American designers have been infiltrating the European fashion capitals and their premier houses for years. But Maggie Norris stands alone as one of the few Americans to step into the realm of haute couture without the backing of a major fashion house.
“I always wanted to work in haute couture,” says Norris, who spent 14 years designing for Ralph Lauren. “It is a very different way of working—four people can spend two weeks making just one gown.”
Norris’ evening gowns, tailored jackets, and corsets are sold by appointment through her New York City atelier and through Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue. The collection, which debuted a year ago, is designed in the United States and produced by two Parisian ateliers. “There are a lot of rules with haute couture,” says Norris. “The first is that it has to be made in France.”
People often use the term couture loosely, says Robert Burke, vice president of fashion at Bergdorf Goodman, who emphasizes the authenticity of Norris’ collection. “Her pieces go from original concepts to sketches to muslin samples for fittings, and then they are produced by licensed couture houses in Paris,” he explains. “This is truly the ultimate in unique and special clothing for women.”
Norris’ distinctive hand-beading and embroidery are done by Francois Lesage, whose detail work for Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, and Schiaparelli is legendary. Such craftsmanship and artistry are what define couture fashion. “Fashion can be art,” says Norris. “If you know how things are made and see the design aspect, you might want to own something just because it is beautiful and made by the best craftspeople in the world.”
Fewer than 200 women worldwide invest in haute couture—paying as much as $150,000 per gown for the privilege—but that does not deter Norris. “Even if there are only five women who love what I do, that’s fine,” she says, noting that her gowns top out at around $50,000. “For me, haute couture is about following a dream.”
Nevertheless, she is attempting to reach a larger audience with her new American couture collection that is made domestically and sold exclusively at Stanley Korshak in Dallas and at Bergdorf Goodman, next to her haute couture pieces. “The haute couture and American couture collections reflect the same care and thought, but they use different construction methods,” she explains, noting that the distinction affects the price. An evening gown produced in the United States might sell for $8,000 compared to $28,000 for one that is handmade in Paris.
“Besides the quality, these clothes offer a very elegant, refined, and somewhat old-world approach to design,” says Burke, who notes that Norris blends tradition with a fresh, modern approach to fashion. “The idea of wearing riding boots with an evening dress, or jodhpurs with an embroidered, boned jacket is purely Maggie.”
Some might interpret the mix of Great Gatsby and equestrian influences as theatrical and showy, but Norris disagrees. “I try to do things that are really timeless,” she says. “This is not about fashion, but rather a look that women can wear when it’s in and when it’s out.”