One of the things I did earlier was some more reading on the couture houses. Then I had to organize my thoughts a bit more, because there's a ton of information about why they are so unique. Even though I'm very interested in studying everything I can get my mitts on about the techniques, I'm forever aware that what I do is a poor comparison, and always will be. Especially since a couture house isn't all about the name or designer. It takes a village to create real couture.
But that doesn't mean we can't learn from it and mimic the doable parts for better results :)
Inside a couture house, according to Claire B. Shaeffer, who's both studied in one and interviewed several thus has far more expertise, is a well oiled machine. From the top to the bottom, she explains how it's run. It's fascinating, and what's more interesting is it's very time consuming, and yet for a special client, a garment can and has been produced over night.
One of the main differences with shopping at a couture house versus a high priced retail shop of ready mades, is the first view of the fashions. If you're able, you can see the fashion show which is put on in the Spring, then another in the Fall. But if not they keep it on video, so you can see the entire collection for that season. My personal choice if I could have afforded it, because I dislike the noise of a fashion show. Very distracting, that and the press.
Another difference is you can't just simply walk into a couture house and expect to be serviced by a sales person. Instead, you contact the directrice managing the salon, or have someone do it for you once you're in the area of the house, and make an appointment. A vendeuse will be assigned to you, which works on your wardrobe permanantly, unless you find you don't like them, then you simply ask for another.
Once there, you'll be able to choose the designs you like, after which you'll either make another appointment to see them, or be shown to a room where they're brought out from the dressing room, aka cabine. Your choices are your own, but your vendeuse and the atelier are trained to know what will and will not work with your figure, and he/she carefully directs you to the most flattering designs.
You have a choice of trying on the prototypes of your choice, which are usually either slipped on without fastening up, or pinned to the front of your slip. When Ms. Shaeffer mentions this, she doesn't exactly say if they give you one, or if it's one you're already wearing. I'd assume they have some just in case.
Once you and your vendeuse have worked out the final decisions, they measure you in 30 different ways from head to toe, after which a dress form created from your measurements is made. Usually it's created by the premiere main (french for premier or first hand), who creates it from a padded form, with a muslin body or toile de corps that's zipped up over the whole form. Every client has their own specifically suited to them kept on file for current and future designs.
At this point, they use the prototype to create your garment. For example let's say it's an evening dress you wanted. They'll drape the fabric over your dress form using the prototype as a guide, and reshape where it's necessary to get the same results. Couture houses never use patterns, everything from the beginning of the design is draped, shaped, marked, and cut then sewn and that toile becomes the pattern. Which is why for a toile, so much detail is worked in by hand.
Your dress may even have different shaped pieces in some areas as compared to the protype, but the final result will look the same. Every body's built differently after all, and their job is to make it flattering to you. Not simply dress you up, the way off the rack designer clothing does.
Oh, I almost forgot, you have a choice of choosing fabric, decorations etc as well before they begin work on your piece. So long as the original design isn't compromised, you as the customer can have anything you please. If that means you wanted to add little printed roses to the fabric, one can be ordered made for you from one of the private supply companies who do create unique one of a kind fabrics for couture houses.
Once work has started, your piece is marked with thread tracings, then every detail of the design, including hemming, zipper placement, even a lining is sewn into the toile by hand. So much work for just a mock up, but you're worth it right?
After it's ready, usually a week or two later, you'll be called to have your first fitting. The room you're shown to is larger, because your vendeuse, the couturier, and directrice all gather around you to work out the details required to fit it to your figure correctly. All adjustments are made, marked, and noted at this time.
Then your dress is taken back to the work room, where everything's pulled apart. Every tiny stitch undone, then it's layed flat. If it's required, a new piece may be re-cut according to adjustments made or noted, or other details rearranged. A dart made smaller or deeper for example.
Your garment is cut from this toile, and work begins. Depending on what you chose, some workers are assigned to certain details, and your dress may find itself all over the place. Including parts that may be sent to another shop that specializes in details such as beadings or certain embellishments. When finished, it's sent back, and the pieces as they're finished, are put together and you're called in for your second fitting.
During the second fitting, it's checked for fit, drape and anything else that may need further adjusting. If your dress is being difficult, it may need to be re-adjusted and fit more than twice, but usually it's good by this time.
Little details are worked out, and your dress is finished and you're called in once more for a final fitting. If you're pleased with it, and nothing more need be done, the label is sewn in at this time. Odd but they have superstitions about not sewing it in before the final fitting, so it just isn't done. The label isn't just a made by so and so type you see on most ready sewn garments. It'll include along with the house name, the number of your design and the date from which collection it belongs to.
Your dress is then packed for delivery, logged into the livre de compte, then sent to your home, hotel or wherever it is you're having it delivered. If for any reason you don't like it after all, maybe you decide the colour isn't quite what you thought it was; unlike most made to order from non couture sources, a couture dress can be returned and redone, even if the mistake isn't theirs. If you change, and can no longer fit your dress perfectly, they'll also re-adjust it as needed, because customer satisfaction is what they build their reputations around. That and you're paying through the nose for the privilege. Re-adjustments cost you nothing extra.
Although it's a crap load of work, sewing by hand, seam ripping, adjusting, resewing it, reripping it....sometimes months of work, sometimes a room full of workers pushing to do it in short time (I'm sure for a much higher price), the final dress is well worth it. Even when it comes from a collection, your couture dress will still be a unique one of a kind creation.
I'm under no misguided dream that I can ever equal what's done in a couture house. But simply following the directions, and sewing along the dotted line, compared to drafting one's own pattern for your figure, working out the details of fabric, drape, colour and design, no matter how simple. Then sewing it with your own hand with such care and detail in the same manner, even if it takes three weeks to complete....the first choice pales by comparison.
Izannah Walker in the Providence Census of 1870
4 weeks ago