So What Does 'Couture' Mean, Anyway? Some Use the Term to Convey Cachet, but Few Designers Are Certified as True Couturiers By CHRISTINA BINKLEY Ah, couture! The dozen or so gowns hanging under the "couture" sign at Barneys New York on Madison Avenue the other day looked stunning, with haute prices to match. But since when does a department store, even of the stature of Barneys, sell the hand-stitched, made-to-order haute couture clothes shown to wealthy clients twice a year in Paris? "If it's hanging on a rack and has little sizes in it, then it's ready-to-wear" not couture, says Valerie Steele, who should know, since she edited the Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, a couture-priced tome that sells for roughly $495. Long used by those who wanted to lend a rarified air to their garments or boast that they are hand-stitched, the term couture has been stretched beyond accuracy for years. But lately, as America's love affair with luxury goods reaches a fevered pitch, the word has become ubiquitous in the U.S. The only term that may be even more abused is "luxury" itself. "Nobody really knows anymore, especially in the U.S., what couture is," Ms. Steele explains. "They'll say, 'This couture dress by Ralph Lauren,' and I'm like, 'No. NO.'" Much of this is just clever-sounding branding. No fewer than 20 California-based clothing labels use the word "couture" and almost none are likely to be confused with Chanel. They include Binky Couture, a line of casual clothing for kids; Bump Couture, for mommies to be; and Cut Cute Couture T-shirts. Juicy Couture, which elevated sweatpants to high fashion, now has its own upper-end line that it calls "Couture Couture," with the likes of cropped mink jackets and capris pants. Dogs and Decor I was recently invited to a "canine couture" event involving dogs and Swarovski crystals. There's couture paper, and there's a couture paint store next to Marc Jacobs on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. I discovered this a week after slathering my living room in Dunn-Edwards, the house paint equivalent of prêt-a-porter. There is even sado-masochistic couture. Designer Tressa Williams distinguishes her stylish latex fetish gowns as Fierce Couture because they aren't pedestrian S&M club fare. "We deal with a much more exclusive clientele," she says. We Americans have bitten off yet another tasty French concept, and chewed it into submission, thereby revealing the extent of our naivete. "For you it means 'expensive,'" Pamela Golbin, curator of the Louvre museum's costume collection, told me a few months ago, with a smile. In reality, the haute couture tradition dates to Charles Frederick Worth, a 19th-century Englishman-turned-Parisian who showed his ideas on live models and enjoyed the patronage of Napoleon III. In 1868, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture was created to enforce rules involving fabrics, numbers of employees, and numbers of designs for day and evening wear. This was so strict and costly that only the best of the best could qualify. By the mid-20th century, more than 100 haute couture houses competed earnestly for well-heeled clientele by following the stringent set of rules: sewing by hand, with employees who are French, in ateliers that are French, in France. Legal Protections Today, the tradition remains firmly intact. The term "haute couture" is protected under law by the French Ministry of Industry, and only those designated by the Chamber as couturiers can use the term -- which translates loosely as "high fashion," though the word couture technically means "sewing." (The legal protection does not extend to the use of the word couture alone.) But the sad truth is that the number of designers who follow all the rules and qualify as authentic couturiers today has steadily fallen. As of this year, only eight haute couturiers officially participated in the spring/summer couture shows in January -- though the Chamber still lists two others, Emanuel Ungaro and Jean-Louis Scherrer -- as members. To fill out the shows, another 23 or so guest and correspondent designers are invited to participate, though they are not full-fledged members. They include Valentino and Armani. The fact is, the cost of the detailed handwork, pricey materials and repeat fittings in an haute couture gown approaches the cost of a snazzy car: roughly $50,000. A single dress can require 300 hours of work. Participants see themselves at the forefront of new design, without the tug of crass commerce. But they acknowledge that while their work is prestigious it is largely unprofitable. Quitting the Life Indeed, Yves St. Laurent and Versace recently quit haute couture to focus on more profitable prêt-a-porter lines. Like the impressionists of yore, ready-to-wear designers such as Balenciaga toy with haute-design techniques: intricate seaming or origami folding. Perhaps because their profits aren't threatened by rock-'n'-roll T-shirts and cotton babywear, haute couture designers seem resigned to our culture of couture this-and-that. The "haute couture label is used for so long a time to sell mass-market clothes, accessories, make-up..." sighs Estelle Andre, sister of Adeline Andre, an official couturier who augments her income by designing ballet costumes. "People go in a tax-free shop in an airport and buy a Christian Dior tie and think they bought an haute couture tie." We aren't governed by the French Ministry of Industry on this side of the Atlantic, of course. The intent of the term couture, suggests Julie Gilhart, fashion director at Barneys, is that "there's a real level of craft involved -- it's like the highest level of designer you can buy." Consider, she says, Vionnet, a label famous for its limited quantities and careful craft. But some designers still balk at taking on tradition. When Hungarian sisters Monika and Zsuzsa Kovacs launched their line of big-shouldered jackets and flowing skirts, Monika -- who lives in Los Angeles -- printed up slick black business cards saying "Zsega Couture." Zsuzsa, who lives in Berlin, objected. Monika is now printing up new cards that say only "Zsega." "As my sister said," she explains with resignation, "legally, it's not couture."