Haute Couture


Dawn Mello (1981) ,"Haute Couture", in SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Morris B. Holbrook, New York, NY : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 26-27.

Symbolic Consumer Behavior, 1981     Pages 26-27


Dawn Mello, Bergdorf Goodman

When I received my copy of the program of the Conference I discovered that the topic assigned to me was "Haute Couture". Perhaps I should therefore begin by explaining that this term is generally thought to mean HIGH FASHION, but actually refers to custom or hand-made clothing and those establishments which engage in this business. We generally think of the couture in relation to Paris, where the most creative couturiers (or dressmakers) have existed for generations.

In 1920 the French couturier, Paul Poiret, emancipated women from the corset ... in the 30's Chanel introduced easy fitted cardigan jackets and separate skirts - really the first sportswear - and in 1946 Christian Dior changed the pace of fashion with his legendary "NEW LOOK".

Now there are just a dozen or so couturiers in Europe still catering to extraordinarily rich women who can afford to, and have the desire to, spend upward's of $5,000 for an ensemble. The most influential of these are Yves St. Laurent and Givenchy.

The few remaining French and Italian couturiers maintain their ateliers for prestige rather than profit. Most of them 'nave opened boutique divisions which feature "ready-to-wear" (the industry term for mass produced apparel).

In New York Bergdorf Goodman was founded as a custom salon ... considered one of the most prestigious Of its kind...but this salon, having become unprofitable, was phased down in 1957 and ultimately closed in 1969. Bergdorf's has since become a specialist in quality ready-to-wear.

Haute Couture in the United States no Longer exists as a motivating force in the realm of style. Of course, there are still some good dressmakers, but none that have a reputation for fashion leadership.

We have come a long way from the days when Fashion was exclusively for the rich while the middle classes waited for months or perhaps years for the ideas to filter down to affordability. That concept went out with the couturier. High Fashion has disappeared, and we simply have Fashion. Although an ever-changing force, it is the prevailing style at a given time ... what is currently appropriate (although I suppose there are some who would question that fact). The truth is, there is nothing so estoteric about fashion. It moves in a fairly orderly and predictable way, reflecting the current lifestyles; the social changes; economic, political and even technological advances. Actually Fashion is the reflection of our culture, the changes in thinking, feeling and doing, work and recreation, as well as the prosperity of the country in which it is initiated.

We now talk about advanced fashion or leadership fashion. These are innovative and creative ideas, accepted at the outset by a limited group of consumers. The introduction of an innovative idea often marks the beginning of a major fashion trend which results in acceptance by the mass market. This is referred to by the industry as a volume trend. Today the momentum builds quickly when the new fashion idea is on target. It is no longer necessary to dictate to the consumer in a metropolitan area.

She is surrounded by fashion ... in her closet ... her kitchen cabinets ... her sheets and towels ... in color and pattern and texture. She has an awareness that has been sharpened by the fast-paced society in which she lives.

And now in America it is almost always possible for a woman to buy fashion at a price she can afford ... the look will always be there. What fluctuates with the price tag is the quality of the workmanship and the fabric.

Although designers still provide us with the specific ideas ... the inspiration for the ideas come from many sources. For the past fifteen to twenty years a great percentage of fashion inspiration has come from THE STREETS ... from the young post-War generation whose self expression of the 60's revolutionized fashion in every form.

One of the strongest groups influencing fashion during the past several years is the Gay Community. The scrubbed "preppie look" currently a leading fashion trend is a result of acceptance by trendy homosexuals who were among the first to endorse LaCoste shirts, Bermuda shorts ... to bring back rep ties and. having been the first to grow their hair long , were more recently the first to cut it short - now worn brushed back in wholesome All-American boy-next-door tradition.

Among the most current fashion motivators are the working woman and the active sports enthusiasts. Classic tailored suits have become the fashion uniform for the newly liberated female whether she is an executive or simply prefers to look like one ... and jogging clothes (sweat suits, shorts, running shoes, etc.) are considered "hot" classifications. There are more influences to fashion than you can imagine, and the role of the specialty store is to carefully and constantly edit those trends. A current influence which you might enjoy seeing is being featured now in Bergdorf Goodman' windows. French designer Yves St. Laurent's summer ready-to-wear collection, inspired by Pablo Picasso ... the mannequins sharing space on Fifth Avenue and 58th Street with Alexander Liberman's personal collection of photographs of the artist taken in Picasso's home by Mr. Liberman several years ago. (I might add that the response to the windows has been exceptionally strong in terms of sales.)

By contacting the Museum of Modern Art and obtaining permission to become the only store in New York to officially tie-in with the Picasso exhibition, we were able to capitalize on a natural fashion trend.

As for the effect of Picasso on the Fashion scene ... there will be a dramatic impact on the mass market. Harlequin patterns ... Picasso pinks and Blue Boy Blues, bold Picasso inspired graphic strokes of black on white and pale colored fabrics ... clown motifs and especially ruffled neckpieces on dressy blouses.

At Bergdorf's we like to be first with the idea ... to present a fashion concept with authority... to inspire confidence and to give pleasure...and to make a profit by being exclusive and special wherever possible.

We attempt to reach our customer through the traditional promotional means...windows, advertising, fashion shows and editorial credits in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Town & Country and other publications. But a specialty store such as Bergdorf's does not rely on promotions as heavily as department stores. The idea is to build a reputation, based on Fashion, quality and service. This is achieved by constant editing...but what we do NOT buy as well as what we buy. Our customer is knowledgeable..she probably travels extensively ... has more than one home...is an executive or is married to one ... and has a high disposable income.

This woman is newly emancipated from traditional fashion. This season designers showed skirts above the knee, below the knee and just above the ankle... buyers will buy all three lengths expecting that consumers will respond according to personal preference. The consumer is making the fashion decisions, and the retailer must provide her with a selection of ideas from which she will make the choice.

If we were to choose one overriding factor influencing Fashion today, it would be quality. In times of economic stress the consumer will buy less of the ordinary merchandise and will tend to purchase better quality ... she will move away from the more extreme fashion ideas and will most often shift toward the classics. We refer to apparel of this type as "investment clothing".

The other important development affecting the industry today is the interest in honest fabrics and handmade or handcrafted items. Especially the young have rejected many of the man-made fibers (despite the-obvious practical aspects), in favor of natural fabrics such as cotton, silk and wool.

For the last half of 1980, hand knitted sweaters will be in such demand that an entire cottage industry will be revived ... not only in Italy and Ireland... but right here in SoHo, where a group of creative young knitters have a newly established business.

Perhaps they will revive a new Haute Couture...handmade fashion for the modern audience of the 80's.



Dawn Mello, Bergdorf Goodman


SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior | 1981

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