Why Isn’t the World’s Fashion Capital Producing More Emerging Fashion Businesses?

Cedric Charlier Autumn/Winter 2012 | Source: Courtesy Photo

As fashion month comes to a close in Paris, BoF examines the prospects for the city’s young fashion designers.

PARIS, France — In today’s global fashion ecosystem, New York and London are veritable hotbeds of emerging designers. Alexander Wang, Proenza Schouler and Joseph Altuzarra in New York and Mary Katrantzou, Jonathan Saunders and Christopher Kane in London are just a few of the rising names who have been able to translate their talents into budding international businesses.

But Paris, often dubbed “the fashion capital of the world,” has several independent, emerging fashion businesses that are scarcely known outside of their home country. Generations of young French men and women became globally recognised names in fashion. Where are the big French names now?

There is certainly not a lack of talent or drive. Alexandre Vauthier, 40, who worked with Thierry Mugler for almost two decades before launching his own label, and Maxime Simoens, 27, who worked with Jean Paul Gaultier, Elie Saab, Nicolas Ghesquière and John Galliano before launching his own brand in 2009, are two of the young guns of French fashion.

Then there is Alexis Mabille, 33, who previously created jewellery at Dior, and Alexandre Mattiussi, 30, who learned his craft at Dior Homme, Givenchy and Marc Jacobs before launching his own menswear line, Ami, for Fall 2011. Bouchra Jarrar has made a splash with her sharp tailoring and minimalist designs.

And this season, Cédric Charlier, who worked alongside Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, struck out with his first collection under his own name, backed by the Aeffe Group, an Italian manufacturer and distributor that also works with Jean-Paul Gaultier, Moschino, and Cacharel. When Charlier was sacked unexpectedly by Cacharel one year ago after three seasons as its creative director, Aeffe’s Massimo Ferretti approached him about entering into a licensing partnership.

Paris provides many young designers with unique access to talented local artisans, craftsmen and factories, something that young companies in New York and London often struggle to find in their local markets. But still, few of these businesses have achieved the scale or profile of their counterparts in London or New York.

So what are the issues?

EDUCATION

Last November, French luxury conglomerate LVMH announced a “long-term strategic collaboration” with the world’s most famous fashion school, London’s Central Saint Martins (CSM), which has produced industry-leading design talents like the late Alexander McQueen, Riccardo Tisci, Phoebe Philo, Kim Jones, John Galliano and Stella McCartney. Indeed, the school’s new Kings Cross campus features a lecture theatre sponsored by LVMH, which will also fund a scholarship program for CSM students and offer work experience internships.

And while LVMH does have long-standing relationships with top French schools like La Chambre Syndicale, these programs are not as significant as the alliance it has created with Central Saint Martins. The overall approach at schools in Paris differs from their London and New York counterparts. What makes CSM special is its focus on nurturing individual creativity and helping students find their own design voice: Mary Katranzou’s digital prints, Jonathan Saunders’ colourful prints and textures, or Mark Fast’s knitwear, for example.

“French schools don’t tell us that, once we graduate, we’ll be [the creative director]. They say that we’ll have the sensibility of maybe doing the job of a designer,” explained Alexandre Mattiussi, drawing a distinction between schools that foster and reward individual creativity and those that focus on technical skills.

There’s another critical difference, as well: the graduate fashion show. French schools don’t have them, or if they do, the audience is nowhere near as large or influential as what you might see at the Antwerp Academy or Central Saint Martins. “At CSM … fashion professionals and journalists can spot young talents,” said Maxime Simoens, who studied at La Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne.

The annual CSM MA show is even included on the official London Fashion Week schedule, the significance and impact of which cannot be underestimated. Alexander McQueen’s graduate collection was snapped up after the CSM MA show by the late Isabella Blow, who went on to become his patron and muse, while Jonathan Saunders, also a graduate of Central Saint Martins, was commissioned to design prints for the Alexander McQueen label within 48 hours of showing his MA collection. “In France, we don’t have those kinds of events,” observed Simoens.

Furthermore, while American schools are known for complementing design courses with classes that focus on marketing and merchandising, some French schools struggle to integrate business education into the design curriculum. “I have one designer, Calla Haynes [who attended Parsons School of Design in New York]. She is very organised, she’s self-financed and she has a structure, whereas the ones who attended French schools are incredibly talented, but have a hard time organising themselves,” said Persephone Kassanidis, founder and director of Agence M&K, a Paris-based consulting agency and showroom that works with dozens of young designers.

“We need to change the way it works, we need [fashion education] to be more concrete, more based in [economic] reality, for example to work on a collection with pecuniary obligations,” said Simoens. “We should create a school mixing business and creativity.”

But while French fashion schools may not be as creativity-focused as those in London, or as business-focused as those in New York, they do excel in teaching technical skills. But this begs another question: are French schools simply training their students to work in one of the many historic and powerful fashion houses based in Paris?

THE IMPACT OF ESTABLISHED BRANDS

Paris is home to Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Chloé, Balmain, Balenciaga and Hermès. In today’s uncertain economy, perhaps it’s not all that surprising that many new graduates from top French fashion schools go to work in their studios, preferring secure and well-paid jobs to the risk of launching their own labels.

In a way, the Paris ateliers of established luxury brands are the capital’s best fashion schools. Many of today’s rising French designers first worked alongside creative geniuses like Nicolas Ghesquière and John Galliano, while being immersed in the operational realities of the fashion business, something that’s not taught in most fashion schools in France, or elsewhere for that matter. This can prove to be invaluable when young Paris-based designers eventually come to launch their own labels a bit later in their careers. London, in comparison, could be criticised for pushing young designers to launch brands before they have a real understanding of how a fashion business really works.

But young French designers also need to contend with the competitive Paris Fashion Week schedule, crowded with powerhouse brands at the very top of the fashion hierarchy. “It’s very hard for young designers. They have to compete with major brands, with only three employees,” said Didier Grumbach, president of the Federation Française de la Couture’s president.

Going head to head with mega brands may not be the only way for fledgling fashion businesses to break through, however, suggested Jean Jacques Picart, the highly-respected Paris-based consultant on creative talent. “For young brands, success will come if they don’t pretend to compete with the big names,” he said.

“Nowadays we only talk about people who have fashion shows,” added Jean-Pierre Blanc, director of the Hyères International Fashion and Photography Festival. “But the question could be: is a fashion show the best solution for an emerging brand? It’s expensive, the schedule is crazy, you need a lot of people. There might be other ways to support a young brand.”

LIMITED FINANCIAL AND MEDIA SUPPORT

London and New York have a number of initiatives aimed at discovering, supporting and attracting media attention for new fashion talents, starting at the very beginning of their careers and continuing as their businesses grow.

Fashion East, a non-profit initiative established in 2000, directed by Lulu Kennedy, sponsored by the Truman Brewery, Topshop and the London Development Agency, is aimed at surfacing and showcasing the newest fashion talents just as they graduate from college, providing venues, show production and catwalk imagery, free of charge. Gareth Pugh, Meadham Kirchhoff, Marios Schwab and Jonathan Saunders are amongst the established names who came through Fashion East. Similarly, Fashion Fringe, founded by Colin McDowell in 2003 in association with IMG, has also played a role in surfacing new names from fashion schools in the UK and elsewhere, including Erdem Moralioglu and Basso & Brooke.

NewGen, a BFC program sponsored by Topshop, offers young London-based designers financial support to help cover the costs of shows and presentations, in the early stages of a fashion business’ life. And London’s Centre for Fashion Enterprise (CFE), a fashion business incubator, offers young designers tailored mentorship from top industry players. The CFE’s two-year Venture Programme provides advice on everything from financing and production to marketing and PR. Current Venture designers include rising stars Thomas Tait, Christopher Raeburn and James Long.

The BFC’s Fashion Forward prize offers significant financial awards and mentorship to designers that have progressed further along in their businesses. This year’s winners were Henry Holland, Louise Gray, Mary Katrantzou and James Long. And of course there is the BFC/Vogue Fashion Fund prize, modeled after its counterpart in the United States.

Indeed, the CFDA has helped to spark an entrepreneurial fashion business culture through high profile fashion awards. Through its Fashion Incubator initiative, it supports and nurtures young designers with mentorship and low-cost studio spaces, while the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, developed in partnership with American Vogue, awards winning designers with $300,000 as well as a full year of business mentorship. $100,000 each goes to the two runners-up.

GQ also bestows an annual “Best New Menswear Designers in America” award, offering winning designers recognition, financial support and mentoring. This year, the prize was awarded to not one, but six designers, who will also have the opportunity to create pieces for a limited-edition collection for high street retailer Gap.

In France, however, organisations and initiatives that help surface, support and drive media coverage of young designers have traditionally been few and far between. American _Vogue_’s Anna Wintour, a strong supporter of young designers in the US, has in the past made it clear that she believes France needs to do more to support its young designers.

In January 2010, Wintour requested a meeting with Christian Estrosi, then French Minister of Industry, to discuss what the French government could do to support young designers. Following the meeting, which was also attended by Carine Roitfeld and Hamish Bowles, Estrosi acknowledged a lack of support for young designers in France and enumerated measures his government would take to address the problem, including the creation of a new school. But little has been done.

Meanwhile, the designers are pushing on. “It’s obviously harder for a young French designer, because of the lack of sponsorship, of influential fashion editors, of organisations such as the British Fashion Council or the CFDA,” said Alexandre Vauthier. “But you know, we don’t complain about it, it would be a waste of time, we deal with it, we work hard, we self-finance,” he said. “My studio is a friend’s apartment. Her father helped me finance a lot of my shows.”

Alexandre Mattiussi spent months presenting his project to investors, friends and family. “I went looking for money, I mean really hard,” said Mattiussi. “Like any kind of project I needed a business plan. It took me a year and a half to get the money.”

Beyond studio space and presentation costs, cash flow is also a major issue for young French designers, as it is for designers everywhere. “I feel awful saying it but we had to turn down buyers this season, as we couldn’t afford to take all the orders,” said Mattiussi. “What if we had accepted, but then couldn’t raise the money to produce? It would be the end of the company.”

WHAT IS BEING DONE TO ADDRESS THE ISSUE?

There are two initiatives that have long supported young designers in France. The first is the 27-year-old Festival d’Hyères, founded by Jean Pierre Blanc, and at which influential industry figures like Raf Simons, Dries van Noten, Pierre Hardy and John Galliano have presided over juries that award financial support and mentorship to young designers.

The second is the ANDAM (Association Nationale pour le Développement des Arts de la Mode) prize, founded in 1989 by Nathalie Dufour. ANDAM awards winning designers with financial support and a spot on the official Paris Fashion Week schedule, along with mentorship from a top industry figure. Anthony Vaccarello, a Belgian who studied at La Cambre and worked at Fendi before starting his Paris-based label in 2009, was recipient of the award last year.

This year’s ANDAM award has been increased by 15 percent to €230,000 (or about $300,000). In 2011, ANDAM launched an annual First Collection Award, designed to support fledgling French fashion businesses in their first year. “This prize has now become essential for encouraging the rise of young talents and promoting French know-how on an ever-more competitive international fashion scene,” said Dufour in a statement. The first recipient of the First Collection Award, Yiqing Yin, is prospering, both creatively and economically.

This year, Dufour has also established a new partnership between ANDAM and fashion e-tailers TheCorner.com, part of the Yoox Group, which will offer six finalists space to display their collections on the site.

Meanwhile, the Festival d’Hyères has established a new partnership with Chloé, which is sponsoring a special award that comes with a financial prize, as well as the opportunity to design a commercial piece for the brand. Additionally, Blanc is working on a prototyping atelier aimed at helping designers in the early stages of their career.

Last year, French Elle also launched Elle Aime La Mode in partnership with the Minister of Culture and Communication, three private houses — Balenciaga, Chanel and Louis Vuitton — and the Institute for the Financing of Cinema and Cultural Industry (IFCIC). The program is empowered to offer selected designers financial sponsorship totalling €1,000,000, as well as showroom space and mentorship.

The Federation Française de la Couture and the Chambre Syndicale have also launched a fourth-year fashion course designed to offer students more exposure to the business side of fashion. “There is this will from the Chambre to open itself and help students meet more professionals,” said Blanc. “It’s only two years old, so we’ll have to wait a few years to see the results.”

Grumbach is also working on a seasonal credit program that will help with the perennial cash flow problems that plague young designers between orders and deliveries. “It’s very difficult for young brands, they don’t have money, and banks don’t allow them to be on a budget deficit, even for a couple months, so we’re going to help them with that,” he said.

“For a few years now, there is this good will that has permitted us to develop initiatives that help to turn the spotlight on very talented designers,” said Blanc. “I think we’re on the right track.”

Indeed, just last week in Paris, ANDAM winner Anthony Vaccarello took a big step forward. His show was opened by rising supermodel Karlie Kloss and attended by Carine Roitfeld, Kanye West and many of the world’s most influential editors.

And, as for newcomer Cédric Charlier, his relationship with Aeffe shows that taking an entrepreneurial approach and being open to partnerships can also help get a new fashion business off the ground, while still enabling a young designer to explore the breadth of his creativity.

“They take care of the commercial part and the diffusion part, which is perfect for me. I am in charge of the creative part,” Charlier told BoF. “I’m not isolated creatively. Aeffe helps me to envision having an international business, but I’m totally free about how I want to [go about doing] it.”

Charlier is generating early momentum. Barneys New York, Maria Luisa and Jeffrey are rumoured to have ordered pieces from his first collection. It’s a promising start for a fashion company only in its first season.

Julien Neuville is a writer and fashion editor based in Paris.

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11 comments

  1. I’d ask the same for New York.

    Renee from Canyon Country, CA, United States
  2. Great article.
    Telling that Milan, the center of Italian, if not, commercial hub of fashion is not mentioned. There, folks who have 20yrs experience are still considered ‘young’. The french system is academic but there is much talent. Nicolas Ghesquiere didn’t appear from a vacuum. All capitals need to foster new talent. For every Galliano or McQueen there are untold numbers of perfectly talented Sarah Burtons waiting in the wings. The suits only ever look for crazy controversy and rarely at skills these days…Fashion is no longer sacred craft but cheap mass entertainment like crime and reality TV.

    Robert I. from Vancouver, BC, Canada
  3. Great article though I do wonder what the point of all this is, if the large amounts of money are only going to places and people who simply churn insipid work?

    Alexander McQueen never had the sponsorships and never needed it. Is the easy way out of all this simply to say that we just live in a ‘different time’ as who can deny the money if it is being pumped in…?

  4. The manufacturing/production business model is horribly flawed. So many of these collections that command luxury retail price points are playing so many consumers that just don’t have any standards when it comes to quality. Case in point, remember when every women’s trouser was lined no matter what the season?

    twitter_dysfashional from Chestertown, NY, United States
  5. Brilliant article but it’s a pity the Institut Français de la Mode isn’t mentioned (http://www.ifm-paris.com), a post graduate course where fashion students/designers can learn more about how to actually manifest themselves in the industry. I have been supporting many young Belgian fashion designers in the past-all very creative and talented, but many not very business savvy- and from this experience I can say two things: 1. Don’t start your own collection straight away but get some real experience at a fashion house or established designer first and 2. A fashion show isn’t the only way to present your collection, especially with the internet. And I have a question for aspiring designers: are you in it for the creative process (in which case you can also work for another house or label) or is it about your ego and seeing your name in bright lights? For every successful fashion designer/brand who work under their own name, there are hundreds who create beautiful clothes anonymously -with less stress and financial burdens. Think about it;-)!

  6. I find that for a city like Paris is still very inscrutable in terms of liberating its resources and be able to establish or have organisations that find and support an industry of young designers. In saying this, I do not support the limited award funding for a single designer to win a cash sum of money. We’re suppose to be fueling a new generation of strong designers, not just one. Don’t throw money just for sake of doing so. There should be organisations that enable designers to gain grants and of course have the capacity and merits to have a fashion business.

    Mike from Padstow, New South Wales, Australia
  7. Joseph Altuzarra, Jonathan Saunders, Christopher Kane, Alexis Mabille, Mary Katranzou, Jonathan Saunders, Henry Holland, Louise Gray have also understood that they need to take “the business of fashion’ seriously ….. all of these designers (and many more) have chosen to use our affordable easy to use, specialist software “Zedonk” to help them to run their fashion business.

  8. There are programs for up-and-coming RTW brands in France that would be hard to find elsewhere. In Lille, there is the project Maisons de Mode ( http://www.maisonsdemode.com). It is a business incubator specialising in RTW and accessoires brands. The designers involved are sold around the world with the help of the project. The Maisons de Mode offers a concrète and pragmatic program that includes: boutique/ateliers, discounts on specific trade shows, business and financial advice, treasury solutions,sales support, e-commerce set-up, communications, annual events and much more.
    It’s all well and good to support the luxury market but Maisons de Mode has chosen to position itself to help the mid-high RTW sector which is also a dying breed in France. Strangely enough, the brands find much more success in the US, Asian and Middle Eastern markets than in France. This goes for the press as well.

  9. Interesting article, thank you! Speaking from my own experience, I have realized that for students targeting business jobs in the luxury industry it is much easier to find something in Paris rather than London. Having finished the sister college of CSM, I went on to pursue my business career in fashion.
    Unfortunately, the jobs that i was targeting were looking for business school graduates rather than someone from a fashion school and even if i had the right education, I lacked experience, because London is oh so much more competitive than Paris. I have then decided to change my course of action and turn for France for education and enrolled into a top french business school.

    Through it, I have had the opportunity to work for the biggest fashion conglomerate that advertised their positions on the university’s website. While working there, I have realized that the brand mainly seeks people from IFM, LBS, HEC, INSEAD etc.

    IFM (Institut francais de la mode) is not mentioned in this article and i wonder why. The school was established by the mentioned Ministry of Industry and is considered possibly the best post-graduate fashion school in France. I have attended two weeks of lecture there as part of my Master’s programme at the business school and was absolutely stunned by the lecturers, some of whom were behind the marketing strategies at such megabrands like Hermes etc.

    Safi from Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
  10. This was a great read. Thanks for sharing. Established brands have such an advantage on those who are trying to start their own clothing line. It’s sad that a rapper, who has no experience in fashion design, can decide to start his/her own clothing line one day and have great success without even trying.

  11. There is an incredible infrastructure in Paris, that will doubtfully ever be surpassed. The cost of living seems to me a big disadvantage as seems to be a big struggle in other cities. It would cost a fortune to start a small business in Paris. It also doesn’t help that Parisians seem to be crazy for California based trends. From terrible street art, to bad stereotypes of California street fashion to Le Starbucks, Parisian young people have been completely swept up in globalization and no longer appreciate their own culture in the way previous generations have. When I see Rich Parisians slumming it in fake bo bo street fashions, it is nothing I want to imitate. Paris has the best infrastructure and the most skilled hands, but big money firms should consider working with or collaborating with independent designers in the U.S. and other cool destinations rather than promoting up the same boring talents from the same tired bourgeois families.

    Jude Gabbard from San Francisco, CA, United States