Paris: What to know about Couture

Vintage Dior couture | Ritournelle

Vintage Dior couture | Ritournelle

By Jasmine Chorley Foster

Fall/Winter 2015 Couture week runs Sunday July 6th - Friday July 11th, and it differs greatly from the Ready-to-wear fashion weeks of Septmber and February. The designation of “haute couture” is protected by French law and the Chambre de commerce et d'industrie de Paris determines the criteria for couture. The rules are strict and the clothes are expensive, and putting the word “couture” in your brand name does not make a brand Couture – sorry, Juicy.

Ondria Hardin at Valentino Spring 2014 Couture | Yannis Vlamos / Indigitalimages.com

Ondria Hardin at Valentino Spring 2014 Couture | Yannis Vlamos / Indigitalimages.com

Modern couture shows are not staged for selling to buyers or clients, but rather to further the perception and understanding of the brand's image. There are only 10 official members of the Chambre: Adeline Andre, Gustavo Lins, Chanel, Christian Dior, Christophe Josse, Franck Sorbier, Givenchy, Jean Paul Gaultier, Maurizio Galante, and Stephane Rolland. In addition, there are Correspondent/Foreign, Guest, Jewelry, and Accessories members.

Since there are so few shows and the entire purpose is branding, along with the Ready-to-Wear (RTW) branch of the company being as prestigious, the pressure on models is very high indeed. Like the rationale of companies, the money isn’t the real reward for models. A new face will make a fraction more on a couture show than on a RTW show and the odds of actually booking a show are low. Couture is a high-risk investment trip.

Kati Nescher and Ashleigh Good as the now famous two brides with Hudson Kroenig at Chanel Spring 2013 Couture | Marcus Tondo 

Kati Nescher and Ashleigh Good as the now famous two brides with Hudson Kroenig at Chanel Spring 2013 Couture | Marcus Tondo 

Perhaps the most intimidating aspect of Couture is size, and it starts the moment you and your agent consider sending you out to Paris. Model Madison Schill remarked, “It's just made to be so intimidating, like from the beginning you're told you have to be the smallest you've ever been and if the dress doesn't fit you, you're out.” Another model agreed that the pressure to be thin was very high at Couture, but she felt that Ready-to-Wear wasn’t much better.

The pressure from agencies to be thin is almost and insurance plan: the reasoning being that a model can never be too thin for Couture. But once you arrive to your fitting, the reality is different. As one model recalled, “Once a dress was too big for me, and once a dress was too small. Both times I booked the job and the dress was altered.” If you’re a model signed with a Paris agency, the chance that you aren’t already small enough for Couture are slim – excuse the pun.

Casting for Couture is different from casting for RTW. One model recalled that personality and attitude is more valued in Couture, but also that there aren't many models who have the right look and the right personality, so “many designers simply take a certain look and omit personality altogether.”

A Canadian model noted that in Toronto she was encouraged to be friendly and outgoing, but in Paris they told her to be “less nice.” She recalled, “They asked me to be a little more uptight and almost aggressive - to a degree. I don’t think I personally ever got there but I still had success with castings.”

Due to the craftsmanship surrounding couture, it can feel a lot more exciting for models, and less like a grind. You get to work more closely with designers and what you experience feels more like art than commerce. One model said, “I believe both seasons were rewarding, however, the elegance of some of the outfits for Haute Couture did give it an edge over RTW.”

While the ideal Couture model is thin and tall, very unique features are what helps a new face capture a casting director’s eye. One model notes, “standard pretty didn’t seem to go very far unless you were a top model.”

More over, she emphasizes that Couture models must be mentally tough. Couture castings are numerous, the days are very long, you travel to all points of the city, and you compete with hundred and hundreds of girls for very few shows in one short week. Since the actual duration of a season is much shorter, the likelihood of girls booking multiple shows is very low. For a debut season, getting just one show is notable.

Do you really have to worry about size? Model Madison Schill recalls, “[I was] made to believe it one hundred percent,” but she insists, “Models coming into this show season should be invested in that [creative] side of it, not worrying that they aren't small enough. Just be radiant. That's couture.”

A special thanks to all the models who assisted in this piece, anonymous and named.

Cover photo image: Laura Vermeulen at Ellie Saab Couture Spring 2011 via FMD

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