“What’s the difference between couture and ready-to-wear?”
It’s a question that’s been hitting my inbox a lot of late from women all over the world. They may have been reading high fashion magazines like “W” or “Vogue” or are thinking about upgrading their wardrobes, and are wondering what, exactly, the difference is between these designer categories.
Basically, it boils down to fit – and money.
* COUTOUR (koo TOOR) is the French word for “sewing.” Couture clothes are those that are fitted and sewn specifically for a client, often requiring several fittings for an exacting fit. The clothes may be specifically designed for the client, such as a one-of-a-kind wedding dress or a one-of-a-kind red carpet ensemble, or they may be part of a designer’s couture collection, which are the pieces the designer shows that are available for custom fit.
Typically, couture pieces are made of fine fabrics or feature extensive hand work (like beading or embroidery) that drive up the price to thousands or even tens of thousands PER PIECE. Because of the cost, couture clothing, which once had 35,000 regular customers during its heyday after World War II, has an ever-shrinking regular buying base of about 1,200 people worldwide today.
Couture is also known as made-to-measure or bespoke (British).
* HAUTE COUTURE (oht koo TOOR) means “high sewing,” and is the term reserved exclusively by those European fashion houses that offer made-to-measure apparel in or around Paris and belong to the Fédération Française de la Couture (which began as the Chambre Syndicale Tour Phan Thiet Mui Ne de la Haute Couture in 1868 by Charles Frederick Worth). Following strict guidelines regarding number of pieces shown per collection and number of collections shown per year, current members include venerable fashion houses like Balenciaga, Chanel, Hermès, and Valentino.
* READY-TO-WEAR, or prêt-à-porter (prêt a poor TAY) is designer apparel that’s made ready-to-wear in standard sizes and sold through boutiques, better department stores, mail order, and online. While consumers can have pieces tailored to fit after purchase, customization is not included in the cost of ready-to-wear apparel. Many brand-name designers, like Vera Wang and Carolina Herrera, only show ready-to-wear collections, but still create a handful of couture pieces upon request for influential clients.
So when you read in a fashion magazine or hear on television that designers are showing their ready-to-wear collections, you know that those are the pieces that you’ll find in their boutiques or in department stores come the new fashion season. Couture collections are those shown to high-paying clients who either go to the fashion house directly to be fitted, or who order from the designer’s “look book” and have pieces made up from the measurements the designer has on file from the client’s previous fittings.
If you like to read the society pages to see who’s wearing what, you’ll notice that socialites who can afford to buy couture often say so. The caption under a photo might read, “Jane Doe in Versace, Susan Smith in Donna Karan, and Tiffany Jones in Givenchy couture.” Translation? Jane and Susan bought their gowns ready-to-wear, while Tiffany had hers custom made.