Fashion lovers and retail owners alike have probably heard the terms ‘Haute Couture’ and ‘Prêt-à-Porter’ thrown around before. It may shock you to know that they are the most misused and misunderstood words in the world of fashion, and a majority of people quote them out of context. So what do these terms mean?

Haute Couture is French for ‘High Fashion’ or ‘High Dressmaking’. It refers to the creation of exclusive, high-quality, custom fitted clothing that are made for specific clientele. The garments are handmade from start to finish from expensive, and often rarely used materials, sewn with meticulous attention to detail. They are also made with the tastes, preferences and inputs of the clients. Haute Couture pieces are always made for an individual client, tailored specifically to his/her body, stance and gait. Hence, time consuming and hand executed sewing techniques are employed by some of the best tailors in the world to construct such works of art. Indeed, Vogue once described Haute Couture works as ‘walking pieces of art.

In France, the term ‘Haute Couture’ is protected by law, and is defined by the Chambre de Commerce et d’industrie de Paris. To earn the right to call itself a couture house and use the term Haute Couture in relation to its products, a fashion house must adhere to these specific rules:

  • Design made-to-order for private clients, with multiple fittings;
  • Have a workshop in Paris that employs at least fifteen full time members and twenty technical staff;
  • Present a collection of at least 50 original designs to the public every fashion season of both morning and evening garments.

Prêt-à-Porter translates to Ready-to-Wear from French. The term defines factory-made fashion sold in finished condition, enabling customers to leave the store with a garment that is ready to be used. While Prêt-à-Porter is not necessarily mass produced, it is available to a wide variety of clientele. Hence, the collections are designed and sold in standardised sizes so as to cater to most people. Prêt-à-Porter collections may vary in price and quantity, but ultimately cost less to produce (and buy) than their Haute Couture counterparts. Designers use standard patterns, factory equipment and faster construction methods to keep costs low.

Fashion houses that primarily produce Haute Couture lines like Chanel, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent also produce Prêt-à-Porter lines to increase profitability via high volume sales with lower cost-per-garment on manufacture.

These collections are available for sale twice a year, usually pre-seasonally. The collections are defined by changing economic and climatic conditions and hence are made to cater to these specificities. They are not made to order, and are not subject to any modification by paying customers. However, this lack of exclusivity means that designers are able to churn out more garments per unit time, as they can be effectively machined. Prêt-à-Porter also may take inspiration from Haute Couture collections, and can be found in retail stores and online markets alike.

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