Audrey Azoulay

PARIS — For any city looking to dethrone Paris as the capital of fashion, think again. That was the message from speakers at the inaugural edition of the Forum de la Mode here on Dec. 6, an initiative backed by France’s Ministries of Culture and Industries.

Participants  in five round tables throughout the day included Hermès International executive vice president of manufacturing and equity investments Guillaume de Seynes; the director of Christian Dior’s couture ateliers, Maurizio Liotti; ANDAM founder Nathalie Dufour; and designer Simon Porte Jacquemus. Themes included economic models and the creative scene.

Supported by the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode and the Fédération Française du Prêt à Porter Féminin, the event allowed stake holders to hash out hot industry topics including the evolving omnichannel retail landscape and international development. The event was one of the recommendations of socialist politician Lyne Cohen-Solal’s report into France’s fashion industry, published last December.

“This forum will allow us to exchange on challenges facing the industry. As Alber Elbaz said when I awarded him the Legion of Honor recently: ‘Fashion should be a mix of technique and story.’ We can add to that training, financing, eco-systems….,” said Audrey Azoulay, France’s Minister of Culture and Communication, who opened the forum.

Citing stiff competition from foreign fashion schools, Azoulay outlined ongoing developments in France’s fashion schools to raise the academic bar. They include a strategic alliance between the IFM and the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne on a full range of courses — from vocational training to higher education — in both fashion design and fashion management.

Speaking on a panel titled “Savoir-Faire and New Production Modes,” Dior’s Liotti, who said the house is entirely redoing its ateliers, lamented the lack of communication on the various métiers of fashion when it comes to recruiting the next generation of seamstresses and tailors. “Most people think in a house like ours you can either be a sales person or work in the atelier, whereas there are around 50 métiers that are each very important. And these are tough métiers that require real passion,” he said.

“Our industry is at a turning point. Brands need to work on improving their desirability,” said Pierre-François Le Louët, president of the Fédération Française du Prêt à Porter Féminin. “We all know the power of our industry, as the creator of 1 million jobs, with a GDP superior to the automobile and aviation industries combined, but unfortunately consumer spending is not where it should be and we need to do all we can to inject some energy. The consumer today is looking for emotion, authenticity and real values and Made in France is one of those values.”

Designers debated the relevance of the fashion show and social media.

“Being a designer is quite a solitary experience in many ways and I will never forget the first time I put on a show and seeing all this support, it gave me wings and I am not ready to take them off,” said Wanda Nylon’s Johanna Senyk.

Porte Jacquemus said he likes to control all of his social media platforms from A-Z, meanwhile. “I posted my first collection in 2009 on Facebook and I started digital at age 12. I had a blog and each week would post a photo of myself in a different situation: me in fruit at my grandparents, me in the garage – for me they were inspired by Italian Vogue, of course,” he quipped. “It might sound strange, but for me I’m still that little boy telling stories.”

Nicolas Santi-Weil, chief executive officer of Ami, highlighted the challenge of fixing pricing when faced with “geo discounting,” with sales taking place at different times around the globe.

Elisabeth Cazorla, director of ready-to-wear at Galeries Lafayette and BHV, said the omnichannel phenomenon requires major investments. “Before we would invest in one channel, and now, faced with this explosion of possibilities, we have to make choices based on priorities….Innovations are multiplying, the challenge lies in seizing these innovations in real time in order for the clients to benefit from them,” she said.

Cazorla also credited fellow panelist Emmanuelle Brizay, co-founder of Panoply, a London-based rental concept specializing in strong fashion pieces, with “dynamizing the market.” “We see today that clients hesitate on spending so this idea of removing any complexes linked to having access to fashion by taking away financial engagement, or at least to begin with, brings a new energy.”

For fashion investor Frédéric Biousse, founder of Experienced Capital, the premium middle market is the “market of tomorrow for 90 percent of the young French brands.”

“We have to be proud, affordable luxury originated in Paris: Comptoirs des Cotonniers, Zadig & Voltaire, Princesse Tam Tam created this new business model,” he said, explaining how, in turn, it triggered a “new model of affordable luxury” pioneered by “hipsters” in the U.S. based on boutiques that are “a bit more exclusive and a bit more specialized” and hooked on good product, authenticity and traceability. Biousse contributed to the affordable luxury phenomenon himself, as the brains behind the Sandro and Maje success stories. (Biousse co-founded SMCP, the holding company of Sandro, Maje and Claudie Pierlot, which in 2013 was sold to U.S. private equity firm KKR, which earlier this year sold it to China’s Shandong Ruyi for 1.3 billion euros, or $1.21 billion at average exchanges rates.)

“Now we have these micro boutiques in Paris, tiny coffee stores with bearded baristas serving coffee that is expensive but everyone’s happy because it’s authentic. My historic Sandro client, today they go to Ami, to Apple, to Wholefoods — all these brands share the same economic model,” he said.

Biousse, who said Experienced Capital owned stakes in several of the brands presenting at the forum, also spoke of the mushrooming of a new generation of entrepreneurs in France. “In nine months we received 200 dossiers and were blown away by all these new entrepreneurs who are staying clear of big groups and want to set up their own companies….they have vision and want to take risks but want to be accompanied,” he said before dishing out some advice: “[With SMCP], we went through it all, highs, lows, accelerations, economic crises and non-stop changes in regulations… and we had to adapt in order to react. We always trusted in our instinct and all of those young entrepreneurs need to do so, too,” he said. “Run alongside side them like you would when preparing to mount a horse. The key is to be agile, to learn to surf.”

Ami’s Santi-Weil concurred: “There’s a new energy, a French voice coming through. For me, the difference today is that young designers have a sense of chutzpah that wasn’t there five or ten years ago. Before they would start in France and then if France went well, they’d try Europe after five years and then the U.S. after 10 years. Today they’re more ambitious and move faster; they find the means, through financing, collaborations, say, to get out there. Today, there’s an entrepreneurial eco-system that is starting to attract foreign investors. Despite the attacks, despite the robberies, Paris still has that pull.”