The House of Tatterdemalion

Unfashionable, unskilled, inexpensive--but still sewing.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Couture, considered IV: What next?

Surprise, surprise (not), the couture houses are dwindling. There is a smaller and smaller market for hand beading, hand sewing, hand overcasting, expensive, extravagant dresses. Why? And what next?

The "why" is easy. Why is because you have to make an argument for hand-sewing. Why is because what is "in" and "stylish" is changing so quickly. Why is because you still have to fly out to Paris to get it. Why is because a lot of people don't know what couture is. Why is because the houses are known for their style, not their fit or construction, or unconditional guarantees. Why is because extravagant dresses are rarely applicable to current situations.

What next is trickier. If you want to know what they are doing, you could read this article at the NY Times. The short story is that they are consolidating, and that many of them are rolling out high end RTW as their main sources of income.

But personally, I don't think that's the way to go. I don't think hand sewing has to be done away with, or watered down. I think it just has to adapt to it's new environment. In essence, haute couture has to loose it's haute to survive--no more Paris regulations, no more unending extravagance and opulence. (Unfortunately, the word "couture", by itself, has already been high-jacked, so they would have to come up with a new word, preferably something easy to pronounce. . .)

I find it full of irony that back in the middle ages, everything was made to fit, and only the poor bought second hand clothes that came in someone else size. Here we are, with all our advanced technology, food from every corner of the world at our finger tips, and we all scrounge around trying to find "our" size, like peasants in clothing stall. We can mass produce fabric and fibers, but everyone is wearing clothes that don't fit them. Back then, you could have your own personal dress-maker, and embroiderer, and lace-maker, and hat maker, and goodness knows what else. Your style was your style--you told them what to do, not some high flutin' designer.

I think this is what couture needs to do now. Not stay in Paris and make people come--go out and find people who want what they do. Not set fashions and trends--they change too quickly for people to make an investment in them. Leave trends for the mass producers to change at the drop of a hat. Not become ready-to-wear, not make even one more not-my-size garment, but custom size to individuals. There are professional shoppers popping up, existing to do nothing more than help people find clothes that flatter them among the mighty ocean of choices. Who knows that the same service is part of a couture garment? People have too many choices, and not enough of them are pleasant. Women stand in front of closets full of clothes and wail, "I have nothing to wear!!"

This is where couture ought to come in. Right now, it's all about fancy ball gowns. But how much do you suppose someone would pay for a pair of jeans that fits and flatters? What? They already have designer jeans, paying $700 for the privilege of buying abused jeans, and then they have to pay astronomical prices to get the darn things altered enough to fit them half way decently. Why not start out from the beginning and get it right the first time? Hand top-stitching is even more unique and appealing than machine top-stitching. Jeans go everywhere. Everyone wants them.

How much do you suppose the would pay for a swimsuit that fits and flatters? Talk about exclusive, she'd probably be the only woman on the beach that felt that way about her suit!

The perfect wrap top, that didn't gap? The "little-black-dress", that was uniquely hers, that was perfect for any situation? For having a closet full of clothes that makes people say "How lovely you look!" every time she wears them? For clothes that were timeless and classic, and withstood the raging whirlwinds of fashion?

They do say, you know, that you can't put a price on happiness.

I'm sure it must sound ludicrous to most people, to have your "special" clothes be your ordinary clothes, and your "ordinary" clothes to be special. Custom made jeans, and run-of-a-hundred-mills fashion items. Fashion might once have been "dictated" by the couture houses, but not any more. Fashion changes too quickly. Fashions are fads, fads are fashions. Couture ought to be supplying those staples that don't change, the timeless clothes they don't need to get rid of because they're "dated". Couture ought be to giving people the comfort and fit they can't find in fads. Couture ought to be making the every day life more pleasant.

The problem is that the people with the money and the inclination to buy such things either don't know that it could ever be--or what exactly, it would be. "Couture" doesn't cross their mind, because they aren't that "fancy". Custom designed, custom fitted, and high workmanship--these things might. But most people don't realize what they're missing. It's not until they have something that fits them perfectly that they realize how poorly everything else fits. It's not until someone shows them what couture can be that they'll want it. (How's that for classic advertising--the thing you never knew existed, but desperately needed, that you now can't live without!!)

I'm not saying that they would need to totally get rid of the temperamental designers and their extravagant creations--just that those two things need to take a back seat to reality. There will always be a place in for fancy opulent dresses. . . once or twice a lifetime. Couture can't sustain itself on that any longer, but reality changing doesn't mean you need to get rid of those skills, just that those skills need to adapt to a new reality. Of course, there are those that would say if it isn't about extravagant designs and temperamental designers, it's not couture. Fine, then. It's not couture. Let's ditch couture, and bring in whatever it is that makes top quality clothes that are relevant to your comfort, your style, your body and your life.


Blogger Tatterdemalion said...

Huh. Guess Blogger uses the date you start a piece, not the date you publish it. Trust me, this wasn't finished and published till Febuary 26.

7:53 PM  
Anonymous Jesse said...

Actually, this part about going back to the way things were made in the middle ages (everything tailor made) is beginning to happen again, as well. There is a "new" concept in manufacturing called Mass Customization; you may have heard about it in business school. Basic Idea, like Burger King: Your Way, Right Away. There is the idea that a laser can be created to read your measurements almost instantly, transfer them to a computer and a custom pattern will be made, and your clothing created from that. That's probably more or less science fiction at this point in time for a mass market, but our technology is becoming more capable (if not already) for mass, econonmical production of the sort. Consider that on Target's website, you can order khaki or dress pants and a shirt, all with your customized measurements (at least for the 'fellas). And, there are innummerable tailors from Asia who have websites whereby you enter in about 35 different measurements from them to make a custom garment (suit, shirt, etc) for you. There are even some tailors who visit where I live, near Chicago, on a regular basis from countries like the U.K. and also in Asia, tailors visit to take measurements and make custom clothes - as you probably already know.

6:47 PM  
Blogger Tatterdemalion said...


Thanks for commenting!

I do know that, in fact, "tailor made" had never truly died--for the right price, you could (and can, and will) get it. The only point was that back then "most" were custom made, and now "most" aren't. Personally, I'd be glad to see "most" return to being custom made.

I have heard of the laser measurments; and when I first found out about them, I was quite excited. However, though they aren't quite science fiction, the technology is certainly not. . .shall we say, up to speed. I've heard more horror stories than I care to count about "Unique Body Scanner" patterns that wound up being disasters for those that tried them.

I never knew before about Target's made to order before; have you ever tried it? (I see the do have some stuff for women as well.) I did notice that little tiny disclaimer "In a rare instances, certain body proportions may fall outside our manufacturing capabilities. In the unlikely event we cannot fulfill your fit request, we will contact you by e-mail." I'm a bit wary of this, if I think if it as a promise to fit perfectly, but as an alternative to the dreadful "standard" sizing already out there, it is certainly a great improvement.

The fact they don't use measurments, but instead the generalized "how-does-it-look", while much more accessible to the common customer (which is appropriate, because that is who they are marketing to), can only manage an approximation of fit as well. Without measurments, they're doing nothing more than taking an educated guess. Which is certianly better than nothing, but not my ideal form of "custom made".

If, in an ideal world, custom tailoring or dressmaking made a large comeback, the rules of supply and demand would drop the prices. There are relatively few people still in tailoring or dress making as a living (in the US)--and most are for special occasions (e.g. bridal wear, etc.). The fact that there are so few with the necessary skills to even make custom made clothes already drives up the price. I am not by any means planning on paying Saville Row prices just to get something that fits me decent. I have neither that kind of money nor that kind of lifestyle.

So it's not that I don't think that custom sewing exists. . .it's just not as prominent as I'd like it to be. Having a custom clothier in most malls, perhaps even a national chain of custom clotheirs, would be much nicer. And I don't particularly care whether they measure by laser or old fashioned fiber-glass tape measures, as long as the measurements are accuarte and the garment fits. (And, as I mentioned above, the average consumer can rarely take accurate measurments of themselves, which is what makes getting properly measured as important (maybe even more) as getting someone willing to sew it.)

Still, I am apt to get tunnel vision whilst ranting and raving, and see only the one thing I'm currently talking about. ;)

9:31 PM  
Blogger Crazy Smith said...

I agree with you Tatterdemalion.
I think tailored clothing is going to make a comeback. In fact, all things custom, whether it be clothing or TV channels, are going to become increasingly popular, methinks ;-)

10:12 PM  
Blogger Tatterdemalion said...

Well, honesty compels me to point out that I don't actually think that it will come back. I just think it ought to. If it does, it'll be a pleasant surprise.

7:07 PM  

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