The French System for Fashion & Luxury

French fashion has long been reflective of social and economic hierarchy, illuminating the distinction among classes. Beginning with the Royal Court of the Sun King, France became the capitol of rich fashion. After Charles Worth created the business of haute couture in the 1800s, Paris became the creative center for a business model that has evolved greatly, yet still remains centered around the spirit of haute couture.

What is Couture?

Haute couture is identified as unique pieces constructed with precious materials, made-to-measure, and made for special occasions- not daily wear. A dress of this nature today should run you on average between 20,000 and 30,000 euro and up.

According to French law as of 2008, the following points must be met for a fashion company to be considered a house of couture:

  • the atelier must produce at least 50 garments per season by hand
  • the atelier must employ at least 20 skilled in-house workers for production

Note: This model is changing under the current economic situation, in order to protect the existing haute couture legacy; too many couturiers were closing their doors under the weight of these expensive restrictions.

Where there were once more than 30,000 clients per year for the highest form of French fashion, today there remain less than 3,000, and most of these are irregular clients. Hence, haute couture is not a big business anymore; it is unaffordable and impractical, as there are fewer and fewer occasions in today's world to wear such items. It has become much less profitable than it once was, having lost the link with modern life.

Most companies that made their name in haute couture today sell primarily accessible products and democratic accessories like lipstick, perfumes, and so on. However, to continue to sell these more "basic" goods at high profit margins, they must continue to produce high fashion. People are now buying the legacy of couture, rather than the couture itself. Therefore, to make the big bucks selling goods at the bottom, you must be positioned at the top.French companies based around haute couture lack a bottom-up business model, and have no second-lines: consider French powerhouses Dior and Chanel, as opposed to Armani, Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana, etc.

The Dream created by the haute couture collection is used to sell cheaper products from the same brand.

john_galliano_paris_menswear01Brand images and communications demonstrate a high level of arrogance and provocation, in order to build The Dream. Have you ever wondered how or why that "crazy stuff that nobody is ever going to buy" makes it onto the catwalk? The most elaborate and provocative designs are taken onto the runway because the goal is not to sell as many units as possible, but to demonstrate creativity and uniqueness, and generate buzz around the brand. Consider the wild boys Jean Paul Gaultier for Hermes, or John Galliano for Dior (below).


The buzz-factor has become increasingly important for luxury fashion labels in recent years, especially in France where the namesake designers (Dior, Chanel, Vionnet, Yves Saint Laurent, etc) are no longer with us. In fact, most clients are unaware of the designers behind today's major labels. Instead, it is much more common to know which celebrities are wearing which labels (the Poiret legacy lives on!).

The French Fashion System

To summarize, the French business model is derived from a long tradition of craft and individualism... and marketing. Couture was the original product of the French fashion and luxury system, which was recently integrated with and then overtaken by accessories. The image of sophistication and provocation are used to produce the sense of luxury at the highest levels of the brand (through couture), which is what the companies are selling (through cosmetics and accessories). Viola!

  • Couture = Image
  • Accessories/Cosmetics = Sales

Here's my hastily-made visual (with apologies to France):

French luxury business model

Fashion History: France After WW2... Dior Revolution

The geography of fashion has distant roots, and world capitols rely on a large accumulation of materials from around the world in order to grow. As a Nazi-occupied island, isolated from the rest of the world, Paris lost its monopoly on fashion, with competition growing stronger in New York, London and Italy. In order to recover, French ateliers returned to the haute-couture stage, but with innovative cooperation between the fashion and textile industries.

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Fashion History: From the Invention of Fashion to the Industrial Revolution

The following is an account of the history of fashion, as told by Italian professors along with some library and online research. Enjoy. The birth of fashion occurred somewhere around the end of the 1300s. We can trace the history of fashion through several key sources:

  • Dresses & Garments: these artifacts become more rare before the 17th century, and the artifacts we have were typically of the most expensive nature, as cheaper garments were worn more frequently and were more likely to be ruined.
  • Fabrics: these give us an idea of the technology and distribution systems the existed in different periods and regions, providing insight into markets and distribution chains
  • Figurative arts: these are of course subjective, depending on what the artist (or the artist's patron) wanted you to see, based on their own values, symbols and priorities (for example, a Renaissance master might use more expensive colors to demonstrate wealth in his patron's clothing, and we have no way of knowing what is factual and what is not)
  • Archives: accounting records and postmortem inventories often documented dresses, as these were among the most valuable items transmitted to heirs
  • Literary texts
  • Oral history

Okay, so we've got our sources down. Back to the history!

Prior to the mid-14th century, in Classical Periods, colors were dull and derived from a limited palette (typically white, yellow, red and some blues... all were dull). Clothing was neither cut nor sewn, but was draped indifferent to the body shape. Think: toga. Mid-14th century Europe brought about the appearance of a new type of clothing, with strong differentiation among men (short and tight, with silk tights) and women (long and close-fitting). Ah, how the times have changed!

Clothes began to show the body, and were cut to form. Men wore bright, contrasting colors, short blouses and tight silk or wool stockings, with an emphasis on the groin region (although this was shunned by the Church). Note the image to the left of The Martydom of Saint Sebastian, by Vincenzo Foppa 1489. Women's fashion was equally tight around the bust, with a low neckline, and typically hung quite low (the longer the dress, the richer the woman).

We call this era the birth of fashion because there were changes in style taking place, there was an increase in options, and there was an increase in the speed of change of style (in contrast with previous uniformity in appearance). Furthermore, in previous times, unnecessary items were publicly burned by the devout. This was the first time in several hundred years where accessories could be displayed. There were also more available colors and construction techniques to provide increased options.

The birth of fashion was not merely about changes in style. It is also connected with the commercial revolution in Europe. People still typically wore rags in this period, and masses would wait outside of hospitals to beg for or steal the clothing of the recently deceased. However, new technologies invented in the 14th-15th centuries enabled great economic expansion. Eye glasses were invented, enhancing science and optics industries, and enriching the economy by allowing those with poor vision to work better and longer, and to see smaller objects in the manufacturing process. (Glasses at this time were basically magnifying glasses.)

People left serf conditions on farmland to move into cities for freedom and the ability to buy and sell. Innovation, itself, was centered in the urban communes. This was a new world, open to talent and ambition, based on different values from those in the countryside. Within the walled cities, people were getting rich. Here, fashion was born.

Clothing became the means through which the new business community (merchants and craftsmen) could affirm its social, political and economic status over traditional dominating classes. The use of clothing as a means of attesting one's social status is confirmed in the sumptuary laws, whereby appearance was a public decision, not a personal choice. More specifically, these laws dictated what could be worn, and by whom. Sumptuary laws were most common in England.

Regarding new technologies, draped clothes were eclipsed by sewn garments thanks to buttons. Buttons allowed men's tights to fasten and women's form-fitting dresses to be worn. Sleeves became important as detachable elements because they gave the appearance of a whole new dress, and could be easily removed for more frequent laundering.

Colorful clothes were made possible due to improvements in dying. People in the Middle Ages placed great importance on color. The contrast in light versus dark, the social value of colors in the church or politics, and combinations of patterns or stripes prevailed. Take, for example, the famous Van Eyck painting, The Arnolfini Marriage, 1434. The husband is darkly dressed, demonstrating his seriousness, and that he is thrifty and committed. His wife wears green, demonstrating loyalty to her husband and wealth, while the white accents symbolize her purity. It was extremely difficult to find black or green clothing in this era, so this family is shown to be extremely wealthy.

Modern age trend setters were focused solely in the royal courts of Europe. The Spanish Court was known as the Black Triumphant. The Papal court also demonstrated magnificent elegance. Yet most important was the French court under Louis XIV. Versailles became the center os creation and diffusion of fashion, and Lyons became the center of silk production. The daily-changing spectacle that ended in revolution continues to influence fashion and culture through the tales of Marie Antoinette to this day. At the time, fashion ideas were transmitted through portraits, individuals (ambassadors or princes), gifts, and second-hand-clothes (the first example of ready-to-wear). We can see in this portrait of Louis XIV, he was quite a fashionable guy, with his wig, fur mantle, draped garment, silk stockings, and red heels!