Whatever difficulties France faces, the country’s fashion industry will always fire on all cylinders. A recent report by the French Fashion Institute (IFM) found that the sector outperforms several major high-ticket trades, including aerospace and car production.
Yet according to the head of Jean Paul-Gaultier, "The French are not very conscious of the weight the country's lifestyle industries represents.” So how did French fashion come to be so dominant on the global stage, and why does it continue to fly under the radar?
The French Revolution
The image of France as the home of high fashion originates in the era of the ‘Sun King’, Louis XIV. The king’s decadent tastes led him to effectively nationalise the textile industry, bringing design and quality control under royal auspices. This approach shaped the French fashion industry for centuries and persists into the present day.
The term haute couture, or ‘high sewing’, was actually popularised in reference to Englishman Charles Frederick Worth’s Parisian fashion house. The House of Worth’s Victorian era garments were legendary, with its designers becoming some of the first global trendsetters outside royalty.
Their quality was such that Napoleon’s wife Eugenie was a dedicated acolyte, and the term became a highly respected seal of approval. It is still protected in French law, and delegated by the government to the very best French fashion houses.
The transition from royalty to mass popular appeal was cemented by Coco Chanel. Now known as much for her controversial personal life as her achievements, Chanel revolutionised popular fashion in a way unparalleled through history. Driven by the rising popularity of women's’ sports following the First World War, Chanel discarded the reviled corset in favour of loose fitting clothes.
From the signature ‘flapper’ look of the 20s to the invention of the shoulder bag; the ‘little black dress to casual jewellery; Chanel even singlehandedly changed the perception of suntans as unladylike. Modern fashion still takes most of its queues from her influence, and she more than anyone, established France as the dominant force in the 20th century.
Chanel’s tenure as the queen of fashion lasted until the Second World War, where fashion was naturally stifled across Europe. Rumours of Chanel’s complicity with the Nazis tarnished the brand, and the crown was up for grabs.
Enter Christian Dior, who famously remarked that “Europe has had enough of bombs; now it wants to see fireworks.” His return to corset style pinched waists wasn’t new, but his elaborate designs at a time of fabric rationing brought him widespread notoriety.
Competitors formed in London and Milan and the battle for primacy raged, but France re-established itself in the 60s with Yves Saint Laurent’s casual or ‘ready-to-wear’ collections, once again taking haute couture mainstream. Much like Chanel’s popularisation of the flapper look, these accessible designs would become just as iconic and more lucrative than the made to order garments of high fashion.
Fast forward to the 21st century and these big brands continued to dominate. But if France wants to develop talented new designers and feed its industry with fresh talent, it needs new businesses. In 2010 the French economy was in dire straits, with the fashion industry a major victim. The global financial crisis had obliterated luxury spending, and brands including Christian Lacroix and Cacharel had declared bankruptcy after a history of scraping by.
The future of French fashion businesses
Enter the French ‘fashion bank’: a government scheme designed to help fashion businesses get off the ground. Spearheaded by President Sarkozy after consulting with Vogue editor Anna Wintour, the move pushed banks to provide more loans to startups with the state as a guarantor.
There was also a drive to maintain and push the Made in France tag, which has been seen as a universal sign of quality. In 2011 this led to merging numerous different labels into the "Origine France Garantie", now a hallmark of all manner of French exports.
Six years down the line and the signs are positive, with the industry is now worth 150bn euros. But it’s in smaller fashion businesses where the seeds of future growth are sprouting. The little known home of denim, the former textile hub of Nimes, is now producing artisanal jeans again (albeit with denim imported from Italy).
At the other end of the spectrum, canny entrepreneurs are adopting the spirit of Chanel by using the web to democratise fashion. Second hand fashion marketplaces Vide Dressing and the upscale Vestiaire Collective are finding new life in old designs, while Mon Showroom sells current season trends at accessible prices.
It is perhaps telling that many of France’s recent fashion success stories are in ecommerce, rather than design. France is a world-leader in technology with its designated tech hubs, and this provides the perfect meeting point between old and new worlds.
But it’s also fair to assume that as online fashion portals become more successful, they may look to launch their own lines to solidify their brand. And in the bid to control production for high quality, France’s Industry of the Future initiative for a burgeoning specialist manufacturing sector will come to the fore. We may not see the ‘House of Mon Showroom’ in our stores any time soon, but France is ready to defend its reputation.
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