By  on December 13, 2011

The French government has found some unexpected allies in its efforts to promote the country’s manufacturing sector against cut-price foreign competition: A clutch of young designers who are leading a revival in fashion that’s made in France.

Local brands such as Abraham Will, French Trotters, Bérangère Claire and Bleu de Paname all produce their garments on home turf, and are resonating with shoppers looking for authenticity and traceability.

“Consumers are showing growing interest in the concept of ‘Made in France,’” said Clarisse Reille, director-general of the Committee for Development and Promotion of French Clothing. “Gradually, without having a lot of knowledge about the industry, they are realizing that there is a big gap between factory prices and final sale prices, so they want to know what is going on and they want to be able to make choices with all the facts in hand.”

Thomas Giorgetti, co-founder of Bleu de Paname, said the company started producing its workwear-inspired clothing in France because it could not afford to seek suppliers abroad. Its Made in France label rapidly turned into a marketing asset — though it comes at a cost.

“If we wanted to apply the kinds of margins that would allow us to live like kings, then Made in France would not be the best way to go about it,” Giorgetti said. “We have had to sacrifice our margins a little, but on the other hand, we have no marketing budget, so that has evened things out.”

Among the biggest champions of local manufacturing is Agnès Troublé, better known as agnès b., who produces 40 percent of her collections in France and labels the products “agnès b. fabriqué en France.”

French luxury brands, meanwhile, have signed a charter of good conduct with their subcontractors as a pledge of goodwill, but have remained noticeably more cagey about any label promoting the French origin of products, arguing in private that the cost of producing here is still too high.

Sourcing expert Roger Zacaropoulos estimates the labor cost in France is about 10 times that of China and 12 times that of Bangladesh. Even stripping out the effect of order volumes, which skew the comparison, France remains about eight times more expensive than Asian sourcing hubs, he noted.

That means sourcing locally only makes sense for products with high added value, typically produced in small runs.

Sylvie Pourrat, director of the Premiere Classe accessories trade show, said some designers were beginning to realize that producing in far-flung locations is not always as cost-effective as expected.

“We are seeing huge demand for Made in France products in shoes and handbags,” she said. “There is growing talk that Chinese manufacturing has reached a saturation point, both in terms of production capacity and prices. Prices are going up, and you have to add to that the cost of shipping to France, which is prohibitive if you want rapid shipping. As a result, by the time a product manufactured in Canton reaches Paris, it can end up costing more than if it had been made 60 kilometers from Paris.”

Among the exhibitors at Premiere Classe, which runs Jan. 21 to 24 at Porte de Versailles, will be the CTC, the Center for the Economic Development of Leather, Footwear and Leather Goods, which supports up-and-coming designers through its Leather & Creation initiative, launched in 2009.

Among the 10 designers to be featured this season are three who produce their collections exclusively in France: handbag designer Benoît Duvignacq, shoe brand Zespà and accessories brand Koryom.

To be sure, French manufacturers are hoping that recent price hikes in Asia will prompt brands to bring at least a portion of their production back home.

“Given what is happening in the world today, I think it is in our interests to stick together, because a brand that has outsourced everything to China or to North Africa or elsewhere could well find itself at some stage without any product to ship,” said Alain Moreau, president of the French Manufacturing Group, which represents subcontractors.

He believes ongoing initiatives to promote dialogue between French brands and their suppliers are starting to bear fruit.

The industry is also becoming more organized: In May, the French Women’s Ready-to-Wear Federation and French apparel association UFIH opened the House of Know-How and Design, a platform for exchange between suppliers, designers and brands.

The space is financed by the DEFI, which is also on the verge of unveiling a guaranteed fund worth 1.5 million euros, or $2 million at current exchange, designed to help younger designers who often have difficulty obtaining rolling financing.

Moreau believes that in the future, consumers will place a growing emphasis on the origin of the products they buy.

“Labels will specify where a product was made. And beyond that, we are moving toward technologies with smartphones that will allow you to track down the actual factory where it was produced,” he said.

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