What actually is haute couture?

What actually is haute couture?

by Robyn Pullen
7 min

Scrolling through the comments under a TikTok we posted featuring Balenciaga’s Fall 2024 Haute Couture show in Paris a couple weeks ago, we found that opinions on the collection were… mixed. Whilst plenty of users left praise for the collection under our post, others commented things like “I don’t think I understand fashion” or claimed it simply wasn’t haute couture.

Part of the reason the show was met with such differing critiques is because its content wasn’t what we necessarily expect haute couture to look like. It replaced the typical sculptural gowns you’d see at Schiaparelli or refined tailoring found at Thom Browne with baggy jeans and oversized hoodies. So, we thought we’d clear things up: let’s take a deep dive into what haute couture actually is.

Peeling back Demna’s Haute Couture

After Balenciaga’s Fall 2024 Haute Couture show, one of the main features of the collection that people pointed to as evidence that “it’s not haute couture” were the oversized Gothic hoodies on the runway. You might be wondering: how can a hoodie be haute couture? As Balenciaga explained in its show notes, the graphics on the Gothic Hoodies seen on the runway aren’t printed: they’re hand-painted.

The brand worked with artist Abdelhak Benallou who used traditional oil paints to create the hyper-realistic Gothic artworks, taking around 70 hours in total. Benallou worked from actual photographs of models wearing Balenciaga clothing to meticulously make the artwork look as though it had been printed rather than painted, even going so far as to add cracks on the text as though the graphic was aged. So yeah, a hoodie can be haute couture.

Does Demna need to justify his designs?

Whilst Balenciaga used to only share the details behind its Haute Couture collections in lengthy press releases distributed after the shows, the brand now posts long descriptions explaining how the clothing is crafted on its website every season for everyone to see. Along with the prices of the pieces (which aren’t usually shared in Haute Couture), you can find paragraphs detailing precisely how each garment was made. From bracelets stitched using artisanal techniques from 1850, to gowns that take 200 hours to create, the brand now justifies its Haute Couture collections before anyone can raise an eyebrow. It seems that Balenciaga has had enough of having its Haute Couture designs questioned.

Bryan Boy’s take on Haute Couture

Backing Balenciaga against the need to justify every Haute Couture look, Bryan Boy took to Instagram last week to explain why the boxes we put haute couture designers in are so restrictive. As he said in his post: “It’s perfectly natural to have opinions about each collection — it’s a free world — but what irritates me the most like a crusty, itchy scab are people whose vision of what ‘haute couture’ should be is so rigid and narrow.” 

Demna’s Balenciaga is known for a style that’s been dubbed “street couture,” which subverts what we typically know haute couture to be, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. As Bryan Boy explains, “[Demna’s] taken what he could from the streets and everyday life, elevated and exaggerated them… And I fully respect that he’s taking ownership of his own handwriting and signature with strong conviction.”

“Prison” is the term that Bryan Boy used to describe the expectations designers are held to when it comes to haute couture, and honestly we find that pretty accurate. Why can’t t-shirts and gowns both live as forms of haute couture, as long as they’re both meticulously detailed and considerately designed? As he said last week, “There’s space for designers who want to send a hoodie just as there’s space for a designer who wants to send an internal organ churning corset.” 

Not all couture is built the same

If you look at the diversity of brands creating haute couture collections, even just at Paris’ Fall 2024 Haute Couture Fashion Week, you’ll see how starkly different they can be. Whilst some do follow a more traditional route, like Schiaparelli where Daniel Roseberry pulls on Elsa Schiaparelli’s archives to create sculptural gowns and art pieces, others are much more modern, like Viktor & Rolf which is intensely avant garde, or Dior which designs haute couture to be more wearable and timeless.

It’s not too hard to wrap your head around there being different styles of haute couture, but a lot of people get stuck on the price tag. Some brands just find it easier to justify the price of their haute couture collections, usually because their designs look like haute couture (or at least they look how we expect typical haute couture designs to look). On the other hand, Demna’s designs for Balenciaga take more justification because of their “street couture” aesthetic: he creates couture looks that are inspired by the everyday.

It’s easy to get het up on the price

One user who claimed in the comment section of @trussarchive’s post that, “you cannot justify a piece merely by it being made through a difficult process or using expensive materials” was met with the retaliation that their hot take was actually classist. In reaction to this, they asked: “is the appropriation of subcultures, mostly defined and pioneered by POC and then selling them for 35k+ not classism?” The reality is though, Balenciaga’s haute couture collections are in fact intensely detailed and painstakingly crafted which does justify the price, and (controversial opinion) it’s not classist for fashion to be expensive, because you don’t have to buy it.

At the end of the day, when it comes to high fashion, haute couture, and everything in between, we keep coming back to this conclusion. It’s a harsh narrative, but in fashion, it’s the truth. If it helps, maybe just think of haute couture as a form of art more than fashion and it’s easier to stomach. You might not like that that one art installation of a banana was valued at $120,000, but you also don’t have to buy it: haute couture is pretty much the same.

So, what is Haute Couture?

In our opinion, Bryan Boy is right: you can’t dictate so specifically what haute couture is based on your personal preference. But at the same time, brands should also be held responsible for seemingly “rage baiting” on the runway too. Whilst, in this case, we have to agree that the time, attention to detail, and level of craftsmanship that went into Balenciaga’s Fall 2024 Haute Couture collection does justify it being called “haute couture,” it’s a slippery slope that allows brands to increase the price of their collections with often less justification than Demna has given.

In a cost of living crisis, fashion that costs this much really should cost this much. If a client is expected to purchase a piece for upwards of $50,000, they should be able to trust that the materials, craft, hours, and care worth that sum have gone into its production. It feels like, as a society, we’re just getting less tolerant of brands that seem to be taking the piss, and more interested in haute couture that’s actually worth the title.

Featured image via Balenciaga©

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