They use fabrics, including some of the worlds rarest feathers in one dress, that make the clothes seen on the catwalk then tailored to the ladies look amazing. They are made my hand, sewed by expert seamstresses who work at an atelier, painstakingly reshaping the catwalk piece to the lady. And that is important, this is chance to have a piece spotted on the catwalk tailored uniquely to the individual. You don’t need the whole outfit, you can take parts then chop and change it. This costs, and I love the idea that, if you can fit in the dress worn by the pencil thin model on the catwalk you get the item for 30% of the asking price. But most are elderly ladies and more shapely than the models, so they pay, and they can, to have sleeves extended, waists taken out and features removed to allow a show piece to turn into the kind of gown you can wear to an embassy ball, or a royal gala.
Interestingly too, these are not the runway shows with the celeb du jour sitting in the front row. In fact, it is noted that the “club” looks very distastefully on the skinny actresses or wannabe’s pushing their way to the front (Penelope Cruz and VB were seen I think as this was mentioned). The ladies are the heirs to the Bloombingdale’s stores, the wife of the creator of Diners Club etc. They are old money. Haute Couture is no place for the nouveau riche.
House of Couture
To be a house of couture there are rules:
  • Design made-to-order for private clients, with one or more fittings.
  • Have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least fifteen staff members full-time.
  • Must have twenty, full-time technical people in at least one atelier (workshop).
  • Every season, present a collection of at least fifty original designs to the public, both day and evening garments, in January and July of each year.

And now the numbers are dwindling. In the hay day where were a hundred houses and shows but now the wives of the rich and famous can only chose from one of the following members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.

Official members

Adeline AndréGustavo Lins (fr)—ChanelChristian DiorChristophe JosseFranck SorbierGivenchyJean Paul GaultierMaurizio GalanteStéphane Rolland

Correspondent members (foreign)

Elie SaabGiorgio Armani— Giambattista ValliValentinoVersace

Guest members

Alexandre Vauthier (fr)—Bouchra Jarrar (fr)—Iris Van HerpenJulien FourniéMaxime SimoensYiqing Yin


BoucheronChanel JoaillerieChaumetDior JoaillerieVan Cleef & Arpels


Loulou de la FalaiseMassaroOn aura tout vu

The documentary itself is only 45 minutes long and spends a while with Margy trying to get an “in” into the circle of ladies who attend the shoes. There are only a few hundred of them and she needs to press and press until she gets what she wants. And these ladies love their couture. Some have hundreds of pieces and all are addicted. 

The designers too, Lagerfeld and Galliano, treat these ladies with discretion and respect and will not name them. Both use the doctor-patient analogy and their secret is safe with them. After all, these are some of the wealthiest women (or women married to some of the wealthiest men) in the world. And if they want to spend $100,000 on a dress they may wear once, then that is their business and why should the rest of the world, jealous as it would be, get to judge them?

Galliano does make a good point though, that what is seen in the haute couture show is fed back into the off the rack lines of clothing Dior and Chanel and YSL make. They may be toned down, or adjusted for mass consumption, but the concepts and idea filter down to the rest of us.

You can watch The Secret World of Couture here on Youtube and I highly recommend it.

But, all this being said, the exclusivity and cost, I was left wondering if I could ever own a piece of true haute couture, a “protected name” in France that is now misused a lot, so I went on eBay to see and was very happy with what I found.

1. NEW $9K GIVENCHY HAUTE COUTURE BLACK MINK RUNWAY VEST DRESS TOP JACKET even advertised as a VIP piece, and going for a mere£1600. Bargain.


2. 21st Century Paris Haute Couture Torrente Lalique Butterfly Gown Wedding Dress and then there was the from the Julien Fournie 2004 Runway show encrusted with Lalique Crystals, a snip at £10,000 or make an offer. (And you do get Free delivery)


3. The Authentic CHRISTIAN DIOR Haute Couture Leather Fur Short Jacket Coat M – L £599


4. And finally the BARACCI HAUTE COUTURE dress worn by Celebrity & Baywatch star Brande Roderick £1600 and modeled by her in the ad with Hugh Hefner.



What it looks like without the Baywatch star in it.




2 thoughts on “The (not so) Secret World of Haute Couture

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