Fashion History Lesson 1: The Original Couture Houses

Written by Miranda Mossburg

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Posted on August 31 2021

Originally Published on July 14, 2021

There’s a strange loyalty people feel to fashion designers that nobody can explain. It’s why a person never owns a Kate Spade bag and a Michael Kors bag. You have your brand and you feel a connection to it. Back in Europe during the reign of couture houses, this loyalty ran much deeper. However, the people behind the designs were much harder to root for than the American designers today. 

Chanel

Coco Chanel is undoubtedly what most people think of when they hear “couture”, but that’s not how it started. Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel began her career in 1910 under Chanel Modes by opening a hat store. In 1912 she branched out into clothing and opened her first boutique, and pioneered making womens clothes comfortable when she began to sell clothing made of jersey sportswear. Shortly after in 1915, the first Chanel Couture house opened employing 300 people. The 1920’s were all about perfume and beauty products after Chanel No. 5 took a life of its own. Chanel’s couture house closed in 1939 due to World War II, and remained closed until 1954. Chanel had a busy few years with the return of the couture house and launching of tweed suits, handbags and two-tone pumps. Coco died in 1971, and it wasn’t until 1983 that Karl Lagerfeld took over. 

Chanel's early life certainly made her one to root for. She grew up an orphan and found herself some wealthy businessmen who opened her first shop for her. Her brand was originally considered the “poor girl” look, while she worked to  make women's clothes comfortable. Her major success initially came from her perfume, which she struggled to receive credit for long after. As a young, inexperienced businesswomen, Gabrielle agreed to take 10% of the royalties from the perfume. Once the money started to roll in she realized her mistake, and spent years unsuccessfully fighting to get more control over these assets.

One of the reasons Chanel’s couture house stayed closed for so long was because she found herself in the spotlight for being involved with German diplomats and Nazi soldiers. She dated a German intelligence officer in the 1940’s, allowing her to continue to live in luxury during the war. During her time off in the 1940’s, Gabrielle also worked for General Walter Schellenberg, “chief of the German intelligence agency Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service; SD) and the military intelligence spy network Abwehr”. Documents declassified in 2014 revealed that Gabrielle worked directly as a German spy and “was directly involved in a plan for the Third Reich to take control of Madrid”. 

If you want to learn more about Chanels history with Nazi Germany, check out this article, and the book Sleeping with the Enemy.

A lot of times, people feel compelled to look past the old designer’s issues, since they aren’t the ones profiting anymore. While that’s true, her successor Karl Lagerfeld, who reigned until he died in 2019, was not much better. 

Karl Lagerfeld 

Young designer Karl Lagerfeld won an international fashion competition alongside Yves Saint Laurent at 16 years old. The two would be friends during the early years of their careers. Lagerfeld worked for designer Jean Patou and was recruited by Pierre Balmain. Lagerfeld's career was unique as he designed for a number of brands before launching his own line. His impressive resume includes Fendi, Chloe and Chanel. His own line launched in 1984 while he was working for Chanel. 

To put it in simple terms, Karl was an ass. After Alicia Drake wrote the incredible book The Beautiful Fall, Karl Lagerfeld attempted to sue her for defamation and invasion of privacy for what she wrote about him. Thankfully, Drake was great at her job and had the receipts to prove everything was factual, and that Lagerfeld himself made little effort to keep his life private. 

Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent were friends initially, but Lagerfeld became bitter and envious towards Laurent. It’s surprising how envious he was considering Lagerfeld has stood out as one of the most prominent designers with the most impressive resume. 

Christian Dior

Christian Dior is one of the most interesting stories I’ve come across, because of what happened after his death. Dior was established in 1947 with the House of Dior and Christian Dior Parfums. Backed by wealthy businessmen who initially wanted Dior to take over his former client Phillippe et Gaston, Christian insisted on having a fresh brand to build. Dior's first collection, called the “New Look '' by the press, was such a success it’s believed to have revived the industry in France, and brought couture back after the House of Chanel shut down. Chanel, unsurprisingly, was not a fan, and remarked about his corset designs: "Only a man who never was intimate with a woman could design something that uncomfortable."

Dior expanded to the United States in 1949, marking one of the fastest expansions to date. The first boutique opened in 1954 and launched makeup in 1955. Christian Dior died suddenly in 1957 and left a growing empire behind. 

Christian Dior himself was one of the most authentic people in the world of couture, but it’s what happened after his death that changed the atmosphere of the brand. Twenty-one year-old designer Yves Saint Laurent had been Christian Dior’s assistant and was named to take over after he died. The others left in charge weren’t thrilled with Dior’s decision and kept another designer on the payroll to take over if need be. When Saint Laurent was 24, the house of Dior saw an opportunity to get him out of the position and ensured he would be called to fight in the Algerian war. Saint Laurent did not make it through training camp and spent the next 2 months in the hospital suffering “mental collapse”. While hospitalized, the House of Dior announced Yves would not return as head designer. 

Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint Laurent’s career began when he won an international fashion design competition in 1954 alongside Karl Lagerfeld. had a near-perfect start to his career being selected by Dior to be his protege, and being one of the youngest designers to work in a couture house. Saint Laurent was also the first French couture designer to come out with a full ready-to-wear line. 

After Yves was removed from Dior and he was released from the hospital, he sued Dior for breach of contract and won. Receiving funding from an American businessmen, Saint Laurent started his own fashion house with his partner, Pierre Berge. 

Saint Laurent was the first designer to have a collection on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yves Saint Laurent was rightfully seen as an icon in the fashion industry. At the end of the 90s he sold his company, presented his final show in 2002 and retired. YSL is still thriving as a company long after his departure.

Balenciaga

Balenciaga is one of the most underrated brands to come from Couture, but it should be noted that technically, they haven't always been couture because Balenciaga ended their membership of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (now known as Federation de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, or FHCM) before he retired. Cristobal Balenciaga, born in Spain, opened his first dressmaking shop before World War I began, and a second one in Madrid in 1920, under the name Eisa. Balenciaga is my favorite designer because he never in his life completed a sketch, and bought items from other couture houses to take them apart and study them. 

Cristobal had to close shop due to the Spanish war and opened the first House of Balenciaga in Paris. Oscar de la Renta, Pierre Cardin and Emanuel Ungaro worked in his atelier, while Hubert de Givenchy, who opened his own house in 1952, later becomes a protégé of Cristobal’s. 

Balenciaga suddenly closed in 1968, and Cristobal died 4 years later in 1972. In 1986, the House of Balenciaga was resurrected when Jacques Bogart acquire the rights to the label. Gucci bought Balenciaga in 2001, and Alexander Wang served as head designer from 2012-2015. Balenciaga has had its fair share of struggles, but current designer is very similar to the original and has had remarkable success in the last few years, including their return to couture just last week at Paris Fashion Week.

Other less prominent designers from Europe include Callot Soeurs, Patou, Poiret, Vionnet, Fortuny, Lanvin, Mainbocher, Schiaparelli, Pierre Cardin, André Courrèges, Ted Lapidus, and Emanuel Ungaro.