Haute Couture Will Never Die! Categorical Work, Status, and Category Persistence / Déborah Philippe (U. of Lausanne), David Zjtmann (IFM), Alain Debenedetti (U. Gustave Eiffel), François Collet (ESADE)
Categories, as cognitive and normative interfaces, play an important role in the functioning of markets. Research on category dynamics has investigated how categories emerge, evolve, wither, or come back to life, but we know much less about how categories persist. Building on recent works on category viability, we argue that maintaining the viability of a category requires considerable categorical work, particularly in the face of changing circumstances. We further suggest that the status of a category may significantly affect its viability. We explore these dynamics in the context of the high-end fashion field. Building on a rich qualitative dataset, we illuminate the categorical work undertaken to preserve the viability of the haute couture category since 1911. We find that actors strategically adjusted the levels of coherence and distinctiveness of the category to adapt them to the environment. We distinguish between horizontal and vertical distinctiveness and find that vertical (status-based) distinctiveness occupied a central position in the strategies deployed to define and protect the category’s boundaries and maintain its viability. The status of haute couture and its afferent symbolic value made it possible to repurpose it, thereby ensuring its survival over time. These findings contribute to research on category persistence.