Why Are Designer Dresses So Expensive? The Business Of Haute Couture…By The Numbers

February 9, 2015  |  

Want that très chic à la Hollywood red carpet look? Balenciaga, Giambattista Valli, Givenchy (and a handful of other tongue-twisting haute couture brands) will demand a year’s salary to drape yourself in their most luxurious fabrics and feel totally justified.

But for a good reason.

You’ll see what I mean. New York Fashion Week is about to happen, so we’re all thinking about the finery that will be gracing the runways. Let us give you a peek inside the business of haute couture, by the numbers.

Brace yourself: a designer dress can range from $45,000 (for a cocktail dress) to $100,000 (for a gown), Nick Verreos writes. Oh yeah, it’s really pricey. But check out the video above for a look at how one of these gowns gets made. While much of your wardrobe might be made in a factory and pushed out quickly, these garments are crafted like works of art.

Valentino notes that the completion of one designer dress can take hundreds of hours — a wedding dress, for example, takes 1,000 hours to complete, according to The Independent. To put that into perspective, that’s 41 days or about five weeks. And here’s the kicker: Each and every haute couture garment is painstakingly made by hand.

At least 20 full-time tailors and seamstresses flex their fashion muscles — from the smallest, microscopic details to the more salient, eye-catching aspects — to bring a designer’s thoughts onto a runway model’s body. According to The Telegraph Fashion, this labor of love must take place in one of Paris’ 11 designer studios (such as Chanel, Dior, and Gaultier), and must make 75 designs a year, to be considered haute couture.

These fashion houses employ about 5,000 people, including 2,200 seamstresses, according to InfoPlease. Haute couture dressmakers, according to My World of Work, are paid $75,000 a year.

What’s more interesting is that haute couture’s massively-priced industry rests on the buying power of a ridiculously small clientele. Only 2,000 women in the world purchase these designer dresses — only 200 are loyal, regular customers. A whopping 60 percent of haute couture clients are American. Consumers of high fashion also hail from Russia, China, and the Middle East, The Telegraph Fashion adds.

These high fashion buyers used to be around the age of 40, but according to Who What Wear, the average haute couture customer now currently hovers around their early 30s. “My customers… I can say 28 to 38 is the core,” says Giambattista Valli told The Telegraph.

Hannibal Laguna at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Madrid Fall/Winter 2015. via Oscar Gonzalez/WENN.com

These posh women don’t go to Macy’s or Forever 21 to purchase a dress — off the rack (oh, how lowly!) — like us peasants.  According to Nick Verreosthe designer-to-costumer process is much more intimate:

“Couture are custom made/made-to-order clothing (as opposes to off-the-rack), beginning with the client choosing the design via the fashion show look books, an appointment is made, consultation, follows, a muslin/toile of the ordered garment is made, 3-5 fittings follow, and then a final fitting and/or delivery of the garment.”

A very small number of these dresses are sold annually: Only 1,500 gowns a year as per Fashion Era‘s estimates.

After all is said and done — the painstaking needlework, the hours upon hours of dressmaking, chaotic runway shows, and flying A-list celebrities to sit front row — fashion houses often find it difficult to make a profit. All the glitz and glamour invested into these ritzy, super-expensive dresses are to augment branding and to sell their less-opulent accessories (perfumes, watches), but not so much the gowns.

“The Couture Collections are used as a marketing tool, to sell auxiliary items of the brand–such as perfumes, sunglasses, accessories,” Nick Verreros adds.

But thanks to the rich getting richer, haute couture is staying afloat. Dior made a profit of $5 billion, a whopping 31 percent rise in 2013. Valentino saw its sales skyrocket by 23 percent in the same year.

You may turn up your nose at haute couture and its extravagant pricing, but the blood, sweat, and tears that stain these designer dresses just might be worth the expense.

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