If you are wondering what a wedding gown that took 450 hours to create looks like, pop into Ghanati Couture.

Just the train threatens to swallow the floor. It is three metres long and six metres wide, and with its Parisian pleated organza flowers and crystals resembles a sparkly eiderdown.

And, unlike the tales of Rumpelstiltskin, the elfin man who spun straw into gold, or the elves that made fine leather shoes for the poor shoemaker in the Brothers Grimm fairytales, it's real.

It is the work of 27 craftsmen – from designers to tailors and embroiderers. It's on display on the ground floor boutique section of Ghanati. The gown, crafted with 275 metres of French taffeta, satin and tulle is embellished by hand with 4,500 sequins, Swarovski crystals, Vietnamese sea pearls, and embossment thread.

It is an example of the tradition of haute couture, where one handcrafted and individually designed piece can take a minimum of 120 hours to produce.

Haute couture genuflects at the pulpit of fashion. It has done so for more than a century. It is the highest segment of fashion, says Arifa Ali Avan, creative director of Ghanati.

"Haute couture is like the Bentley of the automobile industry. Couturiers are the arbiters of the fashion industry; they will always enjoy popularity."

People often carp at haute couture, and ask what all the fuss is about. "The answer lies in the detail: fabric, cut, process, embroidery and tailoring.

A haute couture piece is the ultimate in luxury, with its seamless fit and exquisite finish," she says.

At Ghanati, the atelier is upstairs. It is where this gown and countless others are created. Embroiders hunch over wooden frames to work with needles and gimlets, crystals and sequins.

Tailors work with ornamental fabrics like lamé and Venetian lace on high tables. Finishers work on mannequins with hoops and crinoline.

There is also a bright haberdashery-like corner with hundreds of coloured spools.

Arifa's mellifluous voice sweetens the background drone of sewing machines. "Just fixing the lining for the gown took about 30 hours. It isn't uncommon to spend more than 45 metres of fabric or hundreds of hours on one haute couture piece," she says.

Haute couture in the Middle East

Haute couture is not restricted to the fashionista, celebrities or royalty. Nor is it influenced by geography, says Arifa.

"Those who understand the value of craftsmanship will appreciate an haute couture garment anywhere in the world. It's hugely popular in the Middle East.

For couturiers like Dior and Valentino, the Middle East is the second largest market globally," she says. Arifa, who directs seasonal trends, takes care of client relations and oversees production at Ghanati, admits the haute couture industry in the Middle East hides unsavoury facts.

"There are quite a few haute couture houses that aren't loyal to the craft, and function as tailoring shops.

Thankfully a few Arabian couturiers like Elie Saab, Georges Chakra and Zuhair Murad are bringing international recognition and credibility."

Demand despite high prices

The fashion demands of this region are the same as any other, where clients look for quality, style, and in some cases, clothing that reflect heritage. Ghanati, established in 1972, is one of the oldest haute couture houses in the region.

Its clientele includes residents, royalty from the GCC and celebrities like Aishwarya Rai; their design portfolio includes wedding and evening gowns, cocktail dresses and accessories like shoes and matching purses. Arifa is tempted to divulge names of her clients, but says, "It is against haute couture principles."

Increasing haute couture sales in the Middle East are ascribed to pricing (which isn't as high as Europe's), accessibility and the Arabian perception of fashion.

"Handmade and exclusivity are two important qualities appreciated here more than in Europe. Then there is fashion governed by traditional taste – designs with elaborate embellishment. Arabs tend to reject the European philosophy of 'less is more'," she says.

Haute couture follows universal principles of production and loyalty to the craft. Arifa says, "Ghanati's fabric suppliers in Paris or Milan are common to both Giorgio Armani Privé and Elie Saab."

Yet the finest of craftsmanship and most recherché fabrics rarely justify the inflated price tags of haute couture pieces.

While Arifa agrees, she mentions that not all haute couture houses pass on material and exorbitant marketing campaign costs to customers. "In Europe especially haute couture is a spectacle. To uphold the image and meet demand, tailoring is often outsourced to regions where labour is cheap.

At Ghanati, we care about business ethics. We don't sell an haute couture dress for Dh20,000 that cost us $200 to produce in China."

Defining the haute couture customer

Haute couture is for the aesthete. As Arifa points out, "It is for the lady who does things a certain way. She is the kind who buys an expensive car with superb finishes or an authentic furniture item. It can be a status symbol, but more importantly, it is about good taste."

Still, Dubai doesn't enjoy the loyal haute couture following that Europe does. This can be attributed to something as general as standards, or to something more specific, like insufficient regulation.

Clearly there is a seamy side to the industry here. "There is a clear lack of regulation or understanding. From purveyors of material to models that showcase haute couture garments, there is a lack of quality," says Arifa.

Haute couture production

The process of an haute couture dress is universal. Clients come in for a provisional meeting to discuss what they are looking for. Sketches are drawn up and approved. Fabrics are ordered before the dress goes into production.

Then clients come for fittings.

At Ghanati, there are five main processes – fabric conditioning and treating (where the fabric is treated to ensure it falls correctly, and moulds itself well); cutting (where sections are cut to be stitched together); tailoring; embroidery and embellishment; and finishing.

"A client meeting is often unpredictable. Some clients are very trusting and give the designer complete freedom. The designer sketches during the meeting. Only after the client is happy do we take measurements and select the fabric.

If embroidery is part of the design, we prepare a sample piece for the client. The next step is production."

Changing times for haute couture

The landscape of haute couture at the moment is not as vibrant, however, as fewer patrons and even fewer haute couture houses now enter the industry. What was once the juggernaut of the fashion industry is experiencing unfavourable changes.

According to Arifa, the '70s were the most vibrant years. "An haute couture fashion show used to have about 70 exits [dresses]. Today it has been reduced to 40."

These changes can also be put down to changing fashion attitudes. "Haute couture used to be enjoyed by the upper echelons of society who had money and class.

Today you find less old money and more new money. It is more about showing off the label now," she says.

Another factor that speaks of couture's decline in a global context are the growing trends of conservation and egalitarianism, which seem at odds with haute couture's love for excess and exclusivity.

To this Arifa says, "Materialism is integral to society. It has always been that way. Globalisation may have resulted in blurry borders and cross-culturalisation, but I believe exclusivity and excess are thriving. Never before have we been more aware of designer goods and palatial homes."