WWD.com/business-news/business-features/french-fight-for-local-production-3019576/

PARIS — In a bid to save France’s shrinking clothing manufacturing sector, leading fashion brands will sign a charter of good conduct with their subcontractors on April 14, even as manufacturers say the government-brokered deal does not go far enough.

This story first appeared in the April 1, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Companies attending the eighth edition of the Made in France by Fatex trade show, which showcases high-end French manufacturers, urged industry minister Christian Estrosi on Wednesday to take additional measures to protect the sector, which employs an estimated 10,000 people.

With television cameras crowding around, Marie-Christine Grammatico, owner of family-owned Breton knitwear specialist Grammatico, showed Estrosi a navy military sweater produced by the firm.

“The army wants to outsource all these products,” she explained. “That represents a loss of volume and market share for me.”

Top brands including Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga, Hermès and Chanel took part in talks organized by the ministry on measures to support the French manufacturing sector, which has seen a steady erosion of its output and labor force as brands increasingly outsource production abroad.

The government initially had hoped luxury brands would commit to placing a minimum amount of orders or giving companies 18 months’ notice when canceling contracts. Instead, it is expected to unveil a series of other measures including shorter payment deadlines, which should ease the pressure on companies with cash flow problems.

The agreement will be signed between the Industry Ministry, the French Fashion Federation — which represents leading brands — and French apparel association UFIH.

The plan initially had called for leading brands to sign the charter. Local media reported that LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton declined to endorse the document. A spokeswoman said this was untrue, saying the luxury group and other leading brands had asked for revisions to the original draft of the charter.

“LVMH is used to the federation signing any agreements concerning the sector,” she said.

She added that LVMH uses local suppliers to produce two-thirds of ready-to-wear output for the Christian Dior brand and the bulk of Celine’s production. “We did not wait for the charter to produce in France,” the spokeswoman said.

Estrosi also played down the setback. “Even if they have chosen to take their time, LVMH, which is a large French company which we must defend, helped us to elaborate this document and is involved in its signature in a way, since it belongs to the federation that is signing it,” he told WWD.

Designer Agnès Troublé, better known as agnès b., warned that luxury consumers in markets such as China likely would reject products bearing a French luxury tag that were manufactured in emerging countries like their own.

Troublé called on French companies to produce more at home, even if it is more expensive than outsourcing to developing countries, in order to preserve French know-how and save local jobs. “A huge number of companies have closed, so now we are at a point where we must turn around the situation as quickly as possible,” she warned.

The designer said between 40 and 60 percent of her output in value terms is manufactured in France. Starting next month, locally produced clothes will carry a special “agnès b. — fabriqué en France” tag in a bid to sensitize consumers.

Olivier Baizet, chief executive officer of dress and skirt specialist Baizet, whose clients include Chloé, agnès b. and a number of LVMH-owned brands, said a growing number of French luxury firms had moved production abroad since last year.

Based in Cholet in western France, the family-owned firm, which was founded in 1952 and employs 100 people, saw production slide 15 percent last year. “Brands are aggressively pushing us to lower prices and my margins are already squeezed,” he said. “We’re all very worried here.”

Emmanuelle Marty, owner of family-owned luxury apparel specialist E. Marty, which employs 120 people in its two factories in central and western France, said output fell 10 percent last year, though the firm’s clients have remained loyal.

“I find [LVMH’s decision] surprising as the charter is more about maintaining respect than being tied to commitments,” she said, commenting on the media reports. “It’s very surprising, considering the group’s brands profit so much from the image of being based in France.”

François-Marie Grau, general secretary of the French Women’s Ready-to-Wear Federation, greeted the charter as an important step for boosting confidence between French subcontractors and brands.

French textile production fell by 20 percent in 2009, according to Grau, who forecasts an equally cloudy outlook for this year.

“The textiles sector has not been as dramatically hit as other sectors, such as the watch industry, but we predict we’ll see a more significant impact on consumer spending this year,” he said.