PARIS, France — Despite sales of over €10 billion last year, LVMH cash cow Louis Vuitton could have “grown more,” the group’s chairman and chief executive Bernard Arnault said during its annual results presentation on January 29th. Vuitton is “constrained by production capacity, it takes time to train new artisans and they can’t go faster so as not to compromise quality,” explained Arnault.
Indeed, the French ateliers of the country’s luxury giants have been running at full capacity as demand for brands like Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Hermès shows no signs of fading, despite wider fears of a slowdown in Chinese luxury consumption. As a result, Arnault announced the opening of “four more workshops for Louis Vuitton in 2019” (three in France and one in Texas to serve the North American market), creating what a spokesperson estimated at more than 1,000 manufacturing jobs in its home country, which has long struggled with unemployment.
Last week, it was Hermès’ turn to address the issue of production capacity. The family-run megabrand unveiled plans to build its nineteenth leather goods factory after reporting 10 percent sales growth in fiscal 2018. The maker of the famous Kelly bag “will start recruiting 250 saddlers and leather artisans at the end of this year for an opening in 2021 in the Normandy region,” Guillaume de Seynes, the executive vice president of the manufacturing division and equity investments at Hermès International, told BoF after the announcement. It is already training artisans to feed two other manufacturing sites set to open next year. “It will take them 15 to 18 months to master the know-how for a Kelly bag, our most complex handbag is being used as our best training product,” continued de Seynes, noting that Hermès had long ago launched its own in-house training program. Vuitton did the same.
Next year, Chanel also plans to underscore the importance of artisanal know-how with the opening of a 25,500-square-meter site in the north of Paris to house its 12 specialist ateliers, held by its Paraffection division, including feather workers Lemarié, shoemakers Massaro, embroiderers Maison Lesage and milliners Maison Michel, whose skills are displayed each year at Chanel’s special “métiers d’art” show. “Over the last 35 years, Chanel has been actively involved in supporting, developing and securing the durability of the 'métiers d’art' since they are the custodians of a unique, very demanding savoir-faire,” said Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s president of fashion.
Hermès, too, has snapped up textile specialists, a glovemaker and several tanneries. But access to know-how remains a problem for many business partners of France’s biggest luxury players, threatening momentum in the €154 billion sector.
The education and training system has to cope with this new environment to foster French luxury and fashion competitiveness.
Many of the small suppliers who work with the big houses, notably in textiles and clothing, are struggling to find skilled workers in order to keep pace with growth and compensate retirees at a time when many baby boomers are exiting the job market in France. Over the next five years, more than 10,000 technical positions will have to be filled each year in a myriad of roles in textiles, clothing, leather and jewellery. But 72 percent of the small and medium-sized enterprises in the sector recently said they are facing challenges with recruitment.
A new 3-year pact inked on January 8th by French economy and finance minister Bruno Le Maire and culture minister Franck Riester with representative bodies of the luxury and fashion industry could help. Guillaume de Seynes, who led the talks on the industry side, said: “Even if we see many people in their 30s to 50s leaving conventional professions to become artisans and fulfill their long-awaited dream to create objects by hand, craftsmanship jobs still lack attractiveness and knowledge amongst younger generations. To some extent, improvements can also be made in the national training system.”
According to Marc Pradal, president of the UFIHM (Union Française des Industries Mode et Habillement), a professional organisation of 2,500 French clothing and accessories retailers and manufacturers, “several decades of deindustrialisation have already led to the loss of many skills, France having no more capabilities in menswear for example.” National statistics recently showed that between 1996 and 2015, the sector’s output dropped by 51 percent as the size of the workforce in textiles, clothing, shoes and leather industries fell by 66 percent.
Over the next three years, the new roadmap will result in the injection of the bulk of €45 million in training and education, alongside measures to strengthen the country’s network of industrial suppliers, back emerging brands and launch sustainability projects. It will be mainly funded through contributions from companies even if state support arms like banks Bpifrance and Caisse des Dépôts, as well environmental agency Ademe will also participate in the effort.
“The education and training system has to cope with this new environment to foster French luxury and fashion competitiveness,” said Pascal Morand, executive president of the Fédération de la haute couture et de la Mode, stressing that the new Institut Français de la Mode, inaugurated on January 8th, will be a key part of the plan at a time of growing competition, greater speed-to-market requirements, disruptive new technologies, shifting consumer behaviours and growing demand for sustainability and transparency from young clients.
The new school emerges from the long-awaited merger between the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, a breeding ground for fashion designers and couture’s artisans since 1927, and the current Institut Français de la Mode (IFM), established in 1986 by Pierre Bergé as the first postgraduate luxury and fashion management and design school in the world. After full completion in September 2020, 1,000 students will gain access under one roof to all levels of fashion education — from vocational training to PhD — through management, design and craftsmanship programs.
Several decades of deindustrialisation have already led to the loss of many skills, [like] France having no more capabilities in menswear for example.
In parallel, a national program aims to rewire the country’s vocational training and degree system by 2022, giving them greater value to reflect the upgrading of training in ever more highly-prized sector skills. And starting this year, a national campaign on social media and jobs forums will also take a fresh approach to craft, promoting jobs in need of candidates. This initiative will complement several public encounters already organised throughout France such as Les Journées Européennes des Métiers d’Art. During its “journées particulières” (special days), an annual event created in 2011, LVHM group has also been promoting the specific know-how of its Maisons, while Hermès’ “hors les murs” (outside the walls), a program displaying the skills of its artisans, has started to travel around the world, in part with the hopes of arousing greater interest in artisanal vocations.
Of course, French luxury megabrands like Louis Vuitton, Hermès or Chanel haven’t waited for the government’s new policy to make important moves to secure their supply chains. But most executives from the sector said the pragmatic approach of the new plan is a big step in the right direction. “It concentrates on the preservation of technical and cultural heritage and on the support of technological innovation while clearly affirming the will of the industry to collectively look at the future of these métiers, which are so essential to fashion creation and to the influence of a French savoir-faire much acclaimed around the world,” said Pavlovsky.
Even if most of its products are created in Italy, Kering has also actively supported the agreement. The group’s headquarters and the ateliers for Saint Laurent and Balenciaga are located in Paris, and a factory in Angers is working for Saint Laurent. “Reviving know-how and craftsmanship in France, as well as inventing the jobs of tomorrow in a sector that holds incredible potential, is key for the Kering Group and our houses here in France, and for the industry as a whole,” said Béatrice Lazat, Kering’s chief people officer. The new French roadmap mirrors “successful relationships long developed by Kering with Italian regions and schools in order to preserve traditional skills locally.”
Small suppliers like Etablissements Thierry and Fonlupt praise the new policy too. For their owner, Amedi Nacer, “being sexy enough to attract new people and hold on to our distinctive skills is really a question of life or death.” His 190 employees produce luxury womenswear for Chanel, Vuitton, Dior, Hermès, Saint Laurent, Celine and Chloé. He was somewhat relieved after managing to recruit 15 of the 20 workers he was looking for in 2018 and he said he didn’t hesitate to hire a former waitress, an autistic young woman or political refugees, training them in-house. “It sounds like a paradox,” said Nacer, “but we could disappear from not being able to answer increasing orders.”