Francesca Bellettini and Anthony Vaccarello.

PARIS Saint Laurent has decided to drop out of Paris Fashion Week and set its own pace for showing collections for the duration of the year, as the brand pivots to adapt to the coronavirus crisis.

“Conscious of the current circumstance and its waves of radical change, Saint Laurent has decided to take control of its pace and reshape its schedule,” the brand was set to reveal today.

In an exclusive interview with WWD, creative director Anthony Vaccarello said the “violent” impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, which has forced the closure of most of Saint Laurent’s stores, meant “business as usual” was not an option.

Chief executive officer Francesca Bellettini hinted that the brand, famed for its spectacular outdoor women’s catwalk shows set against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, could still stage a physical show at some point this year — but is favoring formats that are more intimate and closely aligned to the final customer.

The brand, owned by luxury conglomerate Kering, is the first major French fashion house to set out its intentions since the COVID-19 outbreak upended the calendar, forcing the cancellation of the Paris men’s shows in June and haute couture week in July.

After joining Saint Laurent in 2016, Vaccarello initially showed women’s and men’s designs together as part of the traditional women’s wear calendar in Paris.

But in recent years, Saint Laurent has opted out of Paris men’s fashion week, striking out on its own with shows in New York City in June 2018 and Malibu in June 2019.

“Now more than ever, the brand will lead its own rhythm, legitimizing the value of time and connecting with people globally by getting closer to them in their own space and lives,” it said.

“With this strategy firmly in place, Saint Laurent will not present its collections in any of the preset schedules of 2020. Saint Laurent will take ownership of its calendar and launch its collections following a plan conceived with an up-to-date perspective, driven by creativity,” it concluded.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Bellettini and Vaccarello explained the thinking behind their decision, how they plan to tweak the collections and advertising campaigns once stores reopen, and how to stay creative under lockdown.

WWD: What made you decide to forgo the traditional fashion show schedule for the duration of the year, rather than taking a step-by-step approach as authorities decide when and how each country can lift its lockdown?

Anthony Vaccarello: This is not about going against the authorities. It’s about being positive, not passive. We have known for years that something has to change. The time is now. There is no good reason to follow a calendar developed years ago when everything was completely different. I don’t want to rush a collection just because there is a deadline. This season, I want to present a collection when I am ready to show it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to suddenly and completely change our habits, behavior, and interactions with others. It has had a violent impact, disguised in apparent calm.

Our decision not to be part of any predefined calendar this year stems from our desire to recognize the importance of our time, of our life. A certain way of living more than a certain way of dressing. Slowing down and living the moment reveals all the vulnerabilities of an imprisoned  organization. What’s out of fashion now is the schedule of the entire system: the shows, the showrooms, the orders.

Francesca Bellettini: Remaining in a limbo where nobody knows what to do and how things will be creates even further uncertainty. By nature we are a boldly decisive house where creativity plays the central role. In these circumstances, it is clear to us that creativity cannot be forced into an arbitrary, preset timetable, but should be free to express itself in the form, place and time Anthony feels appropriate, with everything else coming after.

Having made this decision, we find it important to communicate our intentions. As we’ve seen from how this crisis has been managed in different places around the world, the “wait-and-see” approach has been less successful than strong and clear decisions and rules set and communicated from the start.

WWD: Can you say anything about your strategy and what shape your new calendar will take? For example, will women’s and men’s collections be presented together or separately?

A.V.: The men’s show was already on our schedule, not on the industry calendar. That made it more personal, and not a show just to do a show. I don’t think we need another show: we need emotions. I always try to create those emotions with my men’s and women’s shows.

This decision is for this year, in response to extraordinary circumstances. We are not planning to change our men’s and women’s collection presentation strategy. Men’s and women’s will be presented separately, and each presentation will be planned to communicate the spirit of the collection.

Creating something that is somehow intimate is even more important in this moment than ever before.

F.B.: That’s why our presentation strategy extends beyond fashion shows into the showroom and in-store. Our approach brings us closer to customers in their space and in their lives. We want to encourage a more lasting, less ephemeral attitude toward experiences and products.

Over the last four years we have already extended the life of our collections in-store, and this strategy will be taken farther by introducing novelties with a timing that better reflects real-life needs and by planning our campaigns to align with it.

This will help bring us even closer to our clients in their markets, and we will apply this proximity approach also with wholesale as we expect it will be some time before people are traveling at previous rates again.

Saint Laurent Men's Spring 2020

Saint Laurent Men’s Spring 2020  Katie Jones/WWD/Shutterstock

WWD: What will determine the frequency of your future collection presentations? Will there still be a seasonal approach, or are you looking at a more seasonless way of designing and merchandising the collections?

A.V.: It’s not complete change season after season. Everything is intended to be mixed with previous seasons. It’s always about the attitude of the same woman or man. In the show, you can really see what’s from last season. More image pieces will always be there, as it’s not the time to be boring. It’s time for even more creativity.

Our approach to the collections has always been less “seasonal” than what the term usually implies. Each collection is an evolution of what has come before, combining timeless Saint Laurent pieces and new silhouettes.

WWD: Can you tell me anything about the format itself? I heard that Saint Laurent has a particularly well-performing digital showroom tool that is being touted as a best-in-class within the group. Will you be combining a digital showroom and collection presentation, or using livestreaming, augmented reality, virtual reality, film or social media platforms to tell your stories?

F.B.: The digital showroom you are probably referring to is an application we use to facilitate the buying for our stores. It has nothing to do with the way we express our creativity.

As for events and formats to reveal our collections, we prefer not to share the concepts we have in mind right now. And of course, those always depend on the message we want to convey.

For now, we want to clarify that for this year, so impacted by this global pandemic, we feel it is appropriate to detach from any preset schedule and have full control of when and how we present our message.

WWD: What will be the role of VIP guests and influencers in your new approach?

A.V.: The same as before. In the past four years we have built authentic relationships with our guests, and the approach is very much about a group of friends supporting and believing in each other as opposed to an opportunistic relationship.

Our VIPs only came to fashion week to be at the Saint Laurent show, so this approach makes even more sense now.

WWD: Anthony, how has the lockdown affected the way you work, and which aspects of your creativity are you looking to develop with this new way of presenting collections? You’ve been working closely with filmmakers in recent years: is cinema inspiring your approach in any way, or are you feeding off any other new and unexpected sources of creativity as teams switch to Zoom and other forms of online working?

A.V.: The lockdown at first generated a lot of questions in my mind. It was like everything was up for discussion, and nothing was preset. The situation we are living is so different that it seems almost naive pretending to look at the immediate future through the same lens as before.

From this initial, rapid generation of thoughts, many creative ideas have emerged, including the ones related to our next shows and their presentations. At the center of it all is the idea of taking back control of our time, recognizing the value of time.

In the last several weeks, I have taken the opportunity to immerse myself in watching and rewatching movies that I love and listening to the music that has accompanied me through my life. It has been an escape during the lockdown, but it has also been much more than that. Movies, photography and music are incredible sources of inspiration, and the artists I collaborate with are always people who I admire profoundly.

WWD: The Saint Laurent shows have been a major anchor of Paris Fashion Week in recent years, and you have worked closely with the City Hall authorities to turn them into a powerful showcase for the city. Will the new format take into account the leading role that the house plays in the Paris fashion ecosystem? If so, how do you hope to promote the Parisian dimension of the brand?

A.V.: The spirit and attitude of Saint Laurent is Parisian, and this will never change. This is what distinguishes Saint Laurent and we will continue to highlight Paris as a city and as the capital of fashion. We have done and will keep doing this, but not only with the fashion shows. We are announcing our intention to take control of our time, not to leave Paris.

F.B.: In Paris we have built our magnificent headquarters in Rue de Bellechasse and it is the city where we have revealed our strongest global initiatives to communicate the brand universe such as the Saint Laurent Rive Droite store, the first installation of [the] Self Project [art project] and the first exhibition curated by Anthony for Betty Catroux at the Yves Saint Laurent Museum.

The Best Fashion Ad Campaigns of Spring 2020: Saint Laurent

Rami Malek featured in the Saint Laurent’s spring 2020 men’s campaign. 

WWD: Francesca, as president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Mode Féminine, are you concerned that Saint Laurent dropping out of Paris Fashion Week could impact the attractiveness of Paris as the leading capital of fashion? Can you tell us anything about your discussions with the federation regarding your decision, and what it might mean for the other houses under your purview?

F.B.: I am honored to serve as president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Mode Féminine, and I take this role very seriously. My role at the Fédération [de la Haute Couture et de la Mode] does not interfere with or influence the decisions Anthony and I take for Saint Laurent specifically, and that have nothing to do with the other brands. Many ceo’s also serve as leaders of industry associations. All of us separate our responsibilities to our houses from those we have to the fashion organizations.

Saint Laurent’s announcement that we will not hold events in 2020 according to the usual calendar does not in any way diminish the role or importance of Paris Fashion Week — which is, very simply, the best in the world. Paris is where every designer aspires to show.

This is not a goodbye to Paris Fashion Week, but a change that we feel is necessary in this moment and in these exceptional circumstances. At the federation we are very united, respectful and open to one another. I communicated in advance our decision to Ralph Toledano [president of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode] and Pascal Morand [the federation’s executive president] who have respected it fully.

WWD: What future do you see for the traditional fashion week? Will every brand be striking out on their own, or this likely to be a temporary pause before a return to “business as usual?”

A.V.: I hope nothing will go back to “business as usual.” It would make no sense. It would mean we went through all of that for nothing. Things need to change and evolve. I can’t and don’t want to speculate on what the others will do.

F.B.: This peculiar moment is stimulating a lot of reflections in all of us and interesting discussions among all professionals working in fashion as well as among all the organizations running the different fashion weeks.

Pretending to simply go back to “business as usual” seems strange. But one thing should never change: the role of fashion as source of inspiration and dreams for everyone, by putting creativity at the center of everything we do.

Saint Laurent RTW Spring 2019

Saint Laurent RTW Spring 2019  Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

WWD: Kering chief financial officer Jean-Marc Duplaix said recently that all the Kering group brands will be making “drastic” cost cuts, with high double-digit reductions in spending. Did budget considerations play a role in deciding not to have fashion shows this year? Could other Kering brands follow suit?

F.B.: First, we have not said that we will not hold fashion shows this year. Next, this decision has nothing to do with cutting costs.

Within Kering each brand takes these decisions independently, and we don’t know if the others intend to follow similar paths. This decision is right for us in this moment, but we do not assume it will be right for other brands.

WWD: Duplaix said brands would be producing smaller collections and focusing on best-selling and carryover styles, as deliveries of the winter part of the collections could be delayed by up to four weeks. How is Saint Laurent adapting its collections to the delayed calendar? By how much do you expect to cut the number of sku’s?

F.B.: The fact that stores worldwide have been closed for some weeks, and some production sites, too, has impacted the shelf life of collections, actually shifting to more of a buy-now-wear-now calendar. This has to be taken into consideration in the development of the next pre-collections in particular, and every brand will do it in the way that suits its offer best.

WWD: How will the cost cuts affect your budget for A&P [advertising and promotion]? Do you plan to maintain advertising this year? Or will there be an even bigger pivot to digital? Have you shot your fall campaign yet, or will that also evolve in line with your strategy?

A.V.: We have already shot our fall campaign. I never link the image I’m doing with a show. I always tend to show those images before as I love to produce them, but it may be time to release those when the collections are in store.

For sure what’s happening will affect the imagery itself. I’m not in a bubble, what I want to avoid is the easy Zoom pictures I’ve seen for the last month on social media. We can be more creative than that, especially as we are an iconic house as Saint Laurent.

F.B.: We are looking at how we can create efficiencies in advertising and promotion. We still plan to advertise this year, as it is pivotal to sustain the brand image and positioning. The release of the campaigns will probably align with the arrival of the collections in the stores, and the media chosen will be those that communicate best with local clientele in each market.

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