Seriously, What Is Couture?

It’s time to finally understand fashion’s most elusive arm


Tony Ward Couture Spring/Summer 2016

For many, haute couture is a mystery. We see ready-to-wear collections on the runways every fashion week, and can find fast fashion labels everywhere from town to our heartland malls, but couture? Not so much.

As much as the word is thrown around, there’s actually a stringent criteria to fulfil before you can officially be called a couturier. You have to be certified by the Chambre Syndicated la Haute Couture, and follow this set of rules: You have to design made-to-order pieces for private clients with one or more fittings; have an atelier in Paris with 15 full-time employees; and present a collection of at least 35 looks for day and night each season.


Confused? We feel you — that’s why we talked to couture designer Tony Ward. The Lebanese-Italian designer is definitely no stranger to couture. His father was a couturier, creating gowns and evening dressing for Lebanese high society since 1952. Ward himself studied fashion in the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne before working at Christian Dior Couture, Chloé and Lanvin and setting up his eponymous couture label after that.

For an inside look into the world of couture, read on.

What is couture in a nutshell?

TONY WARD The essence of couture is always doing things differently. When you do couture, you have to be unique, because you want your client to know that when you create something for her it’s going to be one-of-a-kind.

What is the design process like for a couture collection?

TW It’s all about research. We draft ideas and I try to select different materials that would work for the design. I talk to the embroidery team to look at the sketches, how to work around it and give it a certain life. We mesh these things together and create something that’s nice, or less nice. Then, we work on it again and again until we feel like it speaks to us. If a design speaks to you, it will definitely speak to the client.

It’s a complete and ever-changing process, from sketching to the final product, that can take anywhere from a day to two months to complete. It depends on how clear and confident your idea is.

What is a typical day like for a couture designer?

TW I’m a morning person, so I get up early and have breakfast before heading to the workshops to say hi to everyone. I meet my couture managers, then my marketing department, before having my third coffee of the day. Mornings are usually for meetings, because I like to dedicate my afternoons to developing my collections.

What is one thing people don’t know about being a couturier?

TW It’s a tough life, it's not all glitz and glamour. You have to work all the time and bring out new ideas all the time. You have to look fresh even if you’re feeling meh. And you have to deal with crazy people, as much as the nice ones. It’s honestly like any other business, except you don’t have the luxury of being creative.

What are some crazy encounters you’ve had with difficult clients?

TW One client recently ordered a very expensive couture gown and during the fitting, I told her I wouldn’t be around when it was time for her to collect the dress. So when it was collection day, she was very upset that both my couture manager and I were not in the office, despite the fact that our assistants were eager to help, the dress was perfectly ready and that I already told her I wouldn't be around. The problem is, some clients think that if they buy the dress, they buy you.

How do you balance the creative and business side of couture?

TW The advantage of couture is that it has no limit. You’re feel to develop your collection or piece according to whatever you want and there are no budget constraints since it’s not a production for the masses. So there’s never any way that the business side of things could ever control the creative aspect.

With fast fashion and more straight-off-the-runway ready-to-wear collections, is there an urgency to create more when it comes to couture?

TW This is not a game I want to be a part of. This is how I see it: Traditionally, the lifespan of fashion starts when it debuts on the runway, and it slowly matures until it’s released in store after six months, and only dies after a year. If you take this away, you don’t give the design time to live. Fast fashion is like fast food — some people like to consume it, some people prefer good cuisine. I just happen to like cuisine.

What is the most memorable thing your father, who was also a couture designer, taught you about couture?

TW Patience. It’s more about the idea of waiting for the right moment to do things. Sometimes I look at a design and think it’s too avant garde and it should wait before being released. It’s all a question of timing.

Tony Ward Ready-to-Wear Fall/Winter 2016

How do ready-to-wear and couture come together?

TW Our RTW line is very much influenced by our couture line, and vice versa. I’ve used techniques from RTW on couture pieces, as some couture approaches are slow and old-fashioned, so these new techniques will only enhance and give it a more youthful, avant garde feel. 

What is the craziest gown you’ve ever made?

TW We had a dress with almost 200,000 3D special effects done by hand, and took so much work that when I sketched it my team asked me, “are you sure?!” 

I’ve also had a bride come in two days before her wedding, in tears because the dress she had was screwed up. We managed to pull it off and make a dream gown for her in time.

Shop Tony Ward at Belle & Tulle, #03-12 Palais Renaissance.

For more on fashion, head here. Or check out The Story Behind H&M's Eco-Conscious Clothing or We’re Officially Jealous Of Karl Lagerfeld’s Cat

sign up for our newsletter

Sign up to receive a weekly round-up of the latest fashion, beauty and lifestyle news!

By signing up, I consent to Elle’s Terms & Conditions.


you will love this

we also recommend

you’ll love this