PARIS — “Fluctuat nec mergitur”: The Latin motto of the city of Paris, which translates as “Beaten by the waves, but does not founder,” once again feels timely after being used as a rallying cry following the 2015 terrorist attacks.
The Paris haute couture shows kick off on Monday after more than two months of violent demonstrations by gilets jaunes antigovernment protesters that have left the French capital bloodied and bruised, with many businesses struggling to survive after being vandalized and watching their holiday sales evaporate.
Roadblocks and late deliveries have become par for the course for luxury brands, many of which were forced to close their boutiques in the run-up to Christmas to protect their staffs and customers. Some couture houses feared guest cancellations as a result of the chaos, though so far attendance appears to be on track.
To compound matters, on Jan. 12, another day of citywide protests, a massive gas explosion in a city center bakery killed four people and injured 50. The force of the blast blew in the windows of Montex, the Chanel-owned embroidery workshop, where 70 people were rushing to complete orders for couture houses.
“They had to drop everything and evacuate the workshop. Fortunately, there were only light injuries,” said Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel and president of Chanel SAS, who also heads the Paraffection subsidiary, which controls 26 specialty ateliers.
“We could no longer enter the premises and there were a lot of orders underway for Chanel and other major couture houses, which meant that as of midday last Saturday, it looked like many shows would be missing a lot of looks,” he recalled.
Caraco, a couture and theatrical costume workshop adjoining the Folies Bergère music hall, agreed to temporarily house the Montex teams. Other embroidery houses — the Chanel-owned Lesage and Lemarié, but also independents like Vermont, Hurel and Atelier Vernoux — chipped in with supplies.
“In principle, Montex will be able to honor all its deliveries, thanks to the solidarity and efforts of everyone,” Pavlovsky said.
The incident reflects the resilience of the sector, which for decades has defied predictions of its demise. Couture houses like Chanel, Giorgio Armani Privé, Valentino, Schiaparelli and Jean Paul Gaultier enjoyed strong momentum in the second half, despite the social unrest beginning Nov. 17, officials at the houses said.
They are joined by the likes of Christian Dior, Givenchy, Giambattista Valli, Ralph & Russo, Maison Margiela, Elie Saab, Viktor & Rolf, Guo Pei and Zuhair Murad on the official couture calendar.
The week also features a notable addition: Balmain, which is returning to couture for the first time since the departure of Oscar de la Renta in 2002. The show will be live-streamed through the house’s new app, as part of creative director Olivier Rousteing’s drive to democratize access to high fashion and make it more inclusive.
The couture shows and high jewelry presentations will end with Christie’s Paris auctioning off Catherine Deneuve’s Saint Laurent wardrobe on Thursday afternoon, followed by the annual Sidaction AIDS benefit gala the same day.
Chanel’s four couture workshops are operating at full capacity under the creative direction of Karl Lagerfeld. “Our cruising speed is quite remarkable, since orders have doubled over the last three or four years, so we are very satisfied with the numbers,” Pavlosvky said.
Armani, meanwhile, reported a surge in orders after wowing guests with a 96-look show at the Italian Embassy in July.
“The fall 2018 collection has been a source of great pride for me; not only it was one of our most successful fashion shows, but we also reported a significant sales increase. The targets we had set have been well exceeded,” the couturier reported.
“I find that exclusive locations provide the ideal background for Privé. I also like the idea of surprising my audience every time,” he added. This season, he will show at the Hôtel d’Evreux on Place Vendôme, “a magical place, full of charm, the essence of Parisian style.”
Valentino creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli is also riding high, having won rave reviews for his last show, which featured Kaia Gerber in a pink ostrich feather gown and maxi bouffant hairdo. “The results of 2018 have been particularly good,” said Stefano Sassi, chief executive officer of Valentino.
“Haute couture still holds the power of a dream, amplified today by social networks. Millennials are familiar with haute couture and are attracted to its being distinctive and unique; a great opportunity to illustrate the DNA of our maison and to show a world which would otherwise prove inaccessible,” Sassi added.
Technology is already disrupting the rhythms of a form of craftsmanship that requires weeks, even months, for each made-to-measure outfit to be completed. “A while ago, a client that was not able to attend the show, ordered a dress during the streaming of the show, before the actual end of the show,” Sassi said.
Even smaller houses are reporting good progress. Schiaparelli, the historic house revived by Diego Della Valle in 2014, increased its staff by 25 percent last year to keep pace with a rise in activity following the relaunch of its upscale ready-to-wear activity, said ceo Delphine Bellini.
“As the reputation of the house grows, we are gaining more and more clients in various territories, both in our principal markets and developing markets like Asia and Eastern Europe. We are seeing a wide variety of customers, including younger women,” she said.
Schiaparelli plans to capitalize on the momentum with its sponsorship of the Paris Opera’s 350th anniversary gala on May 8, which will feature designs by creative director Bertrand Guyon.
Jean Paul Gaultier again recorded double-digit growth in the second half, benefiting from a halo effect from the launch of the designer’s “Fashion Freak Show” revue at the Folies Bergère in October, said Sophie Waintraub, general manager of the house.
“It’s an extraordinary window for the brand,” she said, adding that the company regularly invites guests to take in the show. “It allows more recent or even prospective clients to better understand Jean Paul’s universe, and what the house of Gaultier represents in terms of its designs and values.”
Waintraub cautioned that the ongoing gilets jaunes protests, named after the yellow safety vests worn by demonstrators, risks again denting the image of Paris just as tourism had bounced back from the terror attacks. Some 84,000 people hit the streets nationwide on Saturday, unchanged from a week earlier.
At the root of the popular uprising is the growing gap between rich and poor. With its five- and six-figure price tags aimed squarely at the world’s one percent, couture is especially vulnerable to a backlash in public opinion.
“It’s obvious that these violent protests every Saturday damage the image of Paris and scare off visitors,” Waintraub said.
“It took us a long time to recover from the 2015 attacks, when clients no longer wanted to stay in Paris and treated it merely as a stopover city. Paris had become once again a hyper dynamic capital that people wanted to spend time and invest in, so we hope to regain that in 2019, because if clients don’t come to us, we have to go to them, and that could carry a cost,” she added.
Chanel, which has spent millions on projects designed to cement the influence of Paris as the global capital of fashion, revealed last week that it plans to stage its cruise show at the Grand Palais on May 3.
Pavlovsky said the house was already observing a shift in tourism to London from Paris. “This crisis must be dealt with and its impacts limited, because it’s not good for the French economy in general — and luxury is no different,” he said.
“This situation must not last, whether for the journalists who come to Paris from all over the world, the buyers or the customers. We really have to be very careful — if it were to drag on, it would obviously have an impact on revenues in Paris for everyone,” the executive warned.
In the meantime, it’s all hands on deck for a week that traditionally enjoys extra high visibility, coming as it does in the middle of awards season.
“I don’t think there’s a house showing couture on the runway that does not dream of seeing one of its creations on the red carpet in Los Angeles several days later, and there will be a few. It adds an extra frisson to the January shows, since all the stylists are here ahead of awards season,” Pavlovsky said.
Beyond that, many practitioners of couture see it as an essential component of the French art de vivre.
“Haute couture, no matter what, has something captivating, fascinating. It makes people dream and creates an exceptional bubble that transports you for an instant,” Bellini said.
“That magic will always operate, and I think it’s important to maintain this for the balance of the city and its economy. Things must not grind to a halt when times are tough,” she added. “I think that would have absolutely disastrous consequences, so we must hold our heads high and carry on.”