Haute couture isn’t just about hefty price tags and hawking perfume. As the season begins in Paris, Alexander Fury unpicks its unique appeal to the world’s richest women.

The autumn/winter haute couture season started on Sunday in Paris, with Atelier Versace's show. All in all, 12 major houses will show collections this week, with a clutch of lesser-known names propping up a five-day schedule.

Haute couture has been around for 150 years, but is still shrouded in secrecy and bogged down by ignorance. The facts most people know: it is outlandishly unwearable (debatable); astronomically expensive (no actual figures, but estimates average in the upper five figures); and no one much buys it. "Everything is done by hand, it's impossible to estimate the hours ... the final price," says Marco Zanini, the designer behind the revived house of Schiaparelli, who showed his second haute couture collection on Monday.

That's a common, coy couture response. "Most people think that 'couture' means 'expensive'," says Daphne Guinness, a scion of the brewing dynasty who has worn couture for 30 years. "That's just completely wrong. Yes, if you are buying something that is beaded from head to foot by Lesage, of course, it is expensive. But on the whole, it is no different to having a bespoke suit made on Savile Row."

The final assumption, however, is true. The number of haute couture clients worldwide is paltry, between a couple of thousand and mere hundreds. During its post-war heyday, they totalled around 40,000. Jean Paul Gaultier is one of the few couturiers who will actually talk numbers. Sort of. "There are between 60 and 80," he says of his clientele. "But the number has been growing."


What exactly are those women paying for? To borrow a timely football analogy, haute couture is fashion's Premier League - a painstaking, artful craft that requires years of practice to perfect. It is a direct link to the court of the Second Empire, where haute couture was founded by an Englishman, Charles Frederick Worth.

Often abbreviated to "couture" today, really it's the "haute" that matters. That implies the highest levels of expertise. "The French are no slouches," Guinness says. And there are laws to protect the use of the term and stringent rules enforced by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, a governing body established in 1868 to safeguard the industry.

Most important of all? Haute couture must be entirely made-to-measure, sewn by hand and fitted to individual clients' measurements. Therein lies the much-vaunted superiority of haute couture, and the one thing that no one can buy. Time. In fact, the hours in couture are just about the only figure anyone is willing to tot up. Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, of Valentino, have taken to quoting the hours - 400, 500, 800 - spent on especially laborious garments, in their show notes.

Craftspeople - such as the embroidery houses Lesage and Montex, or the feather specialist Lemarie - are kept alive only by the demands of haute couture. "In the late 80s, and early 90s, when they were shutting all the couture houses in Paris, it was very sad," Guinness recalls. "It was 200, 300 years' worth of families who knew how to make lace, knew how to sew. This is not just about rich people putting on something so that they can look better than everyone else."

Chanel began to buy those specialist craft houses in the late 90s to ensure their survival. The organisation they are grouped under, formed in 1997, is titled "Paraffection" - literally, "For the love of". There's a lot of talk about emotion in haute couture. "That's mainly what inspires me," says Raf Simons, of Dior. "That relationship between people, where there is a demand or interest in creating beauty on the body."

"The living soul of dress making," is how Guinness describes it. That's lovely. But in reality, that soul was sold long ago. Since the 80s, haute couture has been relegated to a loss-making PR stunt where hefty prices still barely cover labour costs. "Couture is the trailer for the movie that is the perfume and makeup," says writer Camilla Morton, who worked with Dior for more than a decade. "The way couture is now justified is the red carpet." For many houses, that's the motivation for staying in the couture game - spinning off lucrative sales of beauty and fragrance via the impact of the clothes.

Despite economic downturns, there's been a resurgence in haute couture. Giambattista Valli launched his line in 2011; Versace's couture branch, Atelier, began showing on the catwalk again in 2012 after an eight-year absence; and in January, Marco Zanini showed his first.

And why not? Ready-to-wear prices have rocketed - MatchesFashion.com currently has a Giambattista Valli embroidered coat for £13,860 ($27,205), and a Givenchy cape clocking in at £15,990. The elite who can afford those season on season could easily escalate their spend to couture. "We have much younger, much more international access to couture through the internet," Donatella Versace says. "The clothes I did in Paris are not for a grande dame de Paris. She can't wear it. I don't want her to wear it."

So, in a nutshell, that's the justification for haute couture in the 21st century. The craftsmanship is old, the money is new, the red carpet frocks are borrowed and the skies above Paris are suitably blue in a fresh dawn for this age-old, but not old-age, artisan form.