PARIS — As portions of French manufacturing gradually reboot from the coronavirus shutdown, Louis Vuitton has reopened 12 of its 16 leather goods production sites in the country with the aim of producing hundreds of thousands of masks for its staff and nearby retirement homes.

Michael Burke, chairman and chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton, on Wednesday visited the Sainte-Florence workshop in the Vendée department in the west of France, where as of Monday 115 out of 896 employees were back at work, including 22 producing a mix of disposable and recyclable masks.

In a phone interview with WWD ahead of the visit, the executive said a total of 400 people were back at work across France, including those making masks in response to the French government’s call for the increased production of alternative nonsurgical masks to help in the battle against COVID-19.

“We’re ramping up to make over 100,000 a week just at Vuitton,” he said. “They’re skeleton crews. You have to start slow. That’s why out of the 4,500, there’s only about 400 that are in those 12 sites. About 10 percent of the workforce is back.”

Vuitton’s various workshops in Marsaz, Saint-Donat, Saint-Pourçain, Ducey and Sainte-Florence are making masks and prototypes, while the Issoudin and Condé workshops are making masks exclusively. The luxury house’s historic atelier, which opened in 1859 in Asnières on the outskirts of Paris, remains closed.

Michael Burke with Louis Vuitton employee Christine Brosseau at the brand's Sainte-Florence workshop.
Michael Burke with Louis Vuitton employee Christine Brosseau at the brand’s Sainte-Florence workshop. Photograph by David Gaillard/Courtesy of Louis Vuitton

Vuitton also owns a workshop in Florence dedicated to prototypes; four in Spain, handling mainly small leather goods and accessories; two in California, and one in Texas, dedicated to supplying the U.S. market. All of these remain shut, as do its shoe factories in Venice.

While the immediate priority is to retrain staff to make masks, Burke expects to gradually reintroduce production of leather goods amid reports that demand for luxury goods is coming back strong in some Asian markets such as China, Taiwan and South Korea.

“Down the road, when the need arises — which it is starting to arise, we’re starting to be out of stock on certain sku’s — we have to start reproducing them,” he said. “You have to do it progressively. We stopped overnight but you cannot ramp up overnight.”

While Vuitton’s employees are all on standby, on 100 percent pay, suppliers in Italy are still in lockdown mode.

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“Bringing an individual site up to work is not that difficult in France. Nobody was furloughed, nobody was fired, everybody’s still on pay, everybody’s on call. That’s the easy part. The hard part is two things: it’s getting the entire supply chain working, so downstream and upstream,” Burke said.

“Italy is still closed down, so there are certain things we can’t make in France because we have some crucial Italian suppliers that are not open yet — metal pieces, buckles, certain special items,” he explained.

“And downstream means the stores have to be open, and I have no idea when that’s going to happen,” the ceo said. “Production of leather goods can only happen when outside forces line up.”

In the meantime, artisans are producing prototypes for the fall collection. Burke said the strength of online sales and the likely prevalence of digital showrooms in the near future were having an impact on design.

“E-commerce is very strong and it is a fantastic direct channel of communication to all of our clients worldwide,” he said.

“You have to think in digital terms. The products have to be desirable on a digital platform,” Burke added. “It’s going to benefit stronger stories, and orphan products that are nice, but they’re not part of an overwhelming point of view, they will be edited out.”

Vuitton, the crown jewel of luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, closed its 16 workshops in France on March 17, and the Sainte-Florence site reopened on March 30 with volunteers, under strict new hygiene and social distancing rules, which limit the flow of traffic within the workshops to a single direction.

“The ateliers were designed with maximum interaction from the prototype all the way to the finished goods, and what we had to set up is something that was at the opposite end of the spectrum,” Burke said. “We had to retrofit most of our sewing machines and our artisans had to learn how to sew fabric.”

Louis Vuitton employee Christine Brosseau makes a mask at the luxury brand's Sainte-Florence workshop.
Louis Vuitton employee Christine Brosseau makes a mask at the luxury brand’s Sainte-Florence workshop. Photograph by David Gaillard/Courtesy of Louis Vuitton

Vuitton has produced a pamphlet with detailed safety instructions, and there is a nurse on site who teaches employees how to wash hands and put on their masks.

“The first that came back were all volunteers. You have to understand, when they came back, the fear factor was at its maximum in France,” Burke said. “And then word of mouth gets back. They’re a tight-knit group.”

He noted that in the manufacturing areas outside of Paris, more and more people are returning to the factory floor. “People want to go back to work,” he said. “The feedback I’m getting is overwhelmingly positive.”

Speaking via FaceTime, Christine Brosseau, a worker at Sainte-Florence, demonstrated on Wednesday how she is able to make a recyclable mask, using a mix of cotton and polyester, in about 10 minutes. Usually assigned to work on the Dauphine handbag, she hopes to get the time down to five minutes with practice.

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“It’s a new skill, but we’re getting used to it. We’re accustomed to adapting,” she said. Asked why she volunteered to go back to work, she said she was eager to get out of the house.

“Being confined at home is not very pleasant, but above all, I wanted to make myself useful. You just have to listen to the news to realize there is a big shortage of this type of item. Making masks that can be recycled is even better, because it’s also good for the environment,” she said.

The French government has called on fashion and textile companies for assistance producing masks and turned to other industries for help making hydroalcoholic sanitizer.

French companies have produced 4 million alternative nonsurgical masks so far, while the government is set to more than triple domestic production of surgical masks to 40 million in April, the Finance Ministry said on Wednesday.

LVMH has ordered 40 million masks from a Chinese industrial supplier to address the shortage in French hospitals. In addition, it has retooled its perfumes and cosmetics production units to manufacture and distribute large quantities of hydroalcoholic gel.

Meanwhile, Kering has purchased 3 million imported Chinese surgical masks that it will provide to French health services. Its Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent brands are also manufacturing masks.

Burke said Vuitton will keep between 20 percent and 30 percent of its masks for internal use, and will donate the remainder to retirement homes.

“The goal is that we are mask-neutral when it comes to our factories, so we’re not using up any masks in the marketplace, and then all the excess production will be donated mostly to retirement homes that nobody is taking care of,” he said.

Eventually, he plans to have a third of the teams making masks, a third working on prototypes and the other third producing handbags. “But we first have to make enough masks to hire everybody else back. Masks come first,” he said.

While the Sainte-Florence site produces mainly lower-grade category 2 masks, it hopes to add category 1 masks beginning next week. Workers at retirement homes can use the category 2 masks outside of work, but need the category 1 ones when they’re on the job.

“There are many people that are in these retirement homes and they’re the most vulnerable,” Burke said. “We absolutely want to do our social duty.”

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