Ralph Toledano

PARIS — Long reputed as home to the world’s foremost fashion week, Paris is making sure it stays on top of the game as it gears up for a blockbuster season.

After a banner men’s wear showing in June that left buyers and editors energized by the arrival of Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton and Kim Jones at Dior, the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, French fashion’s governing body, is hoping to deliver an equally punchy women’s week in September.

Paris Fashion Week will kick off a day earlier than usual on Sept. 24, with Simon Porte Jacquemus — who last year started showing his collection on the eve of the official start of the week — being joined by heavy hitters Dior and Gucci, the latter defecting exceptionally from Milan for one season.

In all, the federation’s preliminary calendar lists 80 shows spread over nine days, instead of eight, despite brands like Lanvin, Nina Ricci and Lacoste sitting out the season as they search for new creative leaders.

Among the expected highlights of the week are Hedi Slimane’s first collection for women and men at Céline, scheduled for Sept. 28 at 8.30 p.m. — the late Friday time slot marking a pronounced change from his predecessor Phoebe Philo, who habitually showed in an early afternoon slot on Sunday.

Casey Cadwallader at Mugler and Yolanda Zobel at Courrèges are also slated to unveil their first full collections, while Esteban Cortazar and Cédric Charlier are back on the calendar. The new arrivals are French label Afterhomework, Ukrainian designer Anton Belinskiy, Russian label A.W.A.K.E. and Swiss brand Ottolinger.

Absent this season are Carven, which has filed for the French equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and Vanessa Seward, who is looking for a new investor after parting ways with contemporary brand APC. Undercover has also dropped off the women’s runway schedule and is switching to a presentation format.

The shows come against a mixed backdrop for the industry. Total French sales of clothing and textiles fell 2.2 percent in the first half of 2018 versus the same period a year ago, as retailers struggled to compete with powerful e-commerce players, according to data compiled by the Institut Français de la Mode.

Yet the luxury sector is thriving, despite currency turmoil and growing international trade tensions. Revenues at Kering, the parent of Gucci and Saint Laurent, jumped 26.4 percent in the second quarter, while sales at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton rose 11 percent, fueled by the strong performance of its star brand Louis Vuitton.

Indeed, France is the global leader in luxury sales worldwide, with Gallic firms accounting for close to a quarter of total sales by the 100 largest luxury goods companies in the 2016 full year, according to the “Global Powers of Luxury Goods 2018” report by consulting firm Deloitte.

“France is back, and you can feel it in every sector,” said Ralph Toledano, who was recently reelected president of the French fashion federation for an extended four-year term.

He noted that after years of neglect, the industry now enjoys the backing of French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte, who in March hosted a rare dinner for fashion designers at the Élysée Palace as part of the government’s efforts to attract creative talent to France.

Paris has historically welcomed designers from around the world and set the bar high in terms of creativity. Now, it is also addressing something of a sore point: the fact that many of its top designers graduated from fashion schools in other countries, pointing to a perceived lack of creative edge at local institutions.

Toledano hopes the planned merger of the Institut Français de la Mode (IFM) and the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne will remedy that. The new school is set to open its doors in fall 2019 in the current home of the IFM on the banks of the Seine, which is being expanded to accommodate additional students.

“The government has been fantastically supportive, in particular the president himself. The authorities have been extremely helpful. They have understood where French interests lie, and this is creating a great momentum,” he said.

The federation is also taking measures to help smaller labels, such as encouraging designers to switch their shows to Paris Couture Week in July and January to ease their delivery schedules.

In an interview with WWD, Toledano talked about the risks facing the industry, navigating the digital age and why the traffic in Paris is not as bad as it could be.

WWD: The luxury sector registered a strong performance in the first half, but there are risks ahead. What is your outlook for the rest of the year?

Ralph Toledano: If you look at the fashion industry as a whole, all sectors and price segments included, what you see is that globally, growth is relatively stagnant in developed countries and even slightly down.

The luxury sector, on the other hand, is doing very well with growth rates between 10 percent and 20 percent for established brands. Having said that, I think we are seeing a growing gap between the more established brands and the rest, so in the second half, the environment remains fairly volatile. I think growth will continue. It’s clear that there are factors that will eventually limit this growth. The first is that, unfortunately, we have not learned the lessons of the crisis of 2008 — in fact, you could say the opposite is true in some countries. The second is that there are geopolitical changes under way that are upsetting the balance, with potential trade wars brewing that I think will end up hurting those who start them. We are also seeing a rise in populist and authoritarian governments. Fortunately, France has been spared.

We all know some bubbles are set to burst, even in China, so it’s a minefield. I happen to think this won’t happen over the next six months, and the year will end on a positive note, but it’s something we have to brace for going forward.

WWD: What are the biggest challenges facing the luxury industry today?

R.T.: We have always managed to adapt and we always will, as long as we remain creative. I think the big challenge for our companies today is to learn to speak the language of digital. We’re dealing with people who are more comfortable using a screen than we were playing with stuffed toys, and these people now have a lifestyle, a way of gathering information and a mentality that is completely different from ours in the past.

It’s a challenge because some fanatics now design purely in terms of how the clothes will look on the runway, or on the influencer they plan to dress in them. I think those people are in great danger, because creativity and know-how are fundamental values that always win out in the end. So it’s a kind of paradox that people who want to be digital-friendly are becoming victims of digital. It’s a trap. I’m not saying you should ignore it, but I think you need to adopt the language of the Internet, to process it, not swallow it whole. You need to digest it, not worship it. There’s a big difference. This process will likely last another 10 years, by which time all the pre-Internet people will have retired and the next generation will have taken over, thereby solving the problem.

WWD: Paris had a great men’s wear season. How do you plan to keep the momentum going?

R.T.: It’s important not to focus on a single moment — you need to look at the trends. What is happening in men’s wear is the outcome of a virtuous circle. We now have, in my opinion, the greatest talents showing in Paris, and it’s obvious that competition between the greatest talents creates stimulation, which means the level of collections is constantly improving. Having been the capital of haute couture, and the undisputed capital of ready-to-wear, Paris has now become the undisputed capital of men’s wear, too — it’s as simple as that.

WWD: Are you optimistic this momentum will carry over into the women’s season?

R.T.: I see no reason to be pessimistic. Paris has always been the place where designers come to seek recognition. My predecessors, namely Didier Grumbach, had the intelligence to welcome Japanese and Belgian designers to Paris and to support foreign brands. Paris is truly an international, cosmopolitan fashion capital. We have always had a very strict selection process. Only very high-quality people make it into the calendar. We also have a very acute sense of precariousness. After each fashion week, the first thing we do is meet and we’re not interested in discussing what went right, but what went wrong. What do we need to improve? That is what we consistently aim for.

WWD: There are a number of brands missing from the calendar this season. Is this a bad sign?

R.T.: Fashion is fashion: there are ups and downs, you have cycles. That is exactly why it’s important to have an acute sense of precariousness. You might be on top today, but you have to be aware that sooner or later, you’ll be at the bottom.

WWD: France has historically drawn some of its strongest talents from overseas. What are you doing to foster domestic talent?

R.T.: It’s unacceptable that we have the best management school and the best technical school — because the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne is fantastic — yet we don’t have the best design school in the world. A wonderful project has been set in motion with the planned merger of the two existing schools. The teams are working behind the scenes to draw up new study programs, hire extra staff and expand the premises. The school will open in the fall of 2019 and personally, I am delighted. In the past, public authorities ignored us a little. Now they support us beyond our expectations, and they fully back this school project.

WWD: You mentioned the importance of always staying on your toes. What is Paris Fashion Week doing to avoid complacency?

R.T.: We are telling young designers to stop presenting in October: it’s collective suicide, because you will never make your deliveries. For a long time, I felt like I was preaching in the wilderness. They have finally got it. A growing number of young, and not so young, designers have understood they can show earlier, sell earlier, deliver earlier and make a lot more money, and they are now showing in July and January, taking advantage of the amazing platform that is Paris Couture Week. We added a day before the start of the haute couture collections in July that is entirely dedicated to ready-to-wear. Right now it’s one day, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it quickly becomes two. This is a long-term undertaking that goes in the interest of fashion, success and job creation. Though it hasn’t yet been decided, I think the federation will soon switch the timing of the Designers Apartment showroom initiative to July from September/October.

WWD: Are there any other logistical improvements in store? Traffic, in particular, seems to be getting worse and worse each season.

R.T.: We’re always doing the best we can to facilitate access to shows. We have banned shows beyond a certain time of day, and we have banned shows in far-flung locations. We’ve done a painstaking job and will continue to do so. We don’t always publicize our actions. We just focus on getting things done.

We’re in permanent contact with [Paris mayor] Anne Hidalgo. She’s very open. I’m truly sorry our visitors are experiencing problems getting around, but City Hall has its own policy on transitioning toward a more environmentally friendly economy and lifestyles.

It will be up to Parisians to vote when the time comes on whether they think this has been adequately handled. What I can say is that thanks to City Hall, we have been able to cancel marathons or triathlons that would have blocked us for days. City Hall has helped us a lot behind the scenes.

load comments
blog comments powered by Disqus