Protesters walk alongside the Seine river during a 'Yellow Vests' protest in Paris, France, 05 January 2019. The so-called 'gilets jaunes' (yellow vests) is a grassroots protest movement with supporters from a wide span of the political spectrum, that originally started with protest across the nation in late 2018 against high fuel prices. The movement in the meantime also protests the French government's tax reforms, the increasing costs of living and some even call for the resignation of French President Emmanuel Macron.Yellow vests protest in Paris, France - 05 Jan 2019

PARIS — Sustained international demand for French women’s apparel lifted the industry’s performance last year and will likely continue into 2019, according to France’s Women’s Ready-to-Wear Federation, or Fédération Française du Prêt à Porter Féminin.

The sector posted a 6.3 percent rise in exports over 2018, the highest growth rate in three years and the second-highest rate in a decade, helping to offset a decline in domestic consumption, according to data released by the federation Wednesday.

Exports totaled 3.34 billion euros, with the U.K. topping the list of countries buying the highest proportion of women’s clothing from France, a 10.1 percent share of total exports.

Officials from the federation pointed to international consumers in London as likely playing an important role. Neighboring Italy, Spain and Germany were not far behind, with a share of more than 9 percent each, followed by the share of exports to China and Hong Kong, which stood at 8.5 percent.

“London is an important international shopping destination — a certain number of department stores [there] are not faring badly,” the organization’s president Pierre-François Le Louët said Wednesday.

Consumers spurring consumption of French apparel in the British capital include Chinese and Indians, as well as travelers from the Middle East and the U.S., Le Louët noted. The yellow-vest protest movement at the end of the year in France likely redirected some potential business across the Channel to London, he added.

The industry generated 12.4 billion euros in sales last year overall, a 2 percent decline compared to 2017, as unusual weather patterns weighed on consumption, including floods in January, springtime snow flurries and an exceptionally hot September. December business was affected by the yellow-vest movement, but the federation said the overall effect of the protests, which prompted a series of store closures over the crucial holiday season, had not been tallied yet, but was likely limited.

While disruption was rather dramatic at the outset of December, brisk business on Fridays and Sundays, along with Internet sales, helped compensate for lost business, according to federation officials. 

Fashion and apparel have topped the list of products purchased the most through online channels in France, more than cultural and travel sectors, said the federation, citing figures from a French association of e-commerce operators known as Fevad.

The federation said brands that are well established in digital channels reported doing well despite the disruption in store traffic due to the protests.

Le Louët noted a broader transformation of the sector.

“While fashion and prices served as the main driving force of a brand’s appeal for around 20 years…today it’s a question of…the vision of a brand, a question of community and the experience that one expects, physically or digitally — this is disrupting a certain number of large players,” at a time when they are undergoing change but haven’t fully adapted to the new environment yet, he said.

Meanwhile, trade tensions between China and the U.S. have not affected the sector, according to the federation. “For the moment, there is just concern,” said François-Marie Grau, a federation official. 

In addition to continued international demand, the federation expects the sector’s growth in the coming year to be helped by government measures to improve purchasing power in France along with lower unemployment figures. Meanwhile, trade tensions, which risk impacting the global economy, particularly the U.S., along with ongoing social tensions in France and Brexit, add uncertainty to the sector’s prospects in the coming months, officials said. In addition to the possibility of tariffs on goods going into the U.K., there is the question of logistics and whether British ports are equipped with enough border officials, they noted.