Where Are the American Haute Couture Designers?

The fall couture shows ended last week, with successful collections from established designers like Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel to newer, more experimental collections from the likes of Iris van Herpen. Countries like Germany, France, Italy, and Belgium all had talent represented on the runways. But if you're looking for a great American name in haute couture, you're going to have to dig deeper.
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Tyler McCall
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The fall couture shows ended last week, with successful collections from established designers like Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel to newer, more experimental collections from the likes of Iris van Herpen. Countries like Germany, France, Italy, and Belgium all had talent represented on the runways. But if you're looking for a great American name in haute couture, you're going to have to dig deeper.
German-born Karl Lagerfeld on the Chanel Couture runway (Getty)

German-born Karl Lagerfeld on the Chanel Couture runway (Getty)

The fall couture shows ended last week, with successful collections from established designers like Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel to newer, more experimental collections from the likes of Iris van Herpen. Countries like Germany, France, Italy, and Belgium all had talent represented on the runways.

But if you're looking for a great American name in haute couture, you're going to have to dig deeper.

There are currently no Americans on the couture week schedule; the last American designer to officially show couture was Ralph Rucci in 2009. Before him, you have to reach back even further--over 60 years--to get to Mainbocher, who rose to prominence in the 1930s.

Which means that in the 150 plus years that the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne has existed, there have only been two American designers to make any impact on the couture industry. There's no shortage of Americans in French ready-to-wear: from Marc Jacobs creating Louis Vuitton's RTW business from scratch in the '90s to the recent appointment of Alexander Wang at Balenciaga, there are plenty of Americans in Paris.

So why are so few entering the realm of haute couture? Well, according to fashion historian Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at FIT, part of the problem comes down to history. "The American system was always focused more on ready-to-wear," she tells me. The American fashion system started out by essentially ripping off popular European designs, only starting to emerge as a design industry of its own around the time of Mainbocher.

"There were small custom dress makers, but they were never organized into anything like the Chambre Syndicale or the Alta Moda in Rome," Steele adds, "so to the extent that the modern fashion system in America is essentially a ready-to-wear system, there really is no historical equivalent to a couture system here."

Italians Maria Grazia Chiuri & Pier Paolo Piccioli for Valentino Couture (Getty)

Italians Maria Grazia Chiuri & Pier Paolo Piccioli for Valentino Couture (Getty)

I asked Steele if luxury houses were having a hard time finding American designers capable of replacing the ones leaving--after all, it took over a year for Dior to finally nail down a creative director after the departure of John Galliano, despite heavily courting Marc Jacobs.

"It’s not hard to find new talent, but to be a designer a big couture house like Dior or Chanel means you have to be designing both ready-to-wear and couture collections, plus all the intermediate resort collections," Steele explains, "so usually they want somebody who is capable of being an art director for the overall look of the house."

"There’s just not that many people who have that much creativity and energy, and experience, to be able to take on such an enormous job," she adds, mentioning Karl Lagerfeld as the example of a designer with the "energy of the Energizer Bunny."

Designer Zac Posen confirmed as much at our conference last month, telling the audience that he was glad he never took a job with a European luxury brand. "I’m very relieved that path didn't happen for me at that age, because those [big luxury brands] are machines," he confessed.

And if the workload is immense, the payoff isn't always worth it. "Nowadays, because couture is such a minute part of the fashion world, it wouldn't make sense for most American designers to show in couture," she admits. The very nature of couture business is changing, taking what Steele calls a "two-prong path": On one side are the well-established fashion houses, like Chanel or Dior. The other path consists of brands or designers who will occasionally present couture "as a way to show the height of craftsmanship and the height of experimentation and design."

"On the other hand you don't really need couture for the latter because you can have someone like Comme des Garcons--Rei Kawakubo is definitely one of the most advanced design talents in the world and yet she shows at ready-to-wear," Steele immediately offers as a counterpoint.

Is there any future for Americans in the haute couture industry? Steele believes there are talents who, if they wanted to try, could pull it off. "Certainly, I think that Rodarte has shown couture [at Pitti W in 2011] and could do so again, I think that if Proenza Schouler wanted to try, or if Ralph Rucci wanted to try that again they certainly could," she tells us.

Proenza Schouler couture? Now that we would love to see--even if we could never, ever afford it.