Ralph Toledano

Ralph Toledano has attended many, many runway shows — as head of brands including Guy Laroche, Karl Lagerfeld, Chloé and Nina Ricci, and in his current role as president of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode.

Forced to cancel men’s fashion week and couture week in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, French fashion’s organizing body is preparing for digital showcases in July hinged on films and videos. But it hopes to resume runway shows as early as this autumn, conditions permitting.

In an exclusive interview, Toledano articulated the value of the physical format, of fashion weeks, and the central place of Paris:

WWD: Let’s pretend you’re in a court of law, asked to defend the reputation and purpose of the runway show. How would you state your case?

Ralph Toledano: It is the very best incentive for the designer and his or her team to excel in every single aspect: design, materials, colors, construction, embellishment — not only for ready-to-wear, but also for shoes, bags, jewelry, beauty, etc. And the show is such a stimulant that the closer it gets, the more innovative and prolific the design team becomes.

For each house, it is the highlight of the season: a moment of fever, excitement, celebration, when everybody comes together to support the design team — a situation when everything becomes possible. And the show itself is an exceptional moment of excitement and buzz, as at a specific time, in the same place, you gather all the fashion experts to see — I would even say to feel, smell and practically to touch — the result of several months of hard and intensive work. The staff can’t wait for the show and no one would miss it for any reason.

It is quite emotional, and I do not think that we are even close to finding an alternative to a fashion show. This being said, the above applies only to brands who stand for creativity and workmanship, which is the hallmark of Paris.

WWD: That’s a lot of pros. Do you see any cons for runway shows or fashion weeks?

R.T.: Each season, more and more brands apply to be included in the calendar of Paris Fashion Week. It’s a unique moment for the industry, a kind of ceremony where we celebrate our passion for fashion and for creativity.

Regarding the cons, I would mention two. First, the cost. Even if there is a very wide range of budgets, shows are generally expensive. I think that in this very difficult period, we will see more intimate presentations in the federation’s’s calendar. They are generally very warm, have a special character, and allow social distancing.

The sustainability aspect has also been identified, sometimes exaggerated as, in terms of carbon footprint, Paris Fashion Week represents the equivalent of a small international music festival or event. Since a while, the federation has been active on this topic. Paris Fashion Week is getting greener every season, and we have been working on a bill of specifications with all the stakeholders — brands, producers, venues — in order to be more and more sustainable.

Additionally, we are developing a tool to find more sustainable alternatives at each step of the value chain. The goal is to improve the decision-making process from the conception to the dismantling of the sets.

The set at Chanel fall 2019.

The Set at Chanel Haute Couture, fall 2017.  Stéphane Feugère/WWD

WWD: How do you feel about “see-now, buy now” formats for the Paris shows?

R.T.: You and I have been discussing this topic already a few years ago, and on behalf of the federation, I listed all the reasons why for creative brands, it did not make sense. The facts proved that we were right. It may work for consumer-driven or lifestyle brands. These kind of brands may find relevant to organize a kind of entertainment event, highly Instagrammable.

WWD: How about coed shows?

R.T.: As long as the two lines are consistently designed, or if one of the two lines is underdeveloped, it may make sense for some houses. But in my opinion, it is more powerful and it gives more strength to each collection to show separately.

WWD: And how do you feel about digital formats in lieu of physical shows?

R.T.: All the fashion houses must be highly digitally minded, in each aspect of their organization. Regarding the shows, digital is becoming an interesting complement, and a possible alternative in very special circumstances — such as this awful period we are going through. It can be a real source of innovation for expressing creativity, and it is what we are working on for our men’s wear and couture online projects, which will take place in July.

But, as I mentioned previously, at least for the moment, nothing can replace the very special emotion of a fashion show in “real life.”

WWD: The CFDA and the BFC recently issued a statement saying “the fashion system must change, and it must happen at every level,” urging a slower pace and recommending “that brands attempt to show during the regular fashion calendar and in one of the global fashion capitals in order to avoid the strain on buyers and journalists of traveling constantly.” Do you agree with all that? Why or why not?

R.T.: I agree that the fashion system must change, and in several aspects, starting with the seasonality of deliveries and sales, a proposal well developed by Dries Van Noten and his task force. I think that fall-winter collections should be sold from August/September to February, and spring-summer from February/March to August — that is, during the periods when the customer wears those clothes. Sales would take place in September and March.

Discounting very early in the season should stop: It is the cancer of our industry. American department stores have started this kind of practice and have successfully exported it to the whole world. It is now very dangerously adopted by e-commerce pure players.

The bottom line is that after having tremendously damaged the excellent network of American specialty stores, the American department stores are now in big trouble. And I worry a lot for e-commerce pure players.

WWD: That sounds dire. What do you recommend?

R.T.: The industry must fully embrace digitalization by using digital tools in the entire value chain.

In terms of inventory, which is another challenge, a clear difference must be made between fast fashion, which indeed builds huge stocks of unsold products, and creative fashion. It is definitely up to the fast-fashion players — whose volumes represent at least 100 times those of creative fashion — to handle the problem of overproduction.

With regards to the numbers of collections, the profession cannot decide that there will be only two collections per year. It is the customer who drives the process. Each house has to analyze what’s best for them. Until they reach a critical size, brands — as far as deliveries are properly cadenced — can concentrate on one collection per season. But on the other side, it is also crystal clear that, up until now, large businesses needed to bring novelty much more often to satisfy their customers. And I do not think this is going to change because of COVID-19.

WWD: And the idea of showing in one city each year like the Olympic Games? How does that grab you?

R.T.:  For decades, Paris has been carefully selecting exclusively creative brands, and it is this consistency which made Paris the indisputable worldwide capital of fashion. In no way would we mix this portfolio of brands in an incoherent ensemble.

We do not think all the shows should take place in one city, because the strength and the indispensable success factor for a fashion week is the consistency of the offer in terms of shows.

Paris stands for creativity and workmanship, and it would be nonsense to mix it with other brands which do not have the same characteristics.

WWD: So the competition between fashion capitals goes on?

R.T.: It is absolutely not the case, from time to time we have informal discussions. With Milan, we even have a close and friendly relationship.

WWD: How do you see the place of Paris going forward, and what is the federation doing to reinforce this?

R.T.: Paris is presently the indisputable capital of fashion — whether you talk of women’s wear or men’s wear — attracting the most talented designers from all over the world, and has the privilege of being the city of haute couture.
 Being the City of Light and offering very good infrastructure and the best possible service to our guests is certainly another strength.

This is the result of a constant policy of very strict selection of the designers showing in Paris, of an openness to the world. Paris Fashion Week has forever practiced inclusivity, abided by very precise rules for the calendars, and remained obsessed with making the stay of our guests as pleasant as possible. These will continue to be our guidelines.
 And being aware of the precariousness of any situation, we aim to perform better every season.

WWD: You mention the international character of Paris Fashion Week. Any concerns that fashion weeks might become more local, and Paris could lose its Japanese, its Americans, its Chinese designers?

R.T.: We do not think so. The best designers, whatever their nationality, will always want to compete with the champions, and this happens in Paris.

WWD: There’s considerable doubt about the possibility of physical shows in September, and already Dries Van Noten, Marine Serre, Saint Laurent, Off-White, and Thom Browne have said they will not have runway shows in Paris. Has anyone committed to do a physical show here?

R.T.: The first priority is to know if we can safely organize physical shows. A lot of designers have continued to work during the lockdowns, and we think that they will be able to show their collections. But again, our concern at this stage is to make sure that we can organize a safe fashion week.

WWD: Individual brands, including Gucci and Saint Laurent, seem to be breaking away from the organized fashion weeks. Is this setting the stage for a free-for-all?

R.T.: With regards to YSL, I spoke both to Kering and YSL after the YSL announcement, and I was assured that the brand would be back on the calendar in February.

A free-for-all will not happen: The fashion industry is not suicidal.

WWD: Any other recommendations for the sector?

R.T.: The future of the fashion system will depend on various parameters: First and foremost, we must put creativity at the center, and listen carefully to the customers’ wishes, whatever their nationality, and fulfill their needs.

Companies should focus on a direct-to-consumer approach, and resolve the problems with seasonality and discounting. They should also increase digitalization, use AI, be more sustainable, work less in silos and bring humanity and respect to our teams. Creative people are the most important asset of a fashion brand.

For various reasons, there is presently a malaise in this population, a malaise that Alber Elbaz was the first one to express four or five years ago, and it must be the top priority for managers and designers to open the dialogue, and discuss openly the missteps of each party.

WWD: The crisis prompted much soul-searching, and fashion seems destined to be a slower, smaller and perhaps less omnipresent industry and cultural force. Do you agree, and how do you feel about it?

R.T.: I do not believe in decay. More than ever, we need to grow and massively create jobs. The next 10 to 18 months will clearly be tough in terms of business, but the fashion industry will come back, probably with changes — positive ones — in my opinion. It will strongly come back.

A pandemic does not change the human being’s nature: the desire to dream, to dress, to adorn, to be desirable, the appetite for newness and workmanship and to show one’s difference will not disappear because of COVID-19.

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