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With Lockdowns Eased, Paris Fashion Reopens for Business

The heartbeat of the industry returns to work on Monday — but at what cost?
The Arc de Triomphe and the empty Champs Elysees | Source: Getty Images
  • BoF Team

PARIS, France — Along with all the expected, government-required precautions, Robin Meason, founder of Paris-based PR firm Ritual Projects, asked one of her newest clients — energy healer John James of Honour Thy Lovers — to cleanse her office space before some of her employees return on Monday. The process involved meditation, intermittent chanting and shaking a rattle around the entrance.

Nothing, including purification by way of incense, is off the table as Meason’s city emerges from its pandemic-induced slumber. “Paris is … waking up,” Meason said.

The heartbeat of the global fashion industry, Paris is indeed showing signs of life as France begins easing lockdown restrictions on May 11, allowing some stores to reopen and employees to head back to the office after spending the last two months indoors in an attempt to slow the spread of Covid-19 in the country.

In a city known for its double-kiss greetings, packed cafés and endlessly walkable streets, reopening is especially complicated. French officials have urged employees who are able to work from home to continue to do so. Many companies will take a cautious approach, having watched as Amazon’s French subsidiary, car company Renault and other firms came under fire for how they operated during the pandemic.

Paris is … waking up.

The fashion world, particularly in London and New York, which are further away from reopening, will be watching. But they’ll also be participating, albeit remotely. Paris is where much of fashion's image making continues to take place, because that’s where much of the creative talent is based. With both Paris and Milan emerging out of lockdown, the industry can start conducting business again.

But it certainly won't be the same. The Ministry of Labour has issued guidelines for employers that include regular hand washing, ventilating closed rooms every three hours and ensuring at least four square metres of space per person, along with a whole laundry list of measures, but each company is laying its own safety measures on top of the requisites, from Chanel daubing customers' hands with sanitiser when they walk into stores, to LVMH hiring a task force to clean frequently touched items — like doorknobs and elevator buttons — in its corporate headquarters.

These restrictions will change the culture of work in the city, and especially the fashion industry, which generates €150 billion a year — 2.7 percent of French gross domestic product — and employs 1 million people, according to government statistics. Fashion weeks alone, including the now-cancelled men’s and couture shows in June and July, generate €1.2 billion annually.

Paris, perhaps more than any other of the major fashion capitals, continues to operate quite traditionally. Most people, no matter if they work for a publisher or publicist, fashion house or production studio, still do most business face-to-face at lunches or meetings. Many print magazines still publish on a weekly basis, and editors still shoot hand-delivered samples, rather than using stock photos, to fill their product pages.

But some of those traditions will have to be amended. Nathalie Ours, PR Consulting’s Paris partner, does not see in-person meetings making a comeback anytime soon.

“At the same time, I think it’s very important that we keep a human level [of connection],” she said.

BoF canvassed Paris-based companies, from independent operators to multinational conglomerates, to understand what returning to work would look like for them.

Luxury Leaders

Chanel, for instance, will open stores — with reduced hours, regularly disinfected spaces and masks and hand sanitiser on offer to customers — and begin to reopen their factories, which have been audited by outside groups to ensure safety. The company is encouraging corporate employees to work remotely. Those who come to the office will receive individual health kits.

LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton, Celine and other brands, has a special cleaning team that will be responsible for doors, knobs and handles that are touched on a regular basis. Offices will operate at 50 percent capacity, with meetings limited to five people. The group is also encouraging carpooling, biking or walking to the office instead of taking the metro. Employees will be required to wear surgical masks and will be provided with two each day.

Stores are changing too. Sephora removed its beauty testers, while department store Le Bon Marché is limiting capacity to one person for every 10 square metres.

Kering, LVMH’s rival, is limiting capacity at its corporate headquarters to just 20 percent, and only employees volunteering to come in will do so. Stores will reopen on a case-by-case basis.

Each of these businesses also have on-site health specialists to ensure they are making the right decisions to best protect employees.

Small Business Owners

Most smaller operations don’t have the resources to hire doctors and other outside consultants, but they are making significant changes in order to carry on.

For public relations veteran Lucien Pagès, sample trafficking is a key reason for some of his 30 employees to return to the office. Some of the brands he represents had sent their collections to the showroom for a now-cancelled press day, but samples are still scarce.

“Many brands did not have the chance to duplicate [pieces], so there will only be one collection [available] worldwide,” he said. “Every case is different, but we want to have capacity for sample trafficking [this] week. It will be slow, it will be gradual, but we want to be able to do it.”

For much of the lockdown period, Ours visited the 8th Arrondissement PR Consulting offices — a short walk from her apartment — on a daily basis, and will continue to do so while the rest of her team comes in for staggered shifts at least once a week from Monday onwards.

It will be slow, it will be gradual, but we want to be able to do it.

Pierre Mahéo, founder of menswear and tailoring label Officine Générale, spent the last six weeks conducting pattern-making and fitting sessions over Zoom. He's looking forward to accelerating the design process once he's back in the studio on Monday.

“Now we are going to be able to work on the more complicated products which were not possible to do [previously],” he said.

Even here, social distancing will be enforced, with six or seven members of the design team in the office at once, instead of the typical 20 before the pandemic. He’s planning to showcase his Spring/Summer 2021 collection in July. But he has no interest in staging a digital fashion show, which many brands on the Paris Fashion Week calendar will likely do.

“It doesn’t go with my brand value,” he said.

At its five retail stores in Paris, the brand has scheduled private appointments for customers who have requested them, which Mahéo sees as “a new way to work for the coming weeks.”

Y/Project's Glenn Martens' main priority, like most designers, is to finish his Spring/Summer 2021 collection, which he estimates is about 70 percent ready. He already has a full photoshoot with Dazed Creative Director Robbie Spencer booked for June 15 for the season's lookbook.

I prefer to be very careful.

The main challenges of this collection, however, may lie further down the line: Y/Project has taken a lot of sample production in-house, owing to the complexity of the designs and closure of most of its European manufacturers. “There’s also a whole artisanal vibe to it this season, which is nice,” said Martens, but it will be “a lot more complicated to produce later.”

David Obadia, the founder and artistic director of Paris-based Harmony, found that working from home allowed him to work more efficiently. Beginning Monday, the Harmony team will be returning to its office in the Marais district, though only key employees will be asked to return initially, and some for only two days a week.

“I prefer to be very careful,” Obadia said. “I’ll try to be the most isolated I can while working.”

Though Etienne Russo, founder of production company Villa Eugenie, will encourage all employees to work from home, "masks, protective face shields, gloves, [hand sanitiser] and a sanitary protocol [will be available for] the team members that will physically need to be in the office," he said.

The company is also lucky to have a large workspace — near Republique in Paris’ 11th arrondissement — that makes social distancing easier. Villa Eugenie was also using video conferencing before the pandemic.

For many others, however, things are still uncertain, said Alexandre de Betak, founder of event production agency Bureau Betak. "It's going to be a slow return — and it's the same for our clients and people we've spoken with in Paris," he said.

Free Agents

Independent freelancers, many of whom have not had a paycheque for months, must weigh the prospect of work against the risk to their health.

Photographer Thomas Lohr, whose clients include Moncler, Jil Sander and 032c, has spent the past couple of months in a small flat in Paris unable to secure paid work. He is considering a commercial job in Rome, though it will mean quarantining for 14 days once he returns to France.

“I think the money is worth going,” Lohr said. “It would be good to do a three-day commercial [job] after two and a half months not working.”

I need to make some money as well, as a freelancer I can't go two months without work.

Photoshoots typically involve a large crew working in close proximity. Lohr anticipates that this project will see a crew of no more than five people wearing masks and gloves and spaced out across the studio, which will require improved sanitation.

Over the past two months, photographer Goldie Williams archived and reorganised his work to prepare for jobs clients had lined up post-lockdown. Come Monday, he’ll be returning to work equipped with a mask and protective gloves.

“Now it will be up to me to find a new way of working and [a] good pace in terms of productivity, because there are lives at stake,” Williams said.

Freelance makeup artist Leslie Dumeix plans on returning to photoshoots and other face-to-face jobs. She plans to wear a mask, though gloves can be a tough sell for makeup artists who work with their hands.

“I need to make some money as well, as a freelancer I can’t go two months without work,” she said.

With contributions from Lauren Sherman, Rachel Deeley, Zoe Suen, MC Nanda, Daphne Milner, Sarah Kent, Tamison O'Connor.

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