Couture For Africa

By: Tshego ‘Red’ Mosiane

The terms ‘Couture’ and ‘Haute Couture’ are often incorrectly used to deem anything that seems stereo-typically fancy as ‘High Fashion’. This isn’t too far off, as the literal translation of Haute Couture is ‘high sewing’ or ‘high dressmaking’. But actually, there are specific meanings to them.

Haute Couture pieces (both men’s and women’s wear) are exclusively designed to be worn by a very limited amount of clients, it can be 1 or 5 or even 20. Regardless of how exclusive, a brand is not supposed to decide for itself if it is Haute Couture. By French Law, only brands certified by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (Trade Association of High Fashion) may do so. This is not easy to achieve as the long standing authoritative body has a very strict criteria which a fashion house must meet to even be considered as a member. Just to name a few:

  1. Have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least 15 full-time staff members and 20 specialized craftsmen.
  2. Design made-to-order pieces for clients with at least one fitting.
  3. Use time-consuming techniques in their garments including but not limited to hand beading and hand embroidery.
  4. Only use the best quality fabrics and materials available in French and European fashion industries.
  5. Showcase 2 Haute Couture collections at Haute Couture Fashion Week in Paris per year, each with a minimum of 35 looks.

There are only fifteen brands legally permitted to use the term Haute Couture including Chanel, Givenchy, Jean Paul Gautier, Stephane Rolland and Dior.

Rihanna in Guo Pei at the Met Gala

The body also allows for the exception of foreign (non-French) brands to become official members who are allowed to be considered Couture or Haute Couture such as brands like Valentino, Versace and Armani which are Italian brands.Many think that the term ‘Couture’ is just an abbreviation of ‘Haute Couture’ and has become a scapegoat for those who want to subliminally associate their brand with the idea of French High Fashion but no, it too has a meaning. Brands can only legally, by French Law, use the term if they have been invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to showcase during Haute Couture Fashion Week in Paris. They may use Couture as long as they remain on the schedule or until they apply to be allowed to become Haute Couture brands. These are brands such as Iris van Herpen, Ralph & Russo, Zuhair Murad and Guo Pei.

Knowing the history of France with it’s rigid elitism and bold racism in building their society, it comes as no surprise that there is no African brand legally considered as Couture or Haute Couture. So can African brands be considered to be on the same caliber? This is where it gets tricky.

As Africans, we definitely need to take notes in the benefits of being stricter with how brands are allowed to present themselves to the more misinformed consumer. Every dressmaker in every small town uses these terms, not because they offer the highest level of quality that that industry has to offer but rather becuase they understand what the language implies and want to seem like without actually being. This results in garments being priced far beyond their actual quality or worth thus scamming innocent customers -who are just trying to look good for their special occasions- out of ridiculous amounts of money.

By applying global standards realistically to the current stages of development the continent’s fashion industries are in, we can begin raising the quality of fashion designers and brands whilst also protecting consumers. It would probably have to be using different words as Haute Couture and Couture are legally protected French terms. But whichever language used, setting such benchmarks will only help the industry grow in a more sustainable direction.

As a continent, we need to define what the highest possible level of fashion is or should be in Africa. Currently, what is pedaled as ‘high fashion’ is more due to which designers have the better word-bending publicists rather than quality of garment. There aren’t any enforced standards. It isn’t because we don’t have the resources, though.

Moving forward, the following should be assessed before considering a brand to be an equivalent of Haute Couture in Africa:

Taken in South Sudan by The Roots Project
  1. Intricacy of Design Execution.

This means how the clothes are made. It should be a custom made piece just for that client through at least 1 fitting, not slight adjustments made to standard size patterns. This also refers to embellishments and finishings. Cutting out pieces of cheap shiny lace and securing it with a bit of thread and a hot glue gun should not count. There are hundreds of thousands of specialized artisans and ateliers with seamstresses highly skilled in both indigenous & foreign techniques of bead work, embroidery, etc. spread across the continent battling to stay afloat partly because they are not being utilized enough by local brands. So, the option to offer better executed handwork in order to elevate quality of a garment is both available and accessible.

2. Quality of Fabric.

We might not have fabrics that are better quality than the French (to be fair, our textile industries have been through a lot this past decade) but we do have better fabrics than those used. Even major brands use cheaper chiffon, pvc leather or satin.There are brands in Southern Africa that don’t even use the authentic Da Gama-produced 3 Cats seShweshwe  as if it isn’t in practically every fabric store in the region. But ‘high fashion’? Surely, these are scammers. Fabrics should be of the best quality available in that country.

3. Permanently Employed In-House Specialized Craftsmen

A conversation that needs to be had is how many brands overwork seamstresses, tailors, pattern makers, etc. in our fashion industries. Most of our skilled craftsmen are over the age of 45 due to our society’s failure to pass down these skills to younger generations. Most brands employ 1 to 4 at a disgustingly low pay and expect them to do the manual labor of what should be over 10 craftsmen. This is a violation and exploitation. Setting a minimum requirement of craftsmen being paid a fair amount to do an evenly distributed amount of work will force brands to treat the people whose skills they would not survive without a lot better if they want to move up in the industry.

If brands want to charge ‘Haute Couture’ prices then they better be producing the highest possible caliber of work. Designers should no longer be permitted to use these terms to falsely promote themselves just because they heard it a few times on TV and councils should be put it place then further supported by government in order to enforcer stricter quality standards.