Credit: Renée Willett in Dior couture. Photo by John Suhar
Written by Kristen Bateman, CNN
In 2019, with streetwear seemingly above all else in fashion, there's still a dedicated -- though niche -- group of couture clients who come to the January and July shows twice a year in Paris.
They go through rigorous fittings and customization, often waiting over a month for a single garment to be completed.
Unlike a ready-to-wear piece, the handmade nature of couture can cost upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Garments are constructed from precise measurements during multiple fittings with clients expecting nothing short of perfection. Couture in France is protected and governed under the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode -- just a few select designers such as Chanel and Dior are permanent members, and all members must follow exacting rules.
However, there are also plenty of designers creating couture, or highly bespoke fashion, and the space has opened up to new talent over recent years.
So who is the modern day couture client? Read on to meet some of the people spending serious money on fashion.
One of a kind
When 26-year-old Renée Willett, a New York City and Los Angeles-based actress and socialite was looking for the perfect dress to wear to a red carpet event, she went to Dior to commission a one-of-a-kind gown using fabric from the Andy Warhol Estate. The dress was sent to the midtown Dior store in New York City and Willett went through four fittings. "Not only is the dress one-of-kind, the fabric is too, so no one else will ever have this piece," she said during a phone interview.
Iman Allana, a 26-year-old heiress, is an avid wearer of Ralph & Russo, a British label that Meghan Markle is a fan of, which shows during Paris Couture Week on the official schedule. She grew up wearing couture pieces, and is a regular customer of other brands like Zuhair Murad and Elie Saab too. "From a very young rage, attending couture week shows with my mom, couture felt innate," she said in a phone interview. "If there were any garments needed for a festivity, or a wedding, they were always bespoke or made-to-measure." Her first traditional couture piece came when she was ten years old.
"Ralph & Russo are really the new guard of couture, challenging and creating a couture brand that has the essence of a traditional couture brand but it's still modern and young," said Allana. She wore her favorite couture gown to her graduation ball, a heavily embellished and embroidered piece with a draped bottom from the brand.
Adam Leja, a 53-year-old collector based in Warsaw, makes a pilgrimage to couture week in Paris twice a year to brush up on current collections. Leja owns over 5,000 women's couture pieces. "I only buy French couture pieces because for me, the history of fashion began in France," he explained in an email. "I am interested in the history of the fashion houses and in my country there are very few pieces in national collections. Since I often do museum exhibitions, I want to show the viewers the history and the detail of haute couture."
His most prized pieces in his collection consist of vintage designs from Elsa Schiaparelli, Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, and a very rare 1910 House of Worth couture gown, all of which he keeps in flat storage boxes with acid-free tissue paper when not on display in a museum.
And unlike the few that buy directly from fashion houses, Leja buys through a variety of outlets. "You can find couture just about everywhere," he said. "Vintage stores, the internet, flea markets and major auction houses. It all really depends on your knowledge and the budget that you have."
Similarly, Elizabeth da Trindade-Asher, president of Macchu Pisco, a Peruvian pisco export company, is a fan of vintage couture. She was inspired by her Peruvian grandmother who was "stickly a couture lady." She grew up witnessing the meticulous fittings her grandmother went through. She prefers to buy previously owned couture, taking pieces to an extremely high-end tailor for alterations.
Elizabeth Asher at The Plaza Hotel in New York. Credit: Sean Zanni/PMC/www.patrickmcmullan.com/Sean Zanni/PMC/PMC
"One of my favorite couture pieces is an Oscar de la Renta dress that I have inherited from my grandmother," she wrote in an email. "While it is vested with so much sentimental value, what I adore most about this piece is that it has a voluminous, if not colossal, flower on the one shoulder dress."
Couture outside of Paris
One of those clients is Wendy Yu, a 28-year-old Chinese philanthropist, Met Gala committee member and founder of her own investment company, Yu Holdings (which has invested in Samantha Cameron's womenswear label Cefinn and British fashion brands Mary Katrantzou). In May 2018, she wore a custom Oscar de la Renta dress to the Met Gala and she has also commissioned couture from Christian Dior, Ralph & Russo and Giambattista Valli (all labels that regularly show on the official Paris schedule) as well as bespoke gowns from Mary Katrantzou and Huishan Zhan.
Her handmade Oscar de la Rent gown consisted of a striking 32-foot-long train and 5,000 individually scalloped fabric flowers. "The design process with [designers] Fernando and Laura was magical as Fernando sketched fairytale-like gowns based on the Oscar De La Renta dresses I'd coveted over the years," said Yu in an email. "I love the experience of investing in couture and having an intimate relationship with the designer," explained Yu. "It's the designer at their most creative and it's the transformative part of the design process I enjoy the most. When you finally wear the look, you relive that experience and feel like part of the brand's story."
New York philanthropist Jean Shafiroff
"I almost exclusively buy American couture, especially from designers in New York City," Jean Shafiroff, a 55-year-old New York philanthropist, explained in an email. She serves on seven charity boards and also counts France-based American couture designer Vicky Tiel as one of her main couturiers. Each year, she buys between three to four couture pieces to wear to her charity events.
"It's worth being honest," she said when asked about how luxurious her budgets are for these kinds of couture gowns. "Even my most breath-taking couture gowns are generally under $10,000. Since I am a repeat customer, I believe the designers work with me on the prices. Though couture gowns can cost several hundred thousand dollars, I could never afford to spend that amount of money. My first priority is to bring attention and funds to non-profit organizations. Dressing for the occasion is part of that process, but I'm careful not to go too far."
Some of Shafiroff's favorite New York couturiers include Victor dE Souza, B. Michael and Zang Toi. "When you buy couture, you give a designer and yourself the opportunity to see you in a new light," she said. "You can also work with the designer on creations that you would like to see made. It is not unusual for a couture customer to bring ideas and drawings to a designer."
The future of couture
Likewise, some clients are really pushing the boundaries of couture as art. Joss Sackler, the founder of LBV, a private women's social club in New York City approaches the process of couture creatively. "My dear friend, designer Elizabeth Kennedy is in the process of making me my first custom gown that will be used as a canvas for artist Will Cotton to paint on at our next member dinner," she explained in an email. "The inspiration for this dress was Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface."
Joss Sackler Credit: Samantha Nandez/BFA.com/Samantha Nandez/BFA.com
Sackler also buys custom-made garments from Prabal Gurung and Altuzarra. "I come to couture with a young person's perspective," she said. "I think we are in a transitional era, the strict uses of the term Haute Couture are shifting. To me, couture means the art of clothes. And there are artists who are dressmakers working all over. I like to support my peers who are pioneering new directions in the fashion landscape."
For many clients, couture is an investment, too. "One of the main objectives of Yu Holdings is to support the fashion industry; creating a launchpad for brands to reach their international potential," said Yu. "One day, I would love to invest in a couture house if the right opportunity arose and I am committed to preserving couture fashions by ultimately opening a fashion museum in China." After all, couture pieces stand as their own works of art in a world where fashion sometimes feels predominantly casual.
The top image shows Renée Willett in a Dior couture design.