By Alexis Datta
(Argentina, 1940s) Eva Peron woke up every morning to her entourage of designers – Asunta Fernandez was her personal shopper; Luis D’Agostino chose her outfits; Paco Jamandreu adjusted the fit of the expensive items she wore. When Eva arrived back from her European Tour in 1947 armed with a newfound attraction to simple Haute Couture Dior dresses and Perugia platformed sandals, the three worked to incorporate the elegant designs into a wardrobe that was previously dominated by flashy, extravagant pieces. For years, Haute Couture had been the center of class and elegance, but the shift highlighted the position these original pieces held in the ever-expanding world of fashion. What had begun in Western Europe was now in South America, North America, and even in parts of Eastern Asia.
The introduction of mega-houses focused on convenient, efficient, and fast fashion would mark a permanent change in consumer buying habits. According to Business of Fashion, today Haute Couture means “expensive, fashionable clothes produced by leading fashion houses.” A more modern-day interpretation, the definition taints the origins of what once meant, quite literally, “high sewing.” Haute Couture began with unique pieces and morphed into fashion powerhouses like Burberry, Louis Vuitton, and Balenciaga, among others.
On May 14, 1643, King Louis XIV was appointed to the French throne, which would eventually mark an inversion point for the Spanish- and Italian-dominated fashion industry. Louis, who was known for his signature red high heels, fell into an economy debilitated by political infighting, as well as one that was primarily dependent on agriculture. Throughout the 1670s, heavily-imposed regulations and protectionist policies on the fashion industry in France mandated still noticeable changes: each clothing house produced two seasonal catalogs per year, and advertising campaigns popularized expressions such as Vogue, Elle, and Marie Claire.
The strict imposition paid off. France became the hub of fashion with some of the most powerful clothing houses in the world, and fashion became part of the lifeblood of the country’s economy. France never lost its coveted spot in the fashion industry, which was also bolstered by the country’s expansive exportation policies. It was also the birthplace of some of today’s biggest fashion houses, such as Dior (LVMH) and Kering. But industrialization came with costs to the haute couture industry. Handmade and specially-designed clothing became less popular, and as the middle class grew and the upper class began to disappear, companies were forced to shift towards ready-to-wear clothing lines, which, to the general public, were less expensive, more convenient, and more adaptable.
In order to compensate for the changes in the fashion industry, bigger companies who could afford to purchase their way into market share began to acquire other brands. LVMH, which is owned by Dior, encompasses big brands such as Louis Vuitton, Moet, Sephora, Givenchy, Fendi, Celine, Bulgari, TAG Heuer, and Hennessy. It is the biggest company in France, where it is headquartered, and is rivals with Kering S.A., which is similarly headquartered in Paris. Kering owns Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, and Balenciaga.
American viewers have also seen American fashion houses consolidate as well to compete with their European counterparts. Tapestry Inc., which is the owner of the Coach brand, purchased Kate Spade in 2017, adding to a portfolio already containing Stuart Weitzmann.
However, the bigger story to watch is the brand Michael Kors. Although it is not known for residing in the upper echelons of fashion (in a 3-tier system, Michael Kors sits in the first and second tiers for its MICHAEL by Michael Kors and regular Michael Kors lines, respectively), the brand has recently been expanding its portfolio to include companies that sit in the third-tier of the market. Last year, the company bought Jimmy Choo, a company known primarily for its shoes, for $1.2 billion. Two months ago, it announced the even bigger acquisition of Gianni Versace for $2.1 billion. While the continued separation of these brands maintains their images, it also provides Michael Kors with more backing to be a viable competitor to its European rivals. It also helps that the company seems to be buying overseas brand names as well.
Christian Dior famously said that Eva Peron was “the only queen he ever dressed.” Long after he and most of the royal families that he could have attended to disappeared, the clothing style that he lived his life pursuing is also disappearing. Conglomeration across the market is the final nail in the coffin of haute couture. The trend that was once so highly regarded seems too elegant for the introduction of streetwear and the move towards cheaper high fashion. Consumer behavior has allowed large companies to charge equally high prices for ready-to-wear clothing that is cheaper to make and has higher margins. As the market consolidates, the individualized clothing experience will continue to shrink until it is no longer a dream for the modern consumer.