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The contrast between haute couture and ready-to-wear

By Esmee Blaazer


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Images: Valentino SS23, Haute Couture (left) and AW23, Ready to Wear (rechts) via Launchmetrics Spotlight.

Ready-to-wear and couture present two different approaches to making clothing. While haute couture refers to handmade, unique and custom-made garments, ready-to-wear is clothing produced in large(er) quantities in a factory – which incidentally still always requires human hands – and is accessible to the general public because of its lower price. FashionUnited has outlined the differences between these two categories in this background piece.

Click on the arrows in the text for more information.


  1. Ready-to-wear/Prêt-à-porter/Confection
  2. Haute Couture/Couture

1. Ready-to-wear/Prêt-à-porter/Confection

What is the difference between ready-to-wear, prêt-à-porter and confection?

These three terms are synonyms of each other. Confection is the Dutch term, ready-to-wear the English term and prêt-à-porter the French. Often you see these three terms used interchangeably, but the meaning remains the same.

Ready-to-wear refers to clothing produced on a large scale in a factory, in standard sizes (such as 34-44 and XS-XL), to be sold in finished condition.

Background: The production of ready-to-wear takes place in factories and workshops

How does that work?

In a ready-to-wear factory, garment making is divided into a large number of separate operations, such as cutting and sewing. For cutting, the sizes are more or less fixed, and are done by means of patterns in different, often standardised, sizes, making mass production easier and cheaper.

Assembling a garment and post-processing often still require human handling. Usually several textile workers (or garment workers) each take care of a small piece of the garment. There are those who insert zippers all day, make buttonholes or stitch back panels. This is considered the most efficient way of working and comes with a practical reason: there is usually a machine for one type of finishing or operation.

Read more here: Everything about the (traditional) supply chain and the core players of fashion industry

Clothing brands such as Levi's and Primark, as well as fashion designers such as Bottega Veneta, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger all produce and sell ready-to-wear clothing.

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Ready-to-wear in pictures: Bottega Veneta FW23, via Launchmetrics Spotlight
Ready-to-wear in pictures: Tommy Hilfiger SS23 via Launchmetrics Spotlight (left) and C&A AW23, courtesy of C&A (right)

How much does ready-to-wear cost?

Prices of ready-to-wear clothing vary enormously, and can range from a few tens of pounds to several thousand pounds for designer brands.

Pricing is largely dependent on the price segment in which the clothing brand operates. A t-shirt from a discount store can cost as little as five pounds, while a t-shirt from a luxury brand costs around 300 pounds.

There are five different price segments in the fashion world that clothing brands, fashion companies and stores are active within. Each segment represents a certain price level:

  • Low segment: Primark, Next
  • Low-mid segment: Marks & Spencer
  • Middle segment: Gap, Karen Millen, Whistles, French Connection, Nike, Adidas and Reformation
  • Mid-high segment: Ted Baker, Lacoste, Kate Spade, Diesel and Maje
  • High segment: luxury department store Harrods and think of brands such as Gucci, Prada and Bottega Veneta, which are also referred to as high-end fashion.
  • Are ready-to-wear collections shown on the runway? Are there ready-to-wear fashion weeks? If so, when?

    Yes, ready-to-wear is often presented on the catwalk in dedicated fashion weeks. Large fashion houses such as Bottega Veneta and Louis Vuitton and clothing brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein present shows during these fashion weeks.

    Some of the most famous fashion weeks are:
    - New York Fashion Week (February and September)
    - London Fashion Week (February and September)
    - Milan Fashion Week (February and September)
    - Paris Fashion Week (February/March and September/October)

    The four major fashion weeks take place consecutively every six months. This is also called the ‘fashion circus’: buyers, fashion editors, celebrities and influencers go from fashion week to fashion week to follow the shows and attend presentations.

    NB: By the way, this concerns the women’s fashion weeks (‘womenswear catwalk season’). There are also men’s fashion weeks, where fashion houses show their latest men’s ready-to-wear on the catwalk. These events also take place twice a year, namely in January and June.

    Did you know that the clothes you see on the catwalk are sample garments?

    Pieces on the runways are dubbed clothing samples, which must then be produced post-show. The clothing brands sell their latest collection to retailers, with production orders not placed with factories until retailers have made their orders (in large part) with the clothing brands.

    In this background piece you can read all about it: This is how a fashion brand’s collection is created

    2. Haute Couture/Couture

    What is haute couture? How much does it cost? Why is it so expensive?

    Haute couture is a French word that means ‘high art of sewing or tailoring’. Haute couture, or couture for short, is also used in Dutch and English.

    Haute couture is considered the pinnacle of fashion, the cream of the crop. It is the most exclusive clothing in existence.

    Couture is handmade by specialised tailors, often of luxurious/high quality, special fabrics with beautiful details, such as embroidery and appliques.

    One haute couture dress may contain as many as two thousand hours of handwork.

    Couture - unlike ready-to-wear - is unique. There is often only one of each design, and the piece is also custom-made especially for the client so that it fits perfectly and is tailored to their body and desires.

    Couture is also the most expensive clothing available that only a small group of people can afford to purchase. For example, while most houses are unwilling to publish their prices, a dress from the Valentino runway can cost 80,000 pounds.

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    Couture in pictures: Christian Dior SS23, Haute Couture via Launchmetrics spotlight
    Couture in pictures: Viktor&Rolf SS23, Haute Couture via Launchmetrics Spotlight
    In these pictures you can see Chanel’s SS23 Haute Couture (left) & Chanel ready-to-wear AW23 (right) via Launchmetrics Spotlight.

    How can you become a couturier?

    The Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (formerly known as the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture) is the organisation that determines which fashion houses and designers can call themselves haute couture houses. The Federation (FHCM) was founded in 1868 and represents the interests of the French fashion industry. It is responsible for organising Paris Fashion Week and overseeing the rules and regulations of the country’s industry.

    In order to obtain haute couture status, fashion houses must meet strict criteria, such as making custom-made garments for individual clients and having a studio in Paris with at least 15 full-time employees. Designs must also be handcrafted using traditional couture techniques, and collections must be shown twice a year during official Paris Fashion Week.

    The FHCM has compiled a list of fashion houses and designers allowed to carry haute couture status, a selection that is then revised annually.

    The text continues below the video

    In this three minute video take a look inside Christian Dior's atelier. You see the craftsmen (also called "petit mains" ) at work. The images were shot in the last 24 hours leading up to the Christian Haute Couture Show, and so you can see how the finishing touches are put on the French fashion house's AW17 collection. Credit video: Business of Fashion (BOF).

    "Petit mains" is a French term best translated as ‘the little hands’. The term refers to the highly skilled artisans, usually women, who specialise in delicate handiwork and embroidery. They are hired or employed by high-end fashion houses - such as a Christian Dior in this example - to create couture garments and accessories that require great attention to detail and precision.

    Which fashion designers are couturiers?

    There are several fashion designers and fashion houses that have been granted haute couture status by the FHCM, including Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Valentino and Elie Saab.

    The number of fashion houses and designers selected is limited and changes every season, with those wishing to obtain such a status required to meet strict criteria and comply with the rules and regulations of the FHCM, making it a special recognition.

    Examples of such designers to have garnered such an acclaim include Iris van Herpen and Viktor & Rolf. Designers considered permanent haute couture members include Maison Martin Margiela, Giambattista Valli and Adeline André.

    The text continues under the photos

    Couture in pictures: Viktor & Rolf couture SS23. Credit: Stephane De Sakutin / AFP
    Couture in pictures: Iris van Herpen Haute Couture SS23. Credit: Iris van Herpen.

    Is there also an Haute Couture fashion week? What is the haute couture show calendar?

    Twice a year in Paris Haute Couture Week takes place, where couturiers present their outstanding craftsmanship through spectacular catwalk presentations. The event is held annually in January and July.

    One of the most high profile shows at Paris Couture Week in July 2016 was Chanel's show. The French fashion house transformed show venue Grand Palais into a couture atelier, including rolls of fabric, work tables and busts. Fun fact: creative director Karl Lagerfeld accepted applause from the show in the company of four seamstresses from the Chanel atelier.

    Click on the photo to play the video of the catwalk show.

    The contrast between haute couture and ready-to-wear

    Image: Chanel - © Catwalkpictures.com

    Image: AW16 Haute Couture Chanel via Launchmetrics Spotlight
    Image: AW16 Haute Couture Chanel via Launchmetrics Spotlight

    What is the history of Haute Couture?

    Haute couture has a rich history dating back to the mid-19th century.

    In 1858, Charles Frederick Worth, an English tailor living in Paris, opened his own fashion house. Worth is often considered the founder of haute couture because he was the first to sign his garments and ask customers to pay before receiving their orders. He was also the first to organise fashion shows to present his designs to customers.

    The text continues below the video

    Want to know more or see some of Charles Frederick Worth's work? Then watch this 30-second video. Credit - YouTube video: Aayushi Mahajan.

    After Worth, other fashion houses followed his lead and began to specialise in haute couture. In 1868, the ‘Syndicat de la Couture, des Modes et des Tailleurs’ was formed as an organisation designed to protect the interests of haute couture. In 1945, it was renamed the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode.

    Haute couture was initially a sign of wealth and status for the elite and could only be bought by the very rich.

    However, it was also an important source of inspiration for the ready-to-wear fashion industry, which focused on copying (licensed or not) from haute couture styles and offering affordable fashion to a wider audience.

    A licence in the fashion industry refers to an agreement between two parties, whereby one company (the licensor) grants permission to another company (the licensee) to make and sell products under the licensor's brand or name. This is often used when a well-known brand or designer wants to expand its name and designs into new markets or product categories.

    In the past, for example, the patterns of Parisian couture houses were sold to other stores such as the Netherlands’ Gerzon and de Bonneterie and Metz & Co, under licence agreements. These deals gave the Dutch stores the right to reproduce the designs and patterns and offer them to their customers.

    "Copying" was done both with or without an appointment. By this we are referring to the so-called ‘trickle down’ theory. The trickle-down theory in the fashion industry refers to the idea that exclusive designs and trends in fashion "trickle down" from the designer world.

    After fashion shows, couture designs from the catwalk are noticed by other companies that make affordable clothing (the ready-to-wear companies). They try to create similar styles and trends, but with cheaper materials and at lower prices. These "inspired" versions of the designer styles are then mass-produced and available in regular clothing stores where most people buy their clothes.

    In this background piece you can read more about the trickle-down theory (and the bubble up theory, which again works exactly the other way around): This is how a fashion brand’s collection is created

    In the 1960s and 1970s, haute couture came under pressure from the rise of ready-to-wear, but today haute couture is a symbol of craftsmanship, creativity and exclusivity, and an important source of inspiration for the entire fashion industry. It is still relevant.

    How big is the haute couture market really?

    According to Euromonitor International the global market value of the apparel industry in 2022 is estimated at just under 1.4 trillion US dollars. Marguerite LeRolland, industry manager footwear & apparel at Euromonitor International said: "The haute couture segment, the one-of-a-kind handmade pieces exclusively ready-to-wear, remains quite niche, holding around 1 to 2 percent value share of these global apparel sales.. Despite the haute couture segment being the preserve of selected few clients, it is undeniably a source of inspiration for the entire industry."

    Couture in pictures: Giambattista Valli SS23, Haute Couture via Launchmetrics Spotlight

    What can you tell us about the origins and emergence of ready-to-wear?

    The rise of ready-to-wear began in the second half of the 19th century and continued to grow in the 20th century, especially after World War II. This was due not only to the industrial revolution and economic growth (the growing and working middle class had more and more money to spend), but also to changes in society. People began to dress more according to their daily activities and less to their social status, leading to a greater demand for affordable, practical clothing. This was diametrically opposed to haute couture, which was traditionally associated with the elite and often worn only on special occasions.

    What did the rise and popularisation of ready-to-wear look like in the US?

    As the 19th century progressed, men and women were increasingly able to purchase ‘off-the-rack’ fashion from both department stores and mail order catalogues, with mass production being the main driver behind this sector. Department stores housed these collections, offering clothes at fixed prices across multiple floors.

    While France may have appeared to be at the forefront of ready-to-wear’s development, distance made it more difficult for other countries to connect with the fashion houses of Paris. This particularly rang true for America, causing a problem that was then solved by the Ehrlich Brothers in 1903, who decided to bring French couture to a department store in New York. In the location, women would wear the designs in what could be considered the world’s first fashion show. This style of ready-to-wear also began to spread beyond just designers and began taking cues from Hollywood stars, who often helped to further popularise fashionable silhouettes.

    - Parts of this article text were generated with an artificial intelligence (AI) tool and then edited.
    - FashionUnited archive, including the article ‘Why haute couture remains relevant’ of journalist Don-Alvin Adegeest, and background articles already published by Esmee Blaazer.
    - Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode website.
    - The Correspondent article "How clothing became a disposable product" by Emy Demkes, dated Sept. 22, 2020.
    - Statistics ready-to-wear and haute couture are exclusive by Euromonitor International delivered at FashionUnited's request, on May 12, 2023.

    Read more:
    Fashion Education
    Haute Couture
    Pret a porter
    Ready to Wear