PARIS — In recent years, the cruise season has been a springboard for European luxury houses to fan out to increasingly exotic locales, from Rio de Janeiro to Havana, Palm Springs, Dubai and Seoul. In 2018, the pendulum is swinging back closer to home, with four major brands all opting to stage their shows in France.
As Chanel prepares to unveil its cruise collection in Paris on Thursday, to be followed later this month by Christian Dior in Chantilly, Louis Vuitton in Saint-Paul-de-Vence and Gucci in Arles, the fashion flock is gearing up for an extended stay in the home of Champagne, macarons — and train strikes.
Ironically, Gucci — the only Italian label of the group — was the first to declare its intentions, saying its cruise 2019 fashion show would take place on May 30 at the ancient site of Alyscamps, a Roman necropolis that has inspired everyone from Italian poet Dante Alighieri to Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.
Though the southern city of Arles has long been a magnet for artists and photographers, thanks to the Fondation Vincent van Gogh and the annual Rencontres d’Arles summer photography festival, this marks the first time the Alyscamps site will host an event of this magnitude.
Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s creative director, has a nose for culturally significant locations, having staged his previous cruise presentations in locations including the Dia Art Foundation in New York City, the Cloisters at Westminster Abbey in London and the Palatina Gallery in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti.
“After cruising New York, London and Florence, France was the most natural and organic landing place for Gucci. I wanted to pay my homage to this incredibly important and fundamental country for our culture and history,” Michele told WWD.
“Among the many beautiful places in France, I chose Arles. I have always been a great admirer and a curious and avid traveler of that part of the south of France, which I visit at least once every year. I actually decided to have this year’s cruise show there last year, when I was in Arles for a long weekend in July,” he explained.
“All the places I travel to for cruise also belong to my personal story. They are heartfelt places, which have a lot of meaning to me. Nothing is accidental,” Michele added.
Nicolas Ghesquière, artistic director of women’s collections at Louis Vuitton, is another designer who seemingly follows his personal whims in selecting show locations, which tend to reflect his penchant for striking buildings with a futuristic bent.
Last year, the fashion pack trekked one hour outside of Kyoto, Japan, to the Miho Museum, a stunning mountaintop venue designed by I.M. Pei. The year before that, it was the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum — a saucer-shaped landmark in Rio de Janeiro by celebrated Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
For his show scheduled for May 28, Ghesquière has alighted on the Fondation Maeght, a private art foundation established in 1964 by art dealer Aimé Maeght and his wife Marguerite in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a hilltop village west of Nice popular in the Fifties with everyone from Pablo Picasso to Orson Welles.
Designed by Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert, the foundation houses site-specific works by artists including Alberto Giacometti and Joan Miró, in addition to a sprawling art collection.
“When we started in 2014, the cruise collections were a new challenge for me and for Louis Vuitton. We have implemented a consistent architectural journey that is so particular to the house, and again, with the Fondation Maeght we are continuing on this voyage,” said Ghesquière.
“It’s about being transported into a relationship where nature, geography and architecture come together within the vision of a great architect. After the desert with Palm Springs, the ocean with Rio, I wanted an immersion in a sea of green with the Miho Museum. This year, we will be transported to an extraordinary sanctuary where nature and artworks meet,” he said.
The brand has shown its cruise collection in France before: in 2014, it set up a see-through tent with Pierre Paulin-designed seating on the square in front of the Prince’s Palace of Monaco.
“Once in a lifetime — it’s never to be repeated. You blink, you miss it,” Louis Vuitton chairman and chief executive officer Michael Burke said at the time. For last year’s extravaganza, the house privatized Shinbashi Street in the heart of Kyoto’s medieval district and hired dozens of geishas to mingle with guests — another first.
“The Louis Vuitton cruise magic carpet transports viewers to otherworldly locations. Epic and awe-inspiring, the venues and collections transpose to fantasy worlds made of creativity, nature and architecture,” Burke said of this season’s choice of location.
For Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of fashion, the choice of Paris comes at a strategic time.
Chanel holds the exclusive right to use the Grand Palais, whose soaring glass-and-steel structure has been the stage of creative director Karl Lagerfeld’s fashion shows since 2005, with props including a giant statue of a jacket, a fake iceberg and a reproduction of the Eiffel Tower.
The French fashion house recently signed on as the exclusive private sponsor of the renovation of the building, pledging 25 million euros toward the works, due to be completed in time for the Summer Olympics in Paris in 2024. As part of the deal, the entrance to the nave will be christened after founder Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.
“Why France and why Paris? It’s the desire to do something exceptional at the Grand Palais,” Pavlovsky told WWD. “Today, the cruise collection, which arrives in stores in November and was originally conceived as a wardrobe for wealthy clients traveling to tropical climes, represents an area of freedom for us.”
Though the house is typically tight-lipped about sets in the run-up to its shows, the invitation features an ocean liner named La Pausa, after the villa designed and built by Gabrielle Chanel in the Thirties, suggesting Lagerfeld has another Hollywood-sized production in store. In lieu of seats, guests have been assigned cabin numbers.
“For what I was looking for, we couldn’t find it anywhere in the world, so I had to build it in the Grand Palais, as I built the Antiquity in the Grand Palais,” said the designer, referring to last year’s show, for which he conjured a replica of the Temple of Poseidon in the building’s Galerie Courbe.
Lagerfeld said Chanel’s cruise displays in May and its Métiers d’Art shows in December are no longer secondary attractions. “Today, the ready-to-wear collections in March and October are important. But the cruise and Métiers d’Art lines are almost equally important and generate the same revenue,” he explained.
The pre-seasonal collection serves an indirect purpose: to act as a banner for French tourism, which has been battered in the wake of a spate of terrorist attacks in France in 2015 and 2016.
Though national statistics institute INSEE reported a 7.8 percent rise in tourism in the fourth quarter of 2017, luxury groups such as Kering, which owns Gucci, noted that the strong euro diverted some Chinese tourists away from Europe toward Asia in the first quarter of 2018, signaling that the recovery is potentially fragile.
As bad luck would have it, a French railway strike that started in April and is set to stretch until June will block many trains from circulating on May 28 and 29, when editors will be on the French Riviera for the Vuitton display. The house is offering car transfers for guests attending the Gucci show in Arles.
Frequent strikes notwithstanding, Chanel is betting big on Paris. In addition to the Grand Palais sponsorship, the house will devote just under 5 million euros for the creation of permanent exhibition spaces at the Palais Galliera, the French capital’s fashion museum, which are due to be unveiled in 2019.
It also plans to build a new site in the north of Paris, designed by award-winning architect Rudy Ricciotti, to house the specialty ateliers Chanel controls through its Paraffection subsidiary. They include the feather-maker Lemarié, embroiderers Maison Lesage and Atelier Montex, shoemaker Massaro and milliner Maison Michel.
Further highlighting the importance of these traditional skills, handed down from generation to generation, guests in Paris this week will have an opportunity to take part in workshops designed to give them an insight into the history and creations of two of Chanel’s specialty ateliers.
“When we organize cruise shows in Singapore, Dubai or Seoul, we cater to markets that are important, but that also connect with Karl Lagerfeld’s creativity. These collections perfectly illustrate his inspirations and his creation, and the cruise collections are privileged moments for Chanel to meet clients and media over several days, outside of the frantic rhythm of fashion weeks,” said Pavlovsky.
The heritage dimension also looms large for Dior, which is staging its show on May 25 in the Great Stables of the Domaine de Chantilly. Built in the 18th century for Louis Henri de Bourbon, the seventh Prince of Condé, the majestic stables are billed as the largest in Europe and host top-level equestrian displays throughout the year.
The venue marks quite a change from last year’s display, held in the desert landscape of Calabasas, California, though Dior is no stranger to grand locations: in 2016, it ferried VIP guests on an Orient Express train to Blenheim Palace, an imposing English country house that is the residence of the dukes of Marlborough.
In addition to being “a symbol of French prestige and art de vivre,” Chantilly also provides a link to Dior’s history. The brand noted that various designs over the years have carried or evoked its name, starting with founder Christian Dior’s second collection, for autumn 1947, which featured an evening dress baptized Chantilly.
The stable’s proximity of the Chantilly racecourse, home to prestigious events like the annual Prix de Diane, has led to speculation that Maria Grazia Chiuri, artistic director of women’s collections, may weave in some equestrian themes. Then again, she could nod to Chantilly as the birthplace of the namesake lace.
The designer plans to “take her creations on a voyage through time and history,” was all that Dior would allow.
“In the past, going to Paris meant being exposed to fashion in its purest form, going to the source. For us, showing in France therefore connects us to this part of the collective heritage, reinforcing our position in what is not only the birthplace of the house, but remains more than ever the home of the modern idea of fashion,” Chiuri told WWD.
Meaning that, this season at least, all roads lead to France.