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Paris' New Super-School Aims to Rival Central Saint Martins

The Institut Français de la Mode, newly formed in the merger of IFM and the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, wants to be ‘the world’s best fashion school.’ In an exclusive interview with BoF, Dean Xavier Romatet lays out his strategy.
IFM's new building, Cité de la mode et du design, on Paris' Left Bank | Source: Courtesy
  • Laure Guilbault

PARIS, France — A new super-school is shaping up on Paris' Left Bank. At a time of growing international competition, Institut Français de la Mode (IFM) has merged with the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, and wants take on London's Central Saint Martins (CSM). The aim of the new IFM? To further boost French luxury with an educational institution that matches the city's dominance in the industry.

“Paris is the fashion capital of the world," said IFM incoming Dean Xavier Romatet in an exclusive interview with BoF. "It's where fashion weeks take place, and the major luxury players are based.”

Romatet's appointment was announced in April 2019, although he will officially join in August 26, just in time for the beginning of the school year. Best known as the former chief executive of Condé Nast France, he'll play a major role in the merger, which is already well underway. As of 2020, all students will be on a single campus in the well-known Cité de la Mode et du Design building on the Left Bank, close to start-up incubator Station F and the forthcoming headquarters of Le Monde. The new 86,000 square-foot campus is set to accommodate a total of 900 students in 2020 (up from 780 students in September 2019). These students will be divided between three programmes: management, craftsmanship and a new design curriculum.

“We must focus on design,” Romatet said. “By definition it is the most visible, it’s what gives the image. We will have succeeded when, in five-to-ten years, in the big brands’ studios, there are many Institut Français de la Mode alumni."

While France's institutions are strong in fashion-as-craftsmanship and management — earning them places on BoF's top fashion schools list year after year — they have recently failed to produce as many notable fashion designers as counterparts in other areas of the world. Design courses existed but were not at the heart of the curricula at either the Institut Français de la Mode, established in 1986 by Yves Saint Lauren co-founder Pierre Bergé as a postgraduate fashion management school, or at the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne (ECSCP), which has educated couture's artisans since 1927. (ECSCP's notable alumni include Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, Issey Miyake and Karl Lagerfeld, but in recent years the list of well-known names has dwindled.)

We must focus on design. By definition, it's the most visible.

As a result, while France boasts the greatest luxury houses, many of their star designers studied in London or Belgium in schools that have put fashion design at the centre of their offerings, led by internationally recognised instructors including late Louise Wilson at CSM and Linda Loppa, who led the fashion department at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp for more than 25 years. For example, Dior Men's Kim Jones graduated from CSM and Loewe's Jonathan Anderson from the Royal College of Arts in London. Balenciaga's Demna Gvasalia and Berluti's Kris van Assche studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, while Saint Laurent's Anthony Vaccarello went to La Cambre in Brussels.

Romatet wants IFM to dominate fashion design the way elite business school HEC Paris dominates corporate leadership in France. "Seven chief executives of the CAC40 companies graduated from HEC," he said, referring to the French stock market benchmark that correlates with the S&P 500. "We must achieve something similar in fashion design."

The main focus for the new IFM will be to create a stream of talent that will feed into the big fashion houses.

“We benefit from an ecosystem,” said IFM Executive Director Sylvie Ebel. Senior management at France’s largest fashion houses, as well as Paris’ City Hall and the French government, are all strongly committed to bringing this project to life.

"This will be good for the fashion sector, for each of our companies and, beyond that, for France's reputation," said Sidney Toledano, chief executive of the LVMH Fashion Group and IFM vice president.

Companies are more agile — and volatile — than ever, so we need to prepare our students.

To make it work, IFM is adding two new degrees to its 2019 curriculum: a Bachelor of Arts in Fashion Design, available in French and English, and a Master of Arts in Fashion Design in English. The Master’s degree now offers six majors corresponding to market needs, including womenswear and menswear, led by Thierry Rondenet, a designer and former La Cambre professor, and Vanja Hedberg, who worked closely with Gvasalia at Balenciaga.

The addition of programmes in English signals that the school is aiming to attract talent from across the globe. Once it is more established, IFM could open a campus overseas — for example in China. In the meantime, the school is considering partnerships with foreign schools through professor or student exchanges. (It also helps that the tuition is still reasonable, especially when compared to its US counterparts. A Bachelor's is €13,000 ($14,567) for EU students and €19,000 ($21,291) for non-EU students. A Master's is €19,800 ($22,205) and €28,700 ($32,186) for EU and non-EU students respectively.)

Implementing a collaborative culture across disciplines will be pivotal to the new IFM's success.

“More and more, the world of education must not just deliver hard skills, but also soft skills,” Romatet said. “Companies are more agile — and volatile — than ever, so we need to prepare our students.”

He added that the school's ability to scout talent, and to be a "breeding ground for inclusivity and diversity," will be another key. The school intends to promote its student diversity by making the entrance exam open to people with no secondary-school certificate. It is also teaming up with Casa 93, a fashion high school in Saint-Ouen, on the outskirts of Paris, to find talented students from underprivileged areas, and giving them the opportunity to study at IFM. Fondation Institut Français de la Mode, presided over by Chanel's Bruno Pavlovsky, will raise money to provide scholarships. A hundred scholarships will be awarded at the beginning of the school year in September.

And while students can already earn a PhD in fashion theory and practice — in partnership with La Sorbonne Paris — the new IFM also aspires to strengthen its research centre.

"Research in our field is dominated by the English-speaking world,"said Benjamin Simmenauer, professor in fashion theory at IFM, going on to say that social sciences in France seem to have favoured more 'serious' subjects, as a result of the combined influence of Marxism and a certain contempt for subjects considered feminine or frivolous. "Today, it's about showing that fashion reveals dynamics and cultural phenomena that are key to understanding the modern world."

The visibility of a school is achieved through the visibility of its alumni.

While IFM's plan might appear airtight, achieving it won't be easy. Central Saint Martins and the Antwerp Academy of Art feature other subject areas across art, design and performance, which means fashion design students are immersed in cross-disciplinary, art-school environment. For IFM, the main challenge will be in integrating the management and design programs, and to match the prestige and excellence in design that it already has in management.

The school’s new approach won’t be measurable for several years. Students entering the Master's programme this September will graduate in 2021, and only start to feed into the fashion houses then.

In that sense, the alumni community is crucial to the school's development, and will be driven by the President of the IFM alumni association, Bastien Daguzan, a 2009 graduate and current chief executive of Paco Rabanne. As Romatet put it, "The visibility of a school is achieved through the visibility of its alumni."

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