PARIS — Just in time for Paris Fashion Week, the French capital is officially inaugurating a new space that bills itself as Europe’s largest sustainable fashion accelerator hub.
Backed by industry heavyweights including Kering, a founding partner; LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and The Woolmark Company, La Caserne is home to 40 brands and also aims to become a hub for entertainment, with a large inner courtyard, a vegetarian restaurant, a rooftop bar and a ballroom.
“We’re hoping to bring together here the actors of change in fashion and provide a platform for meeting and exchange that will allow a lot of projects to take flight,” Maeva Bessis, managing director of La Caserne, told WWD.
The residents, made up of 25 ready-to-wear brands and 15 accessories labels, began to arrive in June and will stay for three years. “We give them access to three things: training, which is key, tools and a network, so they can become models of sustainable brands,” she said.
Located in a former fire station in the 10th arrondissement, the space offers an array of resources including studios and offices; a showroom for sustainable fabrics; a Fab Lab for 3D prototyping and durability testing; two photo studios, and spaces that will host workshops.
The building, renovated by architecture firm Chaix & Morel, is also home to a Woolmark sourcing showroom and Nona Source, an online resale platform for resourcing materials cast off by companies owned by LVMH.
“We know that 70 percent of the environmental impact of a product is determined by the choice of raw materials, so if we manage to improve that stage, we have a strong chance of reducing that impact,” Bessis explained.
The initiative is the brainchild of Paris City Hall, which was looking for a new use for the 43,000-square-foot site, which was abandoned for 15 years. It financed the project together with French entrepreneur Jacques Veyrat, chairman of industrial holding group Impala, and Régis Pennel, founder of concept store L’Exception.
La Caserne is supported by a wide range of institutions, ranging from the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, French fashion’s governing body, to schools including the Institut Français de la Mode, industry bodies such as the French Federation of Women’s Ready-to-Wear, and companies including French outdoor lifestyle brand Aigle.
“I really wanted to create a place that was useful and that had an impact, for this gorgeous building to finally allow the city of Paris to shine and to help all these French designers in their transformation. It’s a huge challenge that motivates me daily,” Bessis said.
The venue’s first major event is the three-day Conscious Festival, sponsored by Kering, which kicks off on Friday. Celebrating its debut French edition, it will include talks that will be screened to Singapore, Hong Kong and London, alongside brand booths, food vendors, art installations, concerts and workshops.
Among the scheduled speakers are Christine Goulay, global director at materials innovation platform Pangaia Science; Patrick Duffy, founder of Global Fashion Exchange, a platform promoting sustainability in the fashion industry; Nicolas Sabatier, cofounder of nonprofit Time for the Planet, and Isabelle Lefort, cofounder of Paris Good Fashion.
The program also includes a talk by Benjamin Benmoyal, one of the first to move into La Caserne. A graduate of Central Saint Martins, who began by weaving fabrics from repurposed cassette tapes, Benmoyal said he relished the opportunity to be part of a sustainably minded community.
“It’s something new for Paris. I come from London, where new and creative platforms spring up all the time. In Paris, there is nothing,” he said. “We have a tendency to rest on our laurels. We think we’re the capital of fashion, which we are technically, but not creatively. I’d like to find in Paris what I had in London, this kind of creative energy that is missing here.”
The designer advised Bessis on equipping the Fab Lab, which he considers the hub’s most important resource.
“I never could have afforded a workshop like that, either in terms of space or equipment. Having access to that is just amazing. Before, I had to go all over town to find people who had machines — a heat press, an electric button-maker, things like that. Now we have absolutely everything here under one roof,” he said.
Bastien Beny, cofounder of locally made accessories brand Domestique, previously worked from a tiny space inside his apartment. In addition to being closer to his suppliers, he also appreciates being able to crowdsource advice and resources from fellow designers.
“If you have a question, you just shout it into the courtyard and usually, you get an answer straightaway. It’s faster than WhatsApp,” he said with a laugh.
Starting in October, La Caserne will launch a series of 40 masterclasses on Tuesday nights covering topics such as sourcing raw materials, business development, life cycle analysis and corporate social responsibility.
“Residents participate on a voluntary basis. The more they implement the things they’ve learned in the masterclasses, the more we create content around them. It’s an incentive. If you commit, if you implement some of our recommendations, we document those efforts in our ongoing web series,” Bessis said.
Though still partially under construction, the venue has already become a popular party spot — an aspect that she actively encourages. “In order to create social ties and ensure that projects move forward quickly, I think it’s super important for people to have a good time together,” Bessis said.
“We’ve created a setting for cultural industries to intersect between music, dance, performances and fashion. They shouldn’t be separate, and these party spaces are perfect for showcasing that when you come to La Caserne, you will meet socially conscious artists of all sorts,” she said.