In fashion, haute couture refers to a garment that is completely custom made by the most skilled dressmakers using the highest-quality fabric and embellishments.

The term also has a protected legal definition. Its use is reserved for fashion houses that adhere to the exacting requirements of the French Ministry of Industry and the Fédération Française de la Couture. These institutions produce an official list of qualifying brands. In order to be eligible for the haute couture designation:

  • The clothing must be made-to-measure for private clients
  • The designer must operate a full-time workshop ("atelier") in Paris with no fewer than 20 staff members
  • The fashion house must present two collections per year, usually in Paris, showing both day and evening (formal) wear

The list of haute couture designers includes some of the most recognized designers around the world, including Chanel, Christian Dior, Armani and Givenchy. Newer members include Yiqing Yin, Alexandre Vauthier, Rad Hourani and Iris van Herpen.

Buying Haute Couture

Haute couture doesn't come cheap. Each custom gown may require hundreds of hours of concentrated effort. Although prices are never advertised and must be discussed privately with the company, they can begin at $25,000 and run up into the millions.

For each collection, the creative director of a couture "house" is charged with producing at least 50 original designs. The design process begins with the creative director's vision, which is then translated into sketches. From there, the director consults with his or her team about fabric and trim choices and early prototypes of the outfits are made for review and refinement. Along the way, samples may be rejected many times before a final version is produced. For each show, the gowns are custom fit to the models in the days before the presentation — just as any couture garment would be created especially to fit a buyer.

One way to assess the price of acquiring couture is by observing prices at auction. In recent years both Christie's and Sotheby's have hosted very successful auctions of luxury fashion. A 2015 couture auction at Sotheby's (from the collection of Paris-based vintage couture retailer Didier Ludot) raised €966,259 (approximately $1.1 million), more than three times the pre-show estimate.1

While couture pieces may appreciate in value, there are no guarantees that what is fashionable today will be considered desirable tomorrow. Purchasing purely for investment or speculative purposes is risky, and the opacity of the market for haute couture makes it hard to judge the true value of a piece. As with any collectible, the best approach may be to simply pursue your personal tastes — that is, to buy what you like, and hope for the best.

Preserving the Value of Your Collection

However, if you're interested in collecting couture, you will want to take steps to preserve its value so you have the opportunity to benefit in the event that it does appreciate over time. To do this, you should treat it like the work of art it actually is.

Keep a Detailed Inventory

You should ensure you are able to certify the authenticity of your items. Retaining original paperwork (such as a bill of sale), sketches and photographic documentation of the item (including show catalogs, where available), and any subsequent appraisals or assessments will allow you to demonstrate the chain of custody of your collection. This helps assure any potential buyers that the item is authentic. These third-party records can also provide indisputable verification for the purposes of an insurance claim.

Properly Store Your Garments

A 2010 Vanity Fair article described how Jacqueline de Ribes, a noted connoisseur of couture, stored her collection: “Every garment is enclosed in a blue or black custom-made zippered bag, equipped with a plastic-windowed pocket into which a snapshot of the outfit has been inserted."2

Houston philanthropist Becca Carson Thrash is reported to store her personal couture collection in a well-ventilated walk-in closet, "packed with tissue paper to hold their shape or carefully hung on a life-size mold."3

Obtain Specifically Designed Insurance

Haute couture collectibles face the same risks as any tangible or physical possession: loss, damage and theft. Insurance specifically designed to cover collectibles must be purchased separately (potentially using a “rider" on an existing insurance policy), and could be considered a cost of helping to maintain any potential future return on investment.

Think About Your Legacy

You might consider donating some or all of your collection to a museum or other charitable purpose. In the case of haute couture, specialty and art museums may be interested in acquiring notable couture pieces. For example, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a collection of more than 35,000 fashion items with public showings, tours, special events and items available to students and scholars.4 Charitable foundations may also hold fashion auctions to raise funds.

Don't Forget Your Couture When Planning

Your couture collection isn't just something you take pleasure in — it's also an asset. Failing to take this into account when making decisions about your wealth and estate plans can have serious financial consequences. Having a well-documented plan that includes all of your assets is essential to ensuring your wishes are carried out properly.

  • 1 "Recontres Couture a Paris de la Collection Didier Ludot," Sothebys.com

    2 "The Last Queen of Paris," Amy Fine Collins, Vanity Fair, September 2010

    3 "Secrets of Couture," Alina Dizik, BBC.com, May 10, 2015

    4 "The Costume Institute," Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org Accessed: February 16, 2018

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