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The Secret World of Haute Couture: A way of life, not just mere fashion culture

Recently, Singapore had a rare opportunity to take a look into the fashion industry of the world through the Singapore Fashion film Festival (SFFF), a new initiative by organizers Anne-Laure Bouhadef and Huie-Ling Peh to offer locals a never-before-seen outlook on the fashion industry around the world. And while there were many films about several world-renowned designers and fashion icons, one documentary provided a rare insight into a particularly secretive and esoteric world.

The Secret World of Haute Couture attempts to provide a deeper understanding into the world of haute couture, a world that is normally closed to the “outsiders”, in just around an hour. Filmmaker Margy Kinmonth travels to New York, Paris, and California to meet up with members of the club, and to take a look at how haute couture has changed throughout the years.

The title says it all, really. From the beginning, it is emphasized that the “secret world” that the documentary was about to shed more light on was, without exaggeration, truly secret. A quick search on Google of the various members of the haute couture club proved that to be true (there was close to no information on haute couture members). Many of these members don’t have prolific online presences, and most of their public appearances are in fact rather secretive, considering the fact that you would have to be of equal status to attend the functions and events.

What I understood about the culture of haute couture before watching the documentary was that members of that elitist group was a group of rich and high-class socialites who like to spend all day discussing their exorbitantly priced clothes and where they were made, who made them, etc. Well, the part about them being extremely rich was right. They were willing to pay large sums of money that even goes into the tens of thousands of dollars to obtain a piece of clothing (and even hundreds of thousands for embroidered pieces). However, that wasn’t the essence behind the term “haute couture”.



Most of us do know that the haute couture club was a highly exclusive one, with high standards and social status, but what many of us probably would not know is the real reason behind its exclusivity. Haute couture members always stress that the number one criteria for any potential member to be accepted is that they had to have a true passion for haute couture. Everything else was secondary. Essentially, if you’re rich, high in the social status ladder, and only want to join the haute couture club because it would raise your status even higher, you can forget about ever entering.

Take socialite Becca Cason Thrash for example. She was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and had to work her way up to reach the current status she is enjoying right now, but the key factor was her passion for fashion ever since she was a little girl. She would not be the only one; many other members of the haute couture club are predominantly there due to their passion or involvement in fashion, such as artist and designer Daphne Guinness and former beauty queen and Pan Am stewardess Susan Gutfreund.

It was the same reason that members shun publicity, preferring to stay out of the limelight if possible. Haute couture promotes a sense of exclusivity and uniqueness, and that would vanish if they were to frequently appear in public or on television. Members would also be equally disdained if public icons, such as television and movie stars, appeared in some of the fashion shows that they attend, as with these personalities, paparazzi would flock to these shows, and haute couture members risk having their exclusive pieces shown to the world before they could get a chance to own any of them.



Another haute couture secret that many are interested about, yet not willing to be the first to voice out their interest in, is the cost of these haute couture pieces. Russian baroness Helene de Ludinghausen, the directrice of Yves Saint Laurent for 31 years, revealed to Margy that pieces typically cost from 20,000 dollars to 30,000 dollars, while embroidered pieces would reach the 6-figure mark. So there you go, the beans have finally been spilled.

A short yet informative documentary, The Secret World of Haute Couture aims to provide a deeper understanding of the esoteric world of haute couture, and it has accomplished its mission. However, while seemingly complete, the documentary has created as many questions about the world of haute couture as it has answered. I guess that’s just how it is with haute couture; to get the full picture, you’d have to be a member yourself.

– Bjorn Teo


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