PARIS, France — In a crowded fashion calendar, strong fashion weeks need a clear identity. If London Collections: Men is known for its combination of Savile Row suiting and raw creativity and Milan’s menswear week is a more commercial vehicle for Italian tailoring, then Paris is fashion’s global melting pot: the one fashion week that international journalists and buyers never skip and the premier platform adopted by the widest range of designers from across the globe.
In Paris, we believe that fashion has no nationality.
Indeed, a cursory glance at the Paris menswear calendar reveals that 35 of the 50 designers showing this week have made the trek from foreign countries to present their labels in the French capital. And it's not simply the Japanese or the Belgians as it once was in the 1980s. This week, the designers showing in Paris come from a long list of countries, including Colombia, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Korea, Turkey, the UK and the US, amongst others.
"On the one hand, we have tradition, but the other thing is that there is a lot more of an international audience [here],” said Didier Grumbach, president of the Chambre Syndicale, which keeps tight control over which labels are allowed to present on the Paris Fashion Week schedule. “We have 23 different nationalities showing in our women's fashion week. I haven't counted the men's, but it's a similar situation. The Italians have stayed more Italian. In Paris, we believe that fashion has no nationality."
According to New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn, Paris owes its premier international position is a combination of history and tradition. "You go back to the late 19th century and you've got the craftsmen there and all the rich Americans and Brits coming in and buying clothes and coming in for guidance," she said. "That dominance gets people's mentality [and] over the years it has stayed. And then you have the waves of the Japanese and the waves of the Belgians, and I think they all come because it's the serious stage, just like the West End is the serious stage [for theatre]. It could have commercial benefits, but you'd better be up to the level to be there."
Indeed, let's not forget that showing in Paris alongside brands like Dior, Louis Vuitton, Lanvin and Givenchy sends a strong message that a label is ready to play at that level. "I think a lot of designers want to show in Paris, whether they're American or Italian or Japanese, because the fashion here is about individual creativity and there's an artistry that goes along with the couture culture," said GQ deputy editor Michael Hainey. "So whether it's Thom Browne or Junya Watanabe, they want be on this stage and they want to be associated with that heritage and breathe that air."
"We had to pull [the show] over to Paris because this is where menswear and fashion in general is really, truly celebrated," said designer Phillip Lim, who showed his fifth catwalk presentation in Paris this Thursday morning. And because Paris attracts so much top talent from around the world, it forces designers to up their game. “They want it and you want to give it, so it's a perfect match. It's more open to different ideas and styles and there's no pigeon-holing,” added Lim.
“I love showing in Paris; it brings me into the right mood and sets the aesthetic level," said Damir Doma, who was born in Croatia and studied in Antwerp. He also believes his darkly draped menswear might not have resonated in other markets. "I'm not sure if Milan would understand my sensibility and approach."
Korean-born designer Juun J made the decision to begin showing in Paris in 2007. "Paris is the most creative city for art and it's especially the best one for fashion," he says. "That's why I chose Paris and not Milan or New York. Also, Paris has a lot of opportunities and diversity in the culture. That also makes it a powerful city for fashion."
"Paris represents a physical and nostalgic home for the heart and practice of fashion," said Virgil Abloh (Kanye West's creative director, the designer behind Pyrex Vision, one-third of the hugely influential Been Trill movement and a frequent collaborator of Hood by Air) who decided to show his new line, Off-White, in the French capital. "The city itself represents the lineage and history of fashion. As designers we all strive for some permanence and the lasting effect of our ideas season after season. Paris is a record of that notion and attracts those of us with that same goal to leave our own mark."
For many designers, showing in Paris generates greater brand visibility before the world’s fashion press. It’s also where sales happen.
American designer Thom Browne, who creates some of the most elaborate show collections in menswear, said his decision to start showing in Paris was rooted in both creative and commercial concerns. "I used to show in New York as I am based there, but the move to Paris for my men's collection was prompted both from a creative point of view as well as a business decision," he said. "It allows me to show the collection earlier to get a head start on production and I also feel that Paris fashion week embraces true conceptual design."
In Paris, menswear is free to be more conceptual because as it's not breaking any cultural codes, said Olivier Zahm, editor of Purple. Why? Because there aren't any to break. "There's no French specificity in men's fashion,” he explained. “It's quite a neutral place. It's quite romantic and a bit psychological, but it's not like another place where you have a more precise idea of what men's fashion should be. Italian men have a very specific identity; the British, with their elegance, too. France is more neutral for men, so when you show in Paris you're not facing a strong French aesthetic for men. It's more neutral."
But perhaps fashion illustrator Richard Haines put it best. "There's a level of creativity in New York, there's a level of creativity in London, and if you look at the way guys dress at Pitti Uomo and Milan, there's certainly a level of creativity in Italy. But there's something about the French idea of decoration and embellishment and style that is very different. In terms of a level of creativity and execution, this is the ultissimo."