BORN AGAIN IN PARIS: THE CITY OF LIGHT TURNS UP THE WATTAGE
Byline: Miles Socha
PARIS — Shoppers are lined up every morning outside the Louis Vuitton shop on the Champs Elysees here, patiently waiting to buy a piece of French luxury.
Marc Jacobs just sold his Manhattan apartment and moved his cat and dog into his home in the 7th arondissement here, where he now lives, happily, full-time.
“Jet Set,” a French film that sends up the frivolous ways of high society, is a hit in theatres, attracting some 1.5 million spectators since it opened three weeks ago, almost three times more than the Jim Carrey vehicle, “Me, Myself and Irene.”
And sales of fashion products within France, after six years of retrenchment, are on the rise again, with increases last year of 1, 4 and 8 percent for clothing, perfume and jewelry, respectively.
They’re random facts, but they all point to a larger phenomenon: the rebound of Paris as a vital fashion, economic and cultural center. After spending a good five years in the shadow of Milan and New York, the French capital is starting to percolate again. It may not yet be sizzling, but it’s definitely simmering, designers, retailers and various industry players agree.
They point to a number of key signals of a Parisian renaissance: the renewed buzz surrounding legendary French brands like Christian Dior, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Celine; a strong crop of promising young designers who show in Paris; the emergence of a strong avant- garde fashion press; the shift away from minimalism in fashion; a burgeoning restaurant and music scene.
And then there is the man at the center of attention in Paris: Tom Ford, who in October will unveil his revamped YSL Rive Gauche ready-to-wear collection, one of the most eagerly anticipated relaunches in years.
“Paris is particularly interesting at this moment,” Ford told WWD. “I always find great inspiration in Paris. The French have amazing style. It’s in their blood. It’s in the way they stand, the way they move.”
Notwithstanding the ho-hum fall couture collections, which ended here Wednesday, Ford’s improved opinion of the city’s potential is shared by many of his designer peers. Even Jil Sander, who recently bought a house in the 7th, is spending a lot of time here, poking around antique shops and soaking up inspiration.
“Paris is waking up,” declared Jean Paul Gaultier, who certainly opened a few eyes in the couture establishment when he threw his scissors into the ring and showed them “how to do zat.” Even for a designer who is about as Parisian as they get, Gaultier acknowledged that the city, and the fashion business, was “very down” for at least five years. But he said things are picking up on many fronts.
He cited the monumental millennium celebration in Paris — which inspired the glittering Eiffel tower dresses that wowed the couture audience here Sunday — to France’s World Cup soccer win two years ago, and its recent victory over Italy in the European Cup tournament, as key events that have galvanized the city and filled it with positive energy.
And notwithstanding the sharp, ongoing rivalry between billionaire titans Bernard Arnault and Francois Pinault, who recently locked horns over LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s troublesome 20.6 percent stake in Gucci, Gaultier said the two moguls have done a lot to energize the fashion business here and put it on an international stage.
Jacobs couldn’t agree more. While acknowledging the risk of looking like he’s kissing up to his boss, he could not resist paying Arnault a few compliments. “I think Mr. Arnault has really helped, if not single-handedly, to revive French fashion,” he said.
Certainly his strategies are bearing fruit. As reported Wednesday, sales at LVMH leaped 40 percent in the first half of 2000, boosted by a 50 percent jump in sales of the Louis Vuitton brand.
Many observers were loath to assign a ranking to the world’s four key fashion capitals, but some suggested that Milan, which rocketed to prominence in recent years thanks largely to the overwhelming success of Gucci and Prada, might be at risk of losing some of its edge, as minimalism runs out of steam and consumers increasingly prize creativity and individuality, long the forte of Parisian createurs.
Never one to mince words, Karl Lagerfeld said, “Paris is more exciting, even if there’s more business in Milan.”
While citing the undiminished strength of Prada and Gucci, and also Fendi, which he has designed for almost 35 years, Lagerfeld said of Italy’s prominence, “I have the feeling it was yesterday. Every excitement calms down in a way because things can’t be at a climax 365 days a year.”
Jacobs agreed, saying he’s “not terribly” interested in Italian fashion beyond what Miuccia Prada is doing.
“The Italians are very formula driven, whereas in France there’s more individuality,” he said. “I feel you’ve got all this diversity in Paris, and I don’t feel that about Italy.”
Hedi Slimane, the acclaimed men’s wear designer from Yves Saint Laurent who just joined Christian Dior’s men’s division, characterized the recent and sustained reign of Milan in fashion as the “years of uniformity,” when plain, simple and rather asexual designs like flat-front nylon pants and slim knits were predominant for both men and women.
“Everyone was trying to dress the same and not stand out,” he said. “But fashion has again become something sexual and more interesting. This is in a way the revenge of Paris.”
But Slimane, who once hosted a party for one of his men’s YSL lines and pronounced the music and atmosphere as important as the collection, cast the current Paris comeback in a broader cultural context beyond just fashion, mentioning the surge in popularity of so-called “French touch” dance music artists like Alex Gopher, Demon and Dimitri from Paris, for example.
“There’s a sense that everyone wants to go out again,” Slimane said. “The restaurants are full. People want to dress up. Fashion and the idea of dressing up and going a little bit further with dressing has come back.”
“It’s quite a young Paris now,” Jacobs agreed. “There’s exciting young fashion happening here, and there’s the beginning of a young music scene with groups like Daft Punk, Air and all the deejays.” Jacobs even noted the surge of nostalgia among young people for cultural icons like songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Dutronc.
Chloe designer Stella McCartney noted that Paris still lacks the “street life” and “vibe” of other international capitals, but she said, “it’s moving in the right direction. It’s been a slow process, but there’s a little bit bubbling up under the surface. I do think fashion is doing incredibly well right now.”
Sean (Puffy) Combs, who hosted a raucous, all-night dance party at Les Bains Douche here last Saturday, credited Paris with introducing him to the world of women’s fashions. Having visited Paris frequently over the past five years, he, too, noticed a pickup in the city’s music and club scene.
“Paris is the number-one market in Europe for hip-hop and progressive music,” he said. “Do you know that radio station, I think it’s 98.7? It’s on fire. It makes me feel like I’m in New York.”
Not that Paris is all fun and games.
According to the most recent statistics from the French Women’s Ready-to-Wear Federation, exports of French rtw rose only 1 percent to $1.8 billion last year. Those numbers are destined to climb higher this year and next as major houses move from licensing to in-house operations for key categories like ready-to-wear and accessories, according to Didier Grumbach, president of France’s Chambre Syndicale.
Dior Couture, for example, which has eliminated scores of licenses, recently reported that sales grew 55 percent last year, led by the ready-to-wear and leather goods.
“The economy is good again in France,” said Dior president Sidney Toledano. “And the city of Paris is alive again.”
Key economic indicators certainly point in one direction: up.
Over the past year, the Paris real estate market has tightened up considerably. While unable to provide precise vacancy rates, the National Federation of Real Estate describes the market as difficult, with available space quickly evaporating. Prices for commercial rentals jumped almost 10 percent last year.
Across France, the jobless rate, after reaching a postwar high of 10.6 percent in June 1997, has dipped into the single digits. Some economists are predicting that France, aided by massive direct foreign investment, will be at full employment by 2006. The productivity of the average French worker is currently 108 percent of his U.S. counterpart, up from 73 percent in 1973. Household consumption and industrial growth charted strong increases last year.
But beyond the economic turnaround, observers say, is also a new attitude among French entrepreneurs and business managers: one that is more open to foreign expertise, whether it’s in marketing, design or manufacturing. Toledano said combining that openness with France’s couture know-how makes for a powerful combination
Lagerfeld, who moved to Paris from his native Germany when still a teenager, said the French have a national tendency to “analyze things in a negative way,” but he said younger generations are thinking in new ways.
Ralph Toledano, president of Chloe, said France’s couture tradition has been burdensome insofar as it promotes the idea of fashion as art. But he said the industry has adapted quickly to the reality that fashion is a commercial art and an international business.
“Four years ago, it was a really depressed country. Now it’s really different. There’s more energy, more optimism,” he said. “Also, fashion is finished with minimalism, which had nothing to do with French culture.”
Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, credited the presence of American and British designers at LVMH fashion houses — John Galliano at Dior, Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors at Celine and Alexander McQueen at Givenchy — for heating up famous French brands.
“It’s got all the blood boiling again,” she said. “It’s really made it all very exciting.”
The emergence of a strong crop of new Paris-based talent was cited by many observers as evidence of the city’s resurgence. Names that came up repeatedly included Jeremy Scott, Nicolas Ghesquiere and Slimane. Belgian and Dutch talents, who show in Paris and are talked about as the city’s own, were also included in the group: Veronique Branquinho, Olivier Theyskens and Viktor & Rolf.
Citing healthy sell-throughs of French designers this spring and summer, American retailers said they’re keeping a closer eye on Paris now that it’s pulsing with new talent.
“There was a moment when Paris maintained a neutral position while other cities surged ahead,” Gail Pisano, executive vice president of merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue, declared diplomatically. “Today, there’s a renewed energy. We feel very bullish about what we see.”
Pisano was referring to the surge in leather goods houses Gucci, Prada, Fendi and Ferragamo in recent years. “The Italians had the upper hand, particularly in 1996, ’97 and ’98,” she said. “But Paris has already rebounded.”
Pisano said Paris now has what she called a “healthy balance” between major, established brands and young talent, which she said is a powerful combination.
“We are intensifying many of the French resources,” she said, quickly adding, “but not at the expense of our friends in other countries.”
Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president for fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s, said he “breathlessly” awaits the spring 2001 show season in Paris, which will be headlined by the Ford-designed YSL.
“Paris is on the map again as the center of creative fashion,” he said. “We still do a lot of buying in Milan, but Paris is certainly a place where we are concentrating a lot of our efforts.”
This fall, Bloomingdale’s is adding the collections of two Paris-based designers, Jerome Dreyfuss and Jean-Paul Knott. And, given Bloomingdale’s renewed commitment to the designer business, Ruttenstein said he’ll be scouring the city for more new names on this fall’s buying trip.
But back to those random pieces of evidence. Art + Commerce, the New York agency that represents makeup artists, stylists and photographers, recently opened a Paris branch, as did the public relations firm KCD.
KCD president Ed Filipowski noted the growing strength of “directional” magazines here, such as Numero, Citizen K, Self Service, Mix, Purple and Jalouse, which, as reported, plans to start a U.S. edition next year.
Filipowski is already musing whether any American designers will seize this Paris moment and begin showing their collections here.
Indeed, imagine if Helmut Lang, who turned New York’s calendar upside down when he moved his business there in 1998, were to come back to his old haunt, Paris?
Lagerfeld mentioned an upcoming photography project that also speaks to the comeback of Paris. He said he plans to shoot a major story for Interview magazine on the renaissance in the French movie industry, doing portraits of actors, actresses, directors and screen writers.
Ingrid Sischy, Interview’s editor in chief, said the creative atmosphere in Paris has been becoming increasingly charged with each of her visits to the city over the past two years. But she said she can also detect it back home in Manhattan, pointing to the insanely popular, hyper-French brasseries Balthazar and Pastis as but one example.
“I knew Paris was coming back when everywhere I went in New York they were serving steak frites,” she said. “There’s a real hunger for Paris here. So why not go for the real thing?”
Jacobs agreed, but stressed that the city is feeding creative appetites as well.
“I always feel like Paris is quite alive,” he said. “People are busy doing stuff again in Paris. They’re not just coming to see the Eiffel tower.”