The economy is on the outs, but fashion is always in

Didier Grumbach, head of the most important organization in the French fashion industry, talks about how the global economic crisis is affecting the world of style

By Catherine Shu  /  STAFF REPORTER

Wed, Jan 14, 2009 - Page 14

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Looking relaxed despite several busy days of speeches and media interviews in Taipei, Didier Grumbach, the head of the organization that organizes Paris Fashion Week, patiently received another round of reporters in Shiatzy Chen’s flagship store on Zhongshan North Road early Saturday morning.

Grumbach is the president of the Federation Francaise de la Couture, du Pret-a-Porter des Couturiers et des Createurs de Mode, the most important organization in the French fashion industry. The Federation promotes new designers and represents the interests of fashion brands by protecting intellectual property rights and assisting in marketing and publicity.

It is best known, however, for selecting the designers that show in Paris Fashion Week and determining which design houses can bear the highly esteemed haute couture label.

Born in 1937, Grumbach has fashion in his blood — his family founded C. Mendes, which held manufacturing licenses from top haute couture houses. Grumbach’s career has included stints as chief executive officer of C. Mendes, president of Yves St Laurent Inc and president of Thierry Mugler. He is also the author of Histoires de la Mode, an influential reference work on the history of French fashion.

Grumbach gave a talk on Jan. 9 at the Xue Xue Institute (學學文創志業) to industry insiders (and Vice President Vincent Siew, 蕭萬長) about how Taiwan could make an impact on the world fashion scene. On the topic sheet, however, was also a more pressing issue: the effects of the current global economic crisis on high fashion.

Sluggish consumer spending has made it difficult for some designers to justify the expense of a runway show, which can cost up to US$100,000. In New York City, designers who have dropped out of that city’s upcoming fall 2009 fashion shows include Vera Wang and Betsey Johnson. And in Paris, Viktor & Rolf recently eschewed the runway in favor of debuting their spring 2009 line on a Web site as “a take on what a fashion show might be in the future,” the designers said. There have also been reports that representatives from high-end department stores Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman will not be attending the spring/summer 2009 haute couture shows in Paris later this month.

Even before the economic crisis hit, the fashion world was undergoing several major paradigm shifts. The advent of “fast fashion,” in which looks from the runway hit mass-market retail stores with a speed impossible before the advent of the Internet, has put pressure on designers to churn out new styles at a ramped-up pace. Fashion houses, including Burberry and Escada, have started introducing mid-season collections in order to put fresh looks in their stores, bringing into the question the relevance of the semiannual fashion weeks in Paris, New York City and Milan.

While he says that it will have to adapt to keep up with the new marketing cycle, Grumbach still firmly believes in Paris Fashion Week. He also defends the importance of haute couture, saying that it gives new designers a chance to present their point of view without the pressure of competing for attention from retailers during the ready-to-wear shows (the Paris haute couture shows for each season are presented several months after Fashion Week).

“Many of the important brands now have to take orders before their ready-to-wear fashion show are even presented,” says Grumbach. “That is why we encourage new designers to show in the couture calendar when they are invited, so first they can take their orders and then they can put on the runway what they need to put on the runway, which is the new ideas that they have thought of.”

Dressed in a sharp black Issey Miyake knit jacket, Grumbach offered more of his thoughts on the relevance of fashion weeks and the impact of corporatization and globalization on the creative process of designers.

Taipei Times: The economic crisis is forcing some designers to find alternative ways of presenting their collections, while Viktor & Rolf have pulled out of the spring 2009 fashion week in order to experiment with showing their clothing online. With all these things happening, what is your argument for the relevance of fashion week?

Didier Grumbach: A fashion show is a necessity when there is need of a demonstration. If it is innovative, provocative or controversial, then it has to be presented on a moving body. If a collection is not provocative, then it does not need a fashion show. Newness is always slightly vulgar and you must not be frightened to be vulgar, because creation is rapture and if there is no creation, then there should not be fashion shows.

In Paris, everything we show must be exported to America. If a collection only sells in France, then we never show it on the official calendar. We don’t care about the designer’s nationality. We have 10 different nationalities represented on the runway. There is no nationality on the runway, there cannot be. But what is really important is to open a way for the industry to continue. If there is no creation on the runway, then the industry is wrecked. Creativity is more important than marketing; creativity is tied to a brand. The brand is more important than the product itself. When you buy a Hermes necktie for a gift, you do not care that it is twice as expensive as another necktie, because you have an entire universe in it that you relate to.

TT: There have been reports that representatives from Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman are skipping the haute couture shows in Paris later this month. Fashion magazines are sending fewer editors as well. Are couture designers concerned about the impact this might have on their business?

DG: Couture is in fact not an industry, it is a savoir faire, a craft, and is a complement to ready-to-wear. When haute couture was organized and structured the way it was in 1944, there was no ready-to-wear as we know it today. Everything was made for you. Creative ready-to-wear did not exist. Today Chanel and Dior, the most mythical couture houses, are also at the same time among the biggest exporters of ready-to-wear, and without their ready-to-wear lines, their couture lines could not exist. Ready-to-wear is the reality, but couture is an essential element of the image. It is a service. If you love Christian Lacroix, you buy Christian Lacroix ready-to-wear, but when you have a special occasion, you have Christian Lacroix couture made for you. Couture is something that is a plus, but it is not the heart of the business and it cannot be.

TT: What is the value of haute couture then to the fashion industry?

DG: The brands that we all know were founded by artists who expressed themselves on the body rather than on a canvas. Yves St Laurent was an artist, Balenciaga was an artist and Chanel was a precursor to them. There is a big difference between couturiers and a stylist, who brings a collection into the retail market. That is a job that can be learned and that can be taught. But the creativity cannot be taught. It is a gift and something that we cannot invent.

If you have already been selling at Barneys New York for years, it means that your product is differentiated and you have brought something new to the market. In the end, fashion is an industry and the designer has to compromise, but during a certain period of the designer’s life, it is art, it must be art, if not, there is nothing and a brand cannot last.

TT: Can you tell me about the reaction of the French fashion industry to “fast fashion”? With the Internet and quicker production cycles for retailers, many designers now feel like they need to do mid-season collections in order to stay relevant. What kind of impact will fast fashion have on the ready-to-wear industry?

DG: Fast fashion means that the same lady can buy Chanel and Zara, but at the same time there is no reason why designers of the new generation cannot compete with Zara. That is why we encourage designers, and especially the new generation of designers, to manufacture in China, and most of them do in the same way that their predecessors gave assignments to Italian factories. The world is opening up today, especially with the Internet. You can sketch a design in Paris and produce [it] in Shanghai or in Taipei.

TT: Many consumers still associate fashion items made in China with lower quality, mass manufacturing and counterfeit goods. Since you think it is important for designers to take advantage of manufacturing resources in China, how do you think consumer perception of the “made in China” label will change?

DG: Consumers will change their minds as fashion designers from China become better known to an international audience. Japan had the worst image in the 1950s and they were supposed to be the worst manufacturers and the fiercest copiers on the planet. But, of course, because of Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, that image of Japan has changed today and become one of extremely good service and perfect manufacturing. The image of a country changes with the image of its own brands.

The “made in France” label is still extremely important on certain items. If you a buy a dress for a special occasion, you might think spending a thousand Euros is fine, because you need the product to be very well made. It is something that you want to spend money on, because it is important for your function, for your special day. But when [a consumer] buys a cotton shirt, the price cannot be what it would be if it were manufactured in France. Cotton shirts can be made in Asia, which also has the best cotton in the world because of the humidity and climate. If you as a designer want to produce a shirt, a cotton shirt, and you want the best cotton that exists, you will produce in China, because China manufacturers do knitwear well. With new technology and the Internet, you can communicate with the world on a screen. You can be in this room right now, for example, and manage a fitting in Sao Paulo. This allows you to conceive your collection in very different ways and to produce all over the world in the same way you would produce in your own country.

TT: Many of the top design houses are now owned by luxury conglomerates like LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton [the parent company of Givenchy and Marc Jacobs, among other labels], which in addition to the demands of fashion must also listen to the demands of shareholders. Is there any concern that the creative independence of designers will be affected by that?

DG: There is no question that groups including LVMH or PPR [whose labels include Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen] are welcome because they permit brands to survive. After all, Chanel is now close to a hundred years old and Lanvin was founded in 1899. Companies like LVMH and PPR have always existed, even in the 1930s and then after the war, when [French entrepreneur] Marcel Boussac financed Christian Dior.

You always have financial groups funding new brands, which is valuable. It is very difficult for new brands to cohabit with venerable design houses. When Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain opened their couture houses in the 1940s, the House of Worth and the House of Paquin were still operating nearby. There is always competition between new brands with new blood and brands which are already in their third or fourth generation, it’s part of French fashion tradition.

TT: How can designers like Shiatzy Chen and Yufengshawn [the first two Taiwanese designers to show at Paris fashion week] market themselves to a worldwide audience?

DG: It depends on their business model and strategy. I don’t think that they have a set model they need to follow. You use your own past to build your future. But it’s important to create an international network to carry your collection. What [Shiatzy Chen] brings to Paris are also her strong points here, especially her quality and service, which are exceptional. She may have to adjust to fit the needs of the clientele over there, but I think that she has an advantage, which is that she had a store in Paris before anyone else [from this region] and it gives her an international flavor. She has an opportunity to use her service and her quality, which is really exceptional and a specific advantage, to address a clientele that is not the same as she has here, but one that is complementary.

TT: What kind of special qualities do designers from emerging marketplaces bring to the international fashion scene in their work?

DG: Actually, I think that, especially in light of the global economic crisis, we are all the same. There are no more frontiers. We are in one world. You cannot have nationalism in fashion. But what is a fact is that when a new country comes into the international community, it brings to the world its traditions, its repertory. That was obvious in Japan, where people like Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake changed international fashion and added something that can only have originated from Japan. I am wearing a jacket by Issey and though it’s not noticeably Japanese, it can only be Japanese. It is something that comes from each country’s culture. With designers in India, who are extraordinary, their work is very colorful and the detailing can only be Indian. It is the same with looks from China, they are influenced by Chinese culture but do not look Chinese. Right now everything is about bringing and melding cultures together.

TT: Luxury brands are usually sheltered from slower consumer spending, but right now even they are being affected by the global economy. For example, LVMH recently cancelled plans to open a flagship store in Tokyo, even though Japan is a major market for luxury goods. If spending on luxury brands decreases, how might that affect fashion designers?

DG: Luxury brands aren’t only connected to fashion. There are brands and products like the Kelly bag by Hermes, which is never outdated and is something that is always profitable, always in fashion, even if times are difficult for fashion brands. Many luxury brands until recently weren’t involved in fashion, because they did not want to be outdated and of course you take that risk when you show fashion. But there will always be a need for new brands and new designers because people really look for that. They don’t want to dress like their mothers did and at the same time they will always look for a new expression, a new way for their personality to evolve along with fashion.

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