PARIS — Half a century on, the social unrest that swept through France in May 1968, upending social norms and sparking an upsurge of creativity, continues to fuel imaginations.
A series of events marking the anniversary this year, memories from fashion figures and a peek into the archives of WWD show the lasting grip of the era, revealing some entertaining anecdotes as well.
“It was really a shock,” noted designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, who discovered the confrontation when, at 18, he arrived in the French capital from boarding school.
“Over several days, I experienced emotions I had never felt before — it was a huge explosion of youth but also of creativity — the Paris that I had seen and imagined was completely turned on its head,” he continued.
Maria Grazia Chiuri turned to vivid images from the time for Dior’s 2018 fall ready-to-wear collection, sending the pieces down a runway decorated with a collage of fashion magazine covers from 1968.
She kicked off the Dior show led with a sweater marked “C’est non non non et non!”
“We wanted to change and open society,” said Agnès Trouble, the designer behind the label Agnès B, in a recent interview with the French weekly newspaper Journal du Dimanche. She recalled listening to the radio to find out where street protests were taking place. On a fashion note, women ditched their fur coats for jeans, sneakers and rain coats, the designer observed.
“Cars were upside down and Saint-Germain was electric, everyone was running,” said Castelbajac, referring to the Left Bank neighborhood Saint-Germain-des-Prés. For the French aristocrat who was raised in a traditionalist family but went on to make a name for himself with pop-art-style fashion designs, the events shifted his views.
“I had participated on both sides of the demonstrations. In the beginning, I was quite a conservative young man — I was a royalist, you see, until the day my godfather, who was an important left-wing journalist, took me to the Beaux Arts and then I saw things differently,” said the designer, referring to the historic art and architecture institute. The school played an important role, occupied by students who set up a workshop producing posters to support the movement.
This year, the movement’s posters have been central to marking the anniversary, being featured in exhibits and auctions.
In March, auction house Artcurial sold nearly $200,000 worth of posters collected by French media executive Laurent Storch. The best-selling image was one that read “la beauté est dans la rue” — beauty is in the street — and shows an image of a woman throwing a paving stone. It sold for more than $4,000.
Another auctioneer, De Baecque, is also holding a poster sale. Scheduled for May 16 at the Drouot auction house, it includes one that reads “French, immigrant workers united,” with a suggested opening bid of between 300 euros and 600 euros.
An exhibit at the Beaux Arts features posters from the French far left in the late Sixties and early Seventies, called “Battling Images.” The show runs through May 20 with support by Sonia Rykiel, a fashion house that traces its roots to that rebellious year, 1968. The house has close ties to the school and holds its fashion shows there.
The exhibit will include a selection of posters belonging to fashion industry veteran Jean-Marc Loubier and his wife Hedieh. The former Louis Vuitton and Céline executive who runs Rykiel-owner First Heritage Brands has been collecting posters from the tumultuous Sixties and Seventies, from around the world, for three decades.
What drew him to this type of artwork?
“An appetite for questioning, an appetite for words, for graphic expression, a curiosity about people around the world,” said Loubier, speaking in his office, a modest space cluttered with pieces of art, including vintage furniture, that sits above the Sonia Rykiel Saint Germain flagship.
Collecting the artwork from other countries, including Japan, Germany, Italy, Spain, Mexico and the U.S., the pursuit has added an extra dimension to his travels over the years, he added.
“It allowed me to see people differently,” he noted in the interview, before trotting downstairs to greet guests at the Rykiel store to celebrate the launching of a ’68-inspired handbag designed by the house’s designer Julie de Libran.
Called the “pavé,” which is French for cobblestone, Loubier came up with the idea of the paving stone as inspiration a couple of years ago, as he sought ways to mark the label’s 50th year. Beaux Arts student Juliette Minchin decorated the store for the celebration, wrapping the facade with a rainbow-inspired motif.
While Rykiel herself, who died in 2016, did not partake in the stone-throwing of the era, she was known for pushing women’s rights.
WWD reported on her first store opening in 1968, in the heart of the Saint Germain neighborhood, a few months after the May events.
“A week after its opening, the Sonia Rykiel Boutique is already filled with those pretty slim girls with long floating hair in their jersey jumpsuits…or long coats over wide pants,” wrote Claude de Leusse, of the Paris bureau at the time.
She described Rykiel as an “energetic young woman with auburn bangs brushing her twinkling eyes, wearing one of her successful houndstooth jersey coats over a soft jersey jumpsuit.”
Rykiel was quoted: “I want to impose my name on fashion.”
In a telephone interview, longtime French fashion figure Didier Grumbach recalled that designers of the period did not partake in the protests.
“The couturiers were not in the street, that’s for sure. I was more or less in the street, but my brother, Tiennot, was very engaged. He was one of the worst. I came into the Sorbonne one day and somebody was yelling, and it was my brother,” he remembered.
“For fashion at the time, it was the most dynamic period between France and America. Everything was upside-down in fashion [with the emergence of French rtw]. Givenchy had opened at Bergdorf Goodman, and Yves Saint Laurent [had recently] introduced Saint Laurent Rive Gauche,” Grumbach added.
Yves Saint Laurent muse Betty Catroux recalled skipping town.
“I just remember a lot of excitement as we were rebels, too, and some fear of violence, but our little YSL gang lived on our cloud, so we were not really aware [of what was happening]….I remember only that, rather cowardly, we all left Paris at that time,” she noted.
A plunge into the archives of WWD revealed Catroux and her gang were not the only ones to leave the capital and its deflated retail scene.
Emmanuel Ungaro had withdrawn to Switzerland, Marc Bohan and Philippe Guibourgé were “wondering whether they’d have enough gas to make it to Françoise Sagan’s Normandy chateau” while Courrèges, the working man’s courturier, “shrewdly finds himself in Morocco.”
Department stores Printemps and Galeries Lafayette “closed at lunch…dismissed their staffs, shuttered their gates and let the Revolution quietly engulf them,” read a dispatch from Paris. Eres did not sell a single bathing suit and Boutique St. Laurent Rive Gauche saw “fewer than 10 clients while the vendeuses [saleswomen] pined for distractions of almost any kind.”
At Pierre Cardin, only princesses were coming in for fittings.
Hairdressers, meanwhile, were overbooked:
“The ladies were arranging themselves to meet their red-bannered ravishers.”
Coco Chanel was not amused, matching her mood to the temper of the time, wearing a flaming red scarf and with matching red cuffs protruding from her sweater, according to the report. In her view, the disruptions were caused, not by students but by young people trying to create “total disorder.”
The revolution would find her where she belonged, seated on the stairway of her maison.
Two Puig brothers, meanwhile, had traveled to Paris, and discovered riot scenes only after signing a deal to acquire Paco Rabanne. In a film that traces the history of the Spanish fashion and fragrance company that now also owns Jean-Paul Gaultier and Nina Ricci, Mariano Puig explains that the brothers settled on the label founded in France, where they were seeking a foothold to gain legitimacy in the U.S. market.
“We signed the contract at our lawyer’s home on Avenue Hoche in Paris. My brother Antonio and I shook hands and said, ‘I believe we’ve signed something important. Let’s celebrate with Champagne.’”
Entering the streets, they encountered burning cars, police barricades and red flags.
“Is this a revolution? What’s going on here?” he recalled wondering if they had chosen the wrong place.
“We were not mistaken. France is a great country and things went back to normal,” Puig concluded.