Young French Designers: Adored Abroad, but Shunned at Home

Paris— A paradox belies the success of French fashion: Its homegrown talent have to look abroad for business.<br><br>France might foster experimentation in fashion, Parisian style might be coveted and courted around the world and the City of...

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Paris— A paradox belies the success of French fashion: Its homegrown talent have to look abroad for business.

This story first appeared in the December 30, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

France might foster experimentation in fashion, Parisian style might be coveted and courted around the world and the City of Light might be fashion’s most explosive stage. But shopping for innovative fashion in France is more famine than feast, with Paris’ younger designers relying on overseas accounts, from Barneys to Bendel’s, to establish their names.

Many designers chalk it up to France’s old-world conservatism, low spending power and risk-averse retailers. They also blame French shoppers for lacking pizzazz.

Paris retailer Maria Luisa Poumaillou says she has wrestled with the question since opening her Maria Luisa designer boutiques 12 years ago — and the reason cuts to the heart of the French psyche.

“It’s philosophical,” she contended. “There’s something utterly futile about fashion to the French. It’s not that the French aren’t rich. They are essentially very rational and Cartesian. They don’t see the point of spending money on designer fashion, something that you throw out after a season. That’s why the most innovative fashion is a hard sell here. The French buy fashion that doesn’t look like fashion.”

Nor do the French let go of their intellectual traditions very easily. It is a perennially left-leaning nation and Poumaillou traced the country’s current mentality toward fashion the whole way back to 1968, when students staged massive protests against old bourgeois values. “Appearance was considered the most bourgeois notion of all,” she said. “It was denounced as light and futile. It was in staunch opposition to the interior beauty of the intellect. The French consider themselves foremost as thinkers. And it goes beyond fashion. Look at French actors: they may be talented, but you can’t call them good looking. It’s suspect to be too good looking in France.”

For others, it’s purely a case of being in a perennially bad mood. Designer Hervé Leroux, for example, who depends largely on American and Asian clients, says his countrymen naturally dismiss their own — and just about everyone else, too. “It’s part of the Gallic charm,” he said. “It’s a story as long as France is old. The French even rejected Mademoiselle Chanel in the beginning, while the Americans embraced her.

“The French will only accept a designer when he’s had wild success elsewhere,” added Leroux. “If I had to count on the French for business, well, quite frankly, I’d throw in the towel.”

Christophe Lemaire, who designs both Lacoste and a signature line, agrees that it is “easier to be accepted abroad than at home.”

He said France has also lost its edge in terms of street style. “In the Seventies, Parisians used to be very chic,” he said. “They dressed up. Something happened, an economic crisis took hold, and Paris went into hibernation. Now, if you look in the streets of Paris, you don’t find the world’s most stylish girls. To find fashion on the street, you have to look to London or Tokyo.”

Adam Jones, who is British but based in Paris, agrees that French fashion tastes are more sedate than in other cosmopolitan cities. “You don’t have the wacky fashion sense in Paris that you do in other parts of the world,” he said. “Punk, for instance, never took off in Paris, and it spread so easily to New York.” Jones, who launched his collection two years ago after working with John Galliano at Christian Dior, noted that French buyers have been slow in warming to his designs. “You don’t have a Barneys in Paris,” he said. “The Americans are hungry for new fashion and ready to open their doors and give you a chance. In general, I don’t feel the same about the French.”

For Paris-based designer Andrew Gn, spending money on fashion “isn’t part of the French woman’s psychology. In London or New York, the women need their clothes. Basically, the French refuse to spend money that way. It’s very much old wealth in France. It’s not the new money that wants to spend on clothes.”

Statistics back up his claim. According to a 1999 Institute Française de la Mode study, French consumers spent $557 per capita on clothes, well behind most of its European neighbors, including Belgium with $768; Austria, $767; the U.K., $683; Luxembourg, $646; Italy, $636; the Netherlands, $618, and Germany, $605. Of course, most of these countries — except Italy — is exactly as renowned as France in the style stakes.

Eric Bergere said French retailers gravitate to big brands whose advertising facilitates the selling process. Before Bergere lost his backing and closed his house this year, the majority of his business was in Japan.

“French retailers are lazy,” Bergere lamented. “At the same time, fashion taste among the French isn’t audacious. For me, French taste has more cache outside of France. The Japanese and the Americans love it. But not the French.”

Of course, not everyone agrees that the French thumb their nose at their own style tastemakers. “The French like fashion,” countered shoe designer Pierre Hardy. “But if they don’t spend as much on fashion, it’s only because they don’t have the spending power of the Americans or Japanese. It’s a question of scale. It’s the economy.”

Lucien Pellat-Finet, known for his cashmere sweaters, agreed. “French women just don’t have as much money. But luckily, Paris isn’t just the French. It’s a mixture of people from all over the world.” Pellat-Finet says most of his business is generated in his own shop, located on the Left Bank.

With only a handful of high-end retailers in the city — and hardly any outside of Paris — designers prefer to open their own shops. Gn says he’s aiming for a signature boutique in Paris because “we don’t have a Neiman’s or Bergdorf’s here. I think I can sell to the French if I show them the goods.”

Until she opened her own shop on the Rue de Grenelle four years ago, designer Martine Sitbon found it difficult to earn respect at home. Recently, however, her collections have infiltrated department stores, including Galeries Lafayette.

“The French need guidance,” said Sitbon’s husband Marc Ascoli, who helps run the business. “And French shoppers are particular. They are practical and they don’t like the ostentatious. Since the shop has been open, we’ve been able to gain a foothold in France.”

Although he doesn’t have a boutique, Gaspard Yurkievich said Paris is one of his best markets. “I think it’s because my style is very Parisian,” he said. Still, he said China, Hong Kong and Japan are important, too. “Fashion nose-dived in Paris during the wave of minimalism. Now that fashion is in fashion, the French are interested in it again.”

Although he remains skeptical, Lemaire agrees that Paris is slowly getting back on track. “People gradually are getting more interested in fashion. Paris went to sleep for a long time, but now it’s waking up all over.”

But will it really improve? Armand Adida, who operates Eclaireur designer boutiques in Paris, has his doubts. “The new French designers must learn to market their products better,” said Adida, who carries a lot of cutting-edge fashion, from Comme des Garçons to Ann Demeulemeester, but rarely French labels. “The only French designer who has been able to market himself in the recent past is [Jean Paul] Gaultier,” said Adida. “I have to face the reality of the market. I sell dreams. If the French designers don’t make my customers dream, why should I ruin myself to support them?”

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