THE BUSINESS OF CHIC

Ah, Paris. Is it still the world’s fashion capital? Not officially, according to the Global Language Monitor, which named London the Top Global Fashion Capital in 2012-13, beating out New York, Barcelona… and yes, Paris. Here Dee Covey explains how the brave new world of fashion will be affected.

Pairs was knocked off its perch in 2007, and has yet to regain the top spot.  Culturally, though? Mais oui! The City of Lights will always be synonymous with the soul of chic and truly timeless elegance. Fashion is in the genetic code of the city and its women, dating back to the eighteenth century and its highly stylized court in Versailles.

The ironic twist is that it took an Englishman, Charles Frederick Worth, to bring haute couture to the world. After settling on the rue de la Paix in 1845, Worth invented the entire concept of annual collections, and in one fell swoop, established the beautiful beachhead of wearable art and culture that we call “fashion.” From that day, Paris has been the center of this universe, radiating its style influence to the most remote regions on earth.  It would be here that Coco Chanel unveiled her “little black dress” and classic tailored tweed suit, Christian Dior introduced his highly influential New Look, and people of taste booked passage across the Pond to order their seasonal wardrobes.

This veritable open-air trend factory, however, eventually had its copiers and challengers, and soon found itself running neck-and-neck in that race. After World War II, garment business geniuses in the U.S. shook loose the codes of chic, and rewrote history by designing the famed ready-to-wear (or “prêt-à-porter”) business imported into France in the 1950s.

In recent years, new fashion meccas are springing up alongside Paris: New York, London, Milan, Buenos Aires and Dubai, all with their own genius designers who compete with the Parisians for catwalk space. Japanese, Belgian, English, American, and even Korean and Chinese have talent who are shaping the design scene.

Still, the French design esthetic reigns supreme, is a crucial part of the national identity and the definition of success for ambitious artists. “Whether you’re French or foreign, showing your lines in Paris is a rite of passage”, says Jean-Pierre Mocho, President of the French Fédération du Prêt-à-Porter. “That’s why dozens of foreign designers and brands put on fashion shows here: they need this image and recognition. Paris has always welcomed all countries. This city exists on a more human scale than New York or London and has a spirit that encourages fashion. Paris clearly remains the capital in which styles are consecrated.”

Simply, to every fashion season comes Paris.  It is a magnificent melting pot that makes it possible to discover designers of dozens of nationalities. To French insiders, nobody can compete with their catwalks, and believe that other cities’ “fashion weeks” are too nationally-oriented and focused on connecting budding brands with the big luxury names. To them, Paris is where collections creatively coalesce and are balanced between cutting-edge creative and straightforward need-to-sell, satisfying both trend scouts and department stores buyers.

These “made in France” designs are also exported all around the world. Despite the French domestic consumer market being on the decline, foreign trade and exports of Parisian ready-to-wear have seen non-stop growth since 2010. Overall sales are up 3.4% in 2012 over 2011, reaching 2.65 billion euros.

Better yet, the European Union is no longer the biggest market calling for French products, though it still represents 49.3% of exports. U.S. consumers are snapping up 28% more French fashion goods (235.7 million euros), followed by Japan and Hong Kong, which saw an astounding upsurge of 40% in 2012.  London may enjoy the current title of World Fashion Capital, but the French are beating them at the cash register by over 10%.

These same experts also note that French fashion may be vulnerable on a completely different level. “More than anywhere else, Paris really encourages stylistic diversification,” says Mocho. “But there is a question about whether it is an adequate source of creativity itself, a place where new fashion ideas are born. New York, Milan and London are particularly dynamic right now, and Paris must vigorously support the design industry and simultaneously redefine what it means to have a true ‘French touch’.” Though certainly known for luxury labels like Dior, Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga, Lanvin, Chloé and Céline (to name a few), few Parisian designers are at the helm. French Christophe Lemaire is at Hermès and Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent are among the exceptions, but the country is being challenged country to create a more supportive contemporary environment.

Two young Paris designers are making their mark. Guillaume Henry at Carven comes to mind; and Isabel Marant is enjoying skyrocketing popularity abroad, without ever having been backed by a major group. Her secret is striking the perfect balance between creativity, originality and wearability, all in an unmistakable style that’s part Parisian, part casual chic.

Another of Paris’ strengths lies in its array of young brands, a superior strike force in women’s fashion (such as Maje, Vanessa Bruno and Zadig & Voltaire), accessories (Jérôme Dreyfuss is the darling of American stars, Sarah Jessica Parker the first among them) and menswear is a booming business.

With these labels as locomotive, the train of French fashion could pick up speed and steam full force into emerging markets like Indonesia and South America, by adopting a strategy proven by many up-and-coming foreign designers. One  example is Yohji Yamamoto, who is presenting a more creative upmarket line in Paris and reserving her “Y’s” label for the Japanese market.

Some say the trick to recapturing Parisian glory is a nimble openness to international influences, without compromising the deft French eye for beauty.  “As these trends takeoff, we expect digital chatter and media coverage will reflect Parisian gains on the rankings report,” says Dr. Paul Payack, head of the Global Language Monitor and widely considered the top word wonk on the planet.

Will Paris regain reclaim its crown in 2014? The only person who knows the answer is Payack, who will release Fashion Capital during February’s Fashion Week in New York. Vive la France! (and all fashion designers everywhere).

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