26 Jul

How Ethical are Haute Couture Brands?

Prestigious and unique in the fashion world, Haute Couture is unapologetically Parisian. Born in 19th century France, Haute Couture is often associated with elegant, elaborate, and exclusive gowns made from high quality and very often expensive fabrics.

When thinking of Haute Couture, famous designer names might come to mind like Chanel, Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Cardin … but you might also be wondering how sustainable these famous brands actually are. How ethical is Haute Couture?

What do we mean by Haute Couture?

The phrase “Haute Couture” has been misused and misunderstood for a long time, so let’s clear things up once and for all. “Couture” is French for “dressmaking”, and “Haute” means “high”. Haute Couture doesn’t just mean “high fashion” and luxurious: High fashion isn’t Haute Couture, and not all luxury houses are Haute Couture. In fact, there are precise rules for qualification.

Charles Frederick Worth, the father of Haute Couture, created the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne in the 19th century, a union that still exists and chooses who gets to be qualified as “Haute Couture”.

To qualify as a true Haute Couture house, the fashion houses must respect several rules: designs must be made-to-order for private clients; there must be more than one fitting; the house must use an “atelier”, and employ at least fifteen full-time staff. In addition to this, the fashion houses must have twenty full-time technical workers in the work room, and present a collection of at least 50 original designs in January and July during Haute Couture weeks.

It’s only after meeting these precise criteria that brands can be admitted into this very elite circle. But Haute Couture certainly doesn’t guarantee fashion houses are ethical and sustainable, so we took a look at the ethics of the most famous Haute Couture brands for you.

Chanel

Rated: Not Good Enough

Founded by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in the 1920s, and revived by the late Karl Lagerfeld in the 1980s, Chanel is known for revolutionising women’s fashion by ditching the restrictive corsets and replacing them with more flattering, functional, and minimalistic silhouettes. But how is Chanel doing on the ethical and sustainable front?

Sadly, Chanel rates “Not Good Enough” on the environment, people, and animals. The brand doesn’t use any eco-friendly materials, doesn’t show evidence it is ensuring workers are paid a living wage, plus it still uses leather, wool, exotic animal hair, and silk.

See the rating.

Dior

Rated: Not Good Enough

Also founded in the 20th century by Christian Dior, Dior (yes, Haute Couture houses are usually eponymous) also revolutionised womenswear in its own way. The designer is most well known for being the creator of the “New Look”, a modern silhouette at the time, which broke with traditions by emphasising women’s hips and busts. But how ethical is the LVMH-owned brand?

Like Chanel, Dior is rated “Not Good Enough”. Although the brand is a member of the Better Cotton Initiative, there is no evidence that it minimises textile waste, or that it has taken any meaningful action to reduce or eliminate hazardous chemicals. In addition to this, Dior sources its final stage of production from countries with extreme risk of labour abuse but does not mention payment of a living wage!

See the rating.

Givenchy

Rated: Not Good Enough

Also owned by LVMH and founded in the mid 20th century by Hubert de Givenchy, the brand is known for dressing Audrey Hepburn in her most renowned movies, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where she wore the famous “little black dress”.

Givenchy’s rating is “Not Good Enough”. Because Dior and Givenchy are both owned by luxury conglomerate LVMH, the brands have a very similar rating: Givenchy is also a member of the Better Cotton Initiative and shows no evidence that it minimises textile waste, or that it has taken any meaningful action to reduce or eliminate hazardous chemicals. Givenchy also sources its final stage of production from countries with extreme risk of labour abuse with no mention of paying fair wages in sight.

See the rating.

Maison Margiela

Rated: Not Good Enough

Another French house, but founded by a Belgian designer this time. Martin Margiela, who resigned in the early 2000s, is known for his avant-garde and deconstructive designs, such as the Tabi boot, Margiela’s take on a traditional split-toe Japanese sock.

Unsurprisingly, Margiela is also rated “Not Good Enough”. The brand does not publish sufficient relevant information about its environmental policies, plus there is no evidence it ensures payment of a living wage in its supply chain or that it audits any of its supply chain!

See the rating.

While Haute Couture doesn’t equal ethical and sustainable by any stretch of the imagination, if you’re on the hunt for creative and unique high fashion creations, we’ve found 4 ethical luxury alternatives:

FH Christensen

Rated: Good

FH Christensen designs cocktail and evening wear that mixes exotic lavishness with elegant professionalism. The brand uses low-waste cutting techniques to minimise textile waste, and manufactures all products locally to reduce its carbon footprint. FH Christensen also traces most of its supply chain!

See the rating.

Shop FH Christensen.

RVDK

Rated: Good

RVDK, who is a guest Haute Couture member, offers a positive and ethical high fashion alternative. It creates high-quality, long-lasting products, and uses a high proportion of eco-friendly materials including recycled materials and deadstock. Its use of eco-friendly materials reduces its climate impact and limits the amount of chemicals and water used in production.

See the rating.

Shop RVDK.

Teatum Jones

Rated: Good

Teatum Jones designs bold, vibrant, and modern fashion created from human stories. Worn by the one and only Emma Watson, the brand set up its final stage of production in the UK, a medium risk country for labour abuse, and it traces most of its supply chain, including all of the final and second stages of production. Teatum Jones also uses some eco-friendly materials, including recycled leather and wool certified by the ZQ label.

See the rating.

Shop Teatum Jones.

Stella McCartney

Rated: Good

A member of the Ethical Trading Initiative and Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Stella McCartney has set some excellent environmental standards across the luxury fashion industry. Stella uses some eco-friendly materials, including recycled polyester and organic cotton, and has a strategy in place to reduce waste across its entire supply chain. It has also adopted the ETI Code of Conduct that includes a living wage definition!

See the rating.

Shop Stella McCartney @ Farfetch.

Voilà!

Editor's note: feature image via Chanel, all other images via brands mentioned. Good On You has big plans for ethical fashion in 2019! To support our work, we may earn a commission on sales made using our offers code or affiliate links.

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