PARIS, France — It’s just over a month (32 days, to be exact) till the kickoff of Paris Fashion Week, when some of the world’s most influential luxury labels will present their women’s collections for Spring/Summer 2014. Yet, grand as ever, and shrouded equal parts in Gallic pride and the golden, languorous glow of late summer, Paris has come to a virtual standstill.
Paris is home to many of fashion’s visionary talents and vaunted maisons. It is here that Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Coco Chanel established their brands, and where they remain today. It is where the genius Azzedine Alaia humbly toils away in his 18th-century home and studio. It is the epicentre of a global ecosystem — from the highly specialised artisans of haute couture to global powerhouses like Kering and LVMH — that powers fashion the world over.
Yet the French capital, including its economically vital fashion segment, virtually shuts down for the entire month of August. Turn any corner in the city — whether in the Marais and St. Germain districts, where many small independent boutiques are located, or on Avenue Montaigne, home to a number of big-brand luxury stores — and you’ll find a storefront with its steel curtains rolled down and a discreet note on the window politely asking customers to come back in a few weeks. The famous twin Dries van Noten stores on the left bank of the Seine, for instance, were closed for the first two weeks of August, while the Balenciaga men's store on rue Varenne will reopen next week after a two-week summer break. Some stores that didn’t close altogether had reduced opening hours for at least part of the month
Meanwhile, calls to fashion-related businesses (talent agencies, production companies, media, manufacturers and suppliers) invariably reach an answering machine cheerfully announcing that the office — as a whole — is ‘en vacances’ or ‘congé,’ in some cases for up to four weeks. Some labels even post their annual August leave on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, literally signing off for the month.
It’s one of those perennial French mysteries that tends to cause as much exasperation as admiration amongst international onlookers: How can one of the great capitals of fashion afford to shut down for an entire month while the rest of the world continues to conduct business as usual?
August in New York, for instance, can be a hot, humid mess, with people on the streets wearing shorts and clamouring for hydration, air conditioning or a cold shower, while the city’s upper crust decamps to the Hamptons every weekend. Yet, from Monday to Friday, most offices are fully staffed and functional, keeping normal hours except for the occasional short Friday. This is especially the case for the fashion industry, which is gearing up for September, with its onslaught of non-stop shows. The same is true in London.
So what to make of the Parisian exodus? It turns out that what is sometimes hastily ascribed to a differing work ethic and culture is actually a little more nuanced.
It is, indeed, primarily a cultural thing. There is no denying that the French, like some other European and Mediterranean cultures, place high value on a healthy balance between work time and leisure time. In fact, the communal holiday is such a priority that it is institutionalised in statutorily prescribed paid vacation time for employees. 30 days is the private sector norm. In a country that has been fighting for workers’ rights since the days of the révolution, the extended, simultaneous holiday break is somewhat of a political statement, a non-negotiable prerogative, and a matter of intense pride.
But besides staunchly defended national values, the reasons behind the nationwide August hiatus may be more practical than they first appear. Crucially, the system seems to work precisely because everyone takes their extended leave at once. In other words, a complete standstill is more efficient than staggered, extended 4 week absences throughout the year, which could actually have an even greater negative impact on overall productivity.
In the case of fashion industry, there is an additional, incidental factor that conveniently accommodates the French holiday schedule. Of the four main fashion weeks, Paris happens to go last. So while August is now crunch-time in New York as designers are scrambling to design and produce their show collections, Paris-based designers get a few valuable extra weeks to settle back into work mode before Paris Fashion Week begins in late September.
It should be noted that France isn’t the only country to take an extended period of time off in unison every summer. Judging from the Instagrams and tweets from Anna Dello Russo, Stefano Gabbana and Giovanna Battaglia, Italians, also like to take a long holiday at this time of the year. Many mills and factories that work with international fashion brands customarily close for vacation for several weeks, putting pressure on designers around the world waiting to get their samples.
But herein lies the crux of the mystery and its best take-away: in the end, it really isn’t all that disruptive. Somehow, the French and Italians seem to make it work. It is safe to assume that, for years to come, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks or does, all of Paris, including its fashion sector, will continue to take August off and head for the beach.
Significantly, however, it is an equally safe bet to predict that the collections that designers present in the Tuileries tents and at beautiful venues across Paris in a month’s time will be amongst the most followed, applauded, examined and copied of the season.
So, Paris gets to have its extravagant congé and rule the roost in global fashion. Maybe there’s something we can learn from the French after all.