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Louis Vuitton Reopens Ready-to-Wear Atelier to Make Hospital Gowns

Chief Executive Michael Burke tells BoF about the effect of the pandemic shutdown on the business and the beginning of a return to normal in China.
Louis Vuitton Michael Burke at the atelier, where hospital gowns are now being made | Source: Courtesy
  • Chantal Fernandez

PARIS, France — Louis Vuitton is temporarily pivoting from evening gowns to hospital gowns.

Following in the footsteps of Louis Vuitton’s leather goods workshops across France, which opened back up this week with a smaller staff to produce masks, the luxury brand’s Paris ready-to-wear atelier opened on Thursday to produce protective garments for hospital workers. In an effort spearheaded by women’s ready-to-wear director Michela Kalb, the label expects to donate over 7,000 gowns in the coming weeks to six hospitals through the Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris trust.

"Overall, inside the company, everyone wants to help out as you've seen with the teams on the leather goods side," Louis Vuitton Chairman and Chief Executive Michael Burke told BoF. "It's based on people volunteering and wanting to do good."

Earlier this week, 300 artisan-volunteers in Louis Vuitton workshops across France began producing non-medical masks, a portion of which will be earmarked for the brand’s workforce itself while the rest will be donated to local retirement communities and others.

"Our position entails social and environmental responsibilities. This is even more true today, when the world is facing one of its worst sanitary crises," said Delphine Arnault, executive vice president of Louis Vuitton, in a statement.

In recent weeks, many fashion and luxury brands have temporarily shifted their manufacturing facilities to supply much-needed personal medical equipment and hand sanitiser, which has kept employees busy and responding to a larger purpose, as well as attracting positive press coverage. But producing masks and gowns, with a smaller group of employees than usual, also allows brands to begin the process of reopening their workshops.

Louis Vuitton has largely shut down its operations in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Most of its 450 stores are closed, and Burke does not know when they will reopen. In China, life is starting to return to normal and, as of this week, all of Louis Vuitton’s stores in the country have reopened. While store traffic remains lower than before the crisis, shopping is picking back up, said Burke.

But it is not yet clear when production will return to normal levels. “As everybody has done, cruise has been scaled down dramatically because it’s very dependent on our French and Italian suppliers and most of them are closed,” said Burke.

Some artisans in the leather goods workshops, where masks are being made are back to work on prototypes, since “most of the manufacturing is done in-house,” Burke said, adding that he expects some normal work to resume at Vuitton’s Paris ready-to-wear atelier in the coming weeks.

“We still want to get another season in before the end of the year,” he said.

Also on the horizon is the Spring/ Summer 2021 men's collection presentation. On this, Burke said artistic director Virgil Abloh was working on a creative alternative to a traditional show as Paris Fashion Week is cancelled. "We are going to come up with something that is unheard of," he said.

Reflecting on the crisis, Burke said the pandemic has significantly changed the way Louis Vuitton approaches customer service, breaking down barriers between digital teams, in-store sales associates and the brand’s call centres.

“It turns out that when your stores actually physically close down, the entire content closes down, [and] we are not as seamless as we thought we were,” he said. “It got rid of the last remnants of siloes.”

He has charged the brand’s 12,000 sales associates to think of themselves as one-person stores, giving them digital tools to clientele from their homes, which has helped keep those employees engaged and boosted morale.

“Instead of saying, ‘I’m x number of stores down,’ we have 12,000 stores now,” said Burke. “In the beginning, it was just about… staying in touch, reaching out, making sure everybody is fine, nobody needs anything and of course, progressively, [clients] got back into purchasing.”

Next week, Louis Vuitton parent LVMH will release its first-quarter financial performance, which will reveal how much the pandemic hit sales in China at the beginning of the year.

As one of the largest luxury brands in the world, Louis Vuitton is well-positioned to survive the pandemic's disastrous economic effects, but the brand is still facing a difficult year, with many analysts predicting an overall market contraction of around 35 percent.

Disclosure: LVMH is part of a group of investors who, together, hold a minority interest in The Business of Fashion. All investors have signed shareholders’ documentation guaranteeing BoF’s complete editorial independence.

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