Fashion Department guest blog - Haute Couture’s Critical Juncture and Slow Decline

By on September 9, 2015

Haute Couture’s Critical Juncture and Slow Decline

Donna-Marie Cecere, Chair of Bay State College's Fashion Design and Merchandising department

For all of its glamour and sometimes playful visage fashion is a significant and powerful force in our lives.  Dress is an integral part of our interaction with others who in turn react to us via verbal and non-verbal assessment of what we wear.  It is the first impression one makes when encountering another individual that makes a statement by suggesting our personality and interests (Damhorsy, Miller-Spillman, & Michelman, 1999).  Yet according to Teri Agins (2000), author of The End of Fashion and senior special writer at the Wall Street Journal, fashion is “transient and intangible”. It is a target that is in continuous fluctuation, one that is endlessly searching for the next big break (p.8).  Agins continues to describe haute couture as the pinnacle of fashion and believes that up until recently has been at the top of its “proverbial game” (p.9).

 It was during the reign of the Bonapartes in France that luxurious fashion as we know it today was born.  Many of the haute couture brands that we idolize today, such as Louis Vuitton and Hermes, came into being during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were founded by humble artisans who created gorgeous garments for the royal courts.  With the advent of the industrial revolution and the rise of the American aristocrats such as the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers, haute couture designers found another wealthy avenue in which to travel and that was the avenue of the American elite social circles.  At this point in time luxury was not just a product but a tradition. It was an expected and integral part of the upper-class life.  It was within this realm that haute couture stayed until the youth quake of the sixties (Thomas, 2007).

The sixties brought teenagers into the fashion scene which represented a new customer demographic. Teens, the descendants of the post-war baby boomers, now made up a greater percentage of the economic demographics than ever before; they had disposable income and the power in numbers to influence a whole new attitude toward haute couture.  Luxury and haute couture were officially out of fashion. Youth considered haute couture to be “dowdy and antiquated with no relevance to the modern day woman” (MacKenzie, 2010, p. 64).

This culture changed the entire fashion system as inspiration came from the streets as it trickled up into the older generations and not down as it had for many previous years. It could no longer be dictated to the masses by the elite. By the mid-nineties the influential upper class had lost the ability to dictate trends. The roles have been reversed and the “power belongs to the consumer who is king” (Agins, 2000, p. 8).  The haute couture market today continues on its downward spiral. During the seventies haute couture hosted approximately one hundred ateliers (houses) on their official list. Today only eleven remain (MacKenzie, 2010). 

Haute Couture’s Struggle for Power

What have the couturiers done to counteract these new thoughts toward fashion? 

Today we can see that the commercialization of haute couture has worked for the masses. Luxury is now available to anyone, anywhere, at any price point.  The fashion industry has become a tug-of-war between stakeholders and designers who wield their hard and soft powers with both sides desiring control.  Stakeholders hold the power of their position of strategic decision making due to their monetary contributions to the industry while the designers with the magnetism authority create and brand products which entices the masses to follow (Thomas, 2007; Nohria & Khurana, 2010) .

  Max Weber identified three types of authority power:  traditional authority, rational authority, and charismatic authority when he asked the question a century ago of why individuals or the masses follow or conform (Nohria & Khurana, 2010).  With the preceding information one can gather that the traditional authority in the fashion industry is held by the designers.

Under traditional authority those in command have received a transition of power from a predecessor.  This traditional process is likened to a king’s successor to the throne. Many of the current fashion ateliers have had many successors and built their empires on years of growing and managing their ateliers who were once owned by famous haute couture designers such as Channel, Dior, and Lavin.  This traditional authority, considered a hard power, has been earned by the designers via their contribution of years of service through diligent creative work and branding themselves as well as their products.  Unfortunately most of the haute couture fashion houses still in business today encounter serious financial challenges due to cost of producing two fashion shows per year and maintaining their ateliers in France.  As a result of their financial woes many couturiers have gone public or sold their houses (businesses) and the goodwill value of their names to corporations and thus created an opportunity for rational authority (Nohria & Khurana, 2010; Thomas, 2007). 

Dana Thomas (2007) has carefully chronicled in her book, Deluxe, how luxury lost its luster the idea that the corporate tycoons and financiers saw the potential as they invaded and seized control of couture companies from their elderly founders or incapable successors.  The mission was to turn the houses into brands and keep a consistent image throughout the company, using everything from the store displays to the products that created the allure of a special lifestyle for their new target audience. The target was the middle class. The central idea was to equalize luxury and make it accessible for all classes. Thomas (2007) states, “it all sounded so noble, heck it sounded almost communist.  But it wasn’t.  It was capitalist as could be: the goal, plain and simple, was to make as much money as heavenly possible” (p. 9).

The message is clear; buy our brand and you too can live the life of luxury. The haute couture designers thought this was the answer to their prayers but soon discovered major luxury corporations such as LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) were not concerned with the creative process. The luxury moguls were interested in one thing, profits (Agins, 2000).  Tom Ford, former Gucci head designer (as cited in Thomas, 2007), is quoted as saying,

the shareholders want to see profits every three months, so it forces you to change the way you do business and be aware of how you are spending and where it is going, a far cry from working on innovative designs. (p. 11)

Under rational authority, considered a hard power, corporate leaders are followed due to their possession of the position of president or director.  That president comes into power due to their proven track record of success in a particular domain (Nohria & Khurana, 2010).  In this instance Bernard Arnault holds that position as the Chairman of LVMH, one of the most profitable and successful fashion corporations.  As a leader in fashion business Arnault concentrates on and trusts the timelessness of long standing brand images. He understands that few people can create a legend from scratch and buying into an existing story secures the future of the myth.  Arnault honors the company’s heritage and then hires a hip young new designer to give the brand a sexy modern edge. This strengthens and streamlines the brand name (Thomas, 2007).  Arnault, stated it perfectly (as cited in Thomas, 2007) “what I do is transform creativity into profitability…it is what I like the most” (p. 13).  All of this “fulfills a fantasy, so unique you want to buy into it or you won’t be in the moment and will be left behind” as a consumer (Thomas, 2007, p. 41).

The current brand builders have established a new plan of advertising, the products that will flourish in the future will be the ones not offered to become one’s property but as goods that articulate an experience or lifestyle (Klein, 2009).  As L. Aldisert once said “Branding is not about getting your consumer to choose you over the competition.  It is about getting them to see you as the only solution” (as cited in Okonkwo, 2010, p.102).  This is where the designers hold the soft power of charisma. 

Haute Couture designers within the past ten years have gradually come down to earth to fraternize with the commoners.  Through their branding they have appeared more accessible and more affordable to the mass-market even if it is in spirit only. Consumers are feeling a personal connection to Prada, Dior, and Vuitton in way they never have before through the power of branding, “it’s the heritage that makes customers daydream and the want to be a part of it” (Tungate, 2008, p. 26).  This is charisma authority at its best as Weber describes, it is the power of the person (Nohria & Khurana, 2010).