The percentage of Millennial couture clients worldwide is growing, and fast. Along with Gen Z, Millennial spending power will account for 45 per cent of the global personal luxury goods market by 2025 according to a study by Bain & Company.
In the fast-fashion world of democratised luxury, many Millennials opt for experiences over products – so retailers need to be ever more creative if they want to lure customers away from the ease of online shopping. And what could be more immersive than being personally fitted for your garment by a designer and a team of couturiers?
At its peak, following Christian Dior’s 1947 New Look, the number of haute-couture clients in the world was approximately 20,000. Today, that group is closer to 4,000 – but its buying capacity is formidable. As Karl Lagerfeld has stated, clients in days past may have bought five couture dresses, whereas modern buyers will buy 20 – and an increasing percentage are edging closer to 40. But whereas haute couture was once the preserve of older women, more recently “We have witnessed an interesting phenomenon of generational change,” according to fashion mogul Ralph Toledano. Millennials are now fair game in the seductive world of the maisons.
So what exactly constitutes couture? “Haute couture is a spearhead in terms of creation – a fantastic laboratory of both craftsmanship and design innovation. [It] is a land of free expression for designers and a tremendous image builder for brands,” explains Toledano, who is president of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. For all the creativity involved, that snappily titled organisation hints at the real nature of couture – a tightly controlled process of number-crunching overseen by the French Ministry of Industry.
At present, only 14 designers are permitted to call themselves haute couturiers, with four ‘correspondent members’ (those not based in Paris, such as Viktor & Rolf, Valentino, Elie Saab and Giorgio Armani Privé) and 14 ‘guest member’ houses on the runway schedule, including Ulyana Sergeenko, Iris van Herpen and Maison Rabih Kayrouz. Houses, with exceptions for smaller couturiers, are required to present 25 made-to-order looks per year, each requiring a minimum of one fitting, realised by a full-time staff of at least 20 in an atelier in Paris. A couture garment can take anywhere from 150 to over 6,000 hours to create, ranging from a simple dress or suit to a heavily decorated and embellished gown, and can cost anywhere from €9,000 to €1 million (which, according to Reuters, is the price a couture wedding dress by Dior might fetch).
It’s no secret that Millennials, aged between 19 and 35 years old, have exercised their powerful influence on the luxury fashion industry for some time now, breaking down dress codes and influencing hybrid high-low styles of dressing. They desire clothing that is rooted as much in reality and practicality as in the new, fun and frivolous. As the biggest demographic segment – there are approximately 2 billion Millennials globally, according to the Pew Research Centre – their desires and spending patterns will drive production for the next two decades and they have the most spending power of any generation yet, so it’s logical that they are increasing the demand for bespoke, personalised experiences.
“We do work with a good amount of Millennials,” explains a representative from Maison Rabih Kayrouz, the eponymous label founded by the ex-Chanel and Dior designer, known for his extravagant and elaborately decorated creations. “Around 25 percent of our customers are between 20 and 30, with a total of 35 percent below 40.”
“The youngest used to be insiders and enter the market through heritage,” says Toledano. “It is still the case, but a new form of clientele has emerged – even younger than before, uninitiated and spread around the world.” One reason for this is accessibility. As designers and brands scramble to find new ways to connect with their client base, consumers are being given unprecedented insight into the secretive world of couture – an insider glimpse behind traditionally closed doors.
“Houses’ websites are now fuelled by formats adapted for Millennials,” says Toledano, describing platforms that feature designers imparting their inspirations directly, imagery that’s more festive than formal, filmed tours of ateliers, and even tutorials. An educational new chapter has been opened, albeit in a very respectful way. “To keep a hand on the future, brands are learning to ‘talk Millennial’, but they do it without forgetting their ‘mother tongue’,” he adds.
If the increasingly youthful front rows at Couture Fashion Week are anything to go by, today’s ‘haute’ clients are no longer shrouded in mystique and discretion. Dotted with influencers, celebrities and women in their 20s and 30s from the Middle and Far East, China and India, these audiences, Maison Rabih Kayrouz’s representative tells Vogue, are made up of “the daughters or wives of important businessmen, celebrities, singers, actresses, ballet dancers, fashion editors and bloggers”– and their numbers have increased significantly in recent years.
But while Millennials are dragging couture into the 21st century, they’re also emulating the connoisseurs of past eras – sustaining the business of couture, and preserving its art for future generations. Take Wendy Yu, a long-term couture client who has yet to hit 30. The daughter of China’s largest wooden-door manufacturer, her passion for exquisite garments began just like anyone else’s – collecting international editions of Vogue and revelling in the feeling of wearing what she saw within their pages. You can sense her keen interest in the detail of couture – a passion she made professional in 2015 with the founding of Yu Holdings, a fashion investment firm with powerful clout. And she’s turning to arts patronage, too, as part of the Met Museum’s Events Committee in New York.
In her wardrobe, Yu favours heritage brands such as Chanel, Dior and Valentino, as well as smaller houses such as Viktor & Rolf and Schiaparelli, which she buys for special occasions. “I’ve been collecting for a number of years now,” she says. “My first purchase was a two-piece tulle gown from Giambattista Valli, which is surprisingly versatile. I’ve worn the bodice with velvet tailored trousers or a black, slim-cut Giorgio Armani skirt countless times. My most recent purchase at Couture Fashion Week was a pastel-pink suit from Ralph & Russo.”
For her, the draw of haute couture is the honour and privilege of working one-to-one with a designer to create something entirely custom, which crosses the boundary from garment to collectible art form. “One of my most loved dresses is a beautiful gown from Dior, a similar design to Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscars gown from 2013,” she says. “It took six months to make and a total of five meetings with the atelier.” When it comes to the preservation of her own collection, Yu would like to continue her work in posterity. “One day, I’d love to open China’s first fashion museum. Therefore, I feel each purchase I make is an investment that will eventually become a part of fashion history.”
adapted from Vogue
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