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Very few women today can boast of having their measurements discreetly stored at one of Paris’s haute couture houses – and the clientele going for private fittings in grand 19th-century salons at each new collection is dwindling to dangerously low levels.

Long gone is the time when, just after the war, sophisticated and wealthy ladies could choose their winter and spring wardrobes from more than a hundred maisons de couture. In 2004, there were only a dozen of them left, among them Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Gaultier, Lacroix and Lanvin. And of those, only two grand couturiers are still alive: Christian Lacroix and Jean-Paul Gaultier.

And yet in people’s minds throughout the world, France is inseparable from couture, fashion and style. Paris’s latest trends are as scrutinised by international fashion editors as the white smoke above St Peter’s in Rome is by a billion Roman Catholics at each new pope’s election.

Of course, Paris is no more the only fashion Mecca in the world. In the last four decades, the French capital has had to share the limelight with, among others, Milan, New York and, more recently, London. Ambitious students who want to become fashion designers are as likely to choose to study at Central Saint Martins in London, Bunka in Tokyo, La Cambre in Brussels or Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts as at Studio Bercot in Paris.

Long gone is the time when, just after the war, sophisticated and wealthy ladies could choose their winter and spring wardrobes from more than a hundred maisons de couture. In 2004, there were only a dozen of them left, among them Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Gaultier, Lacroix and Lanvin. And of those, only two grand couturiers are still alive: Christian Lacroix and Jean-Paul Gaultier.

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Only 2,200 seamstresses are employed in the whole of haute couture and it is estimated that no more than 2,000 women in the world are regular customers

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[col col=6]In the last 15 years, London alone has given the world famous designers such as John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo. However, every single one of them had to undergo the inevitable Paris rite of passage, making their debuts and rising through the ranks, respectively, at Dior, Givenchy, Chloé and Céline, which is what truly made them international stars. Such is the aura of French fashion.

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“If a seam is not quite right, that is a matter of life and death,” Ginette Spanier, the head of Pierre Balmain’s maison for 30 years, once said. Attention to the most intricate of details and sophistication in all things are probably what always set French fashion apart, even before couture was born in the mid-nineteenth century.

During the Ancien Régime, style was as vital as wit. Anyone devoid of either would not go very far at the Court of Versailles. Famous courtesans, such as Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s official mistress, owed their power as much to their intelligence as to their dress sense and style. When inventing new dresses, Rose Bertin, Marie-Antoinette’s personal designer, nicknamed France’s “minister for fashion” by the Queen’s inner circle, was inspired by architecture, painting and music; her creations were copied all across Europe.

In 1867, Englishman Charles Frederick Worth opened his first maison in Paris where fashion was a quest for both beauty and uniqueness. Made by hand from start to finish, with exquisite fabrics, following complex designs, requiring the most expert of seamstresses and skilled technicians, French couture became known for being, literally, priceless. Like oeuvres d’art.

It should be no surprise, then, that to this day the term haute couture is protected by law and its rules are so clearly defined. The term requires the design of made-to-measure garments for private clients with personal fittings, a Paris workshop dedicated to dressmaking and tailoring with a minimum of 20 full-time skilled technicians, and finally the public showing of two collections a year comprising 50 original designs each, including both day and formal evening wear.

In its heyday, a leading house such as Dior retained hundreds of seamstresses in a dozen workrooms in Paris; in 1951, Dior alone accounted for 5 per cent of France’s export revenue. Today only 2,200 petites mains or seamstresses are employed in the whole of haute couture and it is estimated that no more than 2,000 women in the world are regular customers. With some clothes taking up to 700 hours to create, simple daywear starts around £8,000 a piece while elaborate, unique evening dresses made of metres of precious and rare fabrics cost even more.

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