Editorial Feature

How Fashion Impacts France

Pascal Morand explores fashion's importance to the French economy

Fashion is an important feature in the French economic and cultural landscape. In order to truly understand its significance, we first need to understand the true nature of fashion products. To me, the fashion product has four characteristics: it has an aesthetic and artistic dimension; it’s often associated with a designer and a brand; it gives rise to short cycles and fast renewal; and it’s situated in a current trend and, sometimes, can define the trends of the future.

These different aspects relate to Charles Baudelaire's comments on modernity, which he sees as “fleeting, transitory, incidental, half of the art, whose other half is eternal and unchangeable”. Fashion is a part of modernity that brings together both designer creativity and consumer aspirations. For each one of us, fashion is in the ‘here and now’, while also bearing the traditions of our past and defining our future.

La demoiselle de magasin, by James Tissot, 1878/1885 (From the collection of Art Gallery of Ontario)

Fashion is an integral part of our economy and society. The core activity of fashion is choosing how we dress and adorn ourselves; wearing objects that reflect the identity we wish to project and the moods that flow through us. Fashion always oscillates between personal expression and a collective, group trend.

In this way, the fashion economy in its strictest sense relates to the economic sectors of our personal environments: the activities of the creation, production and distribution of clothing, fashion accessories (shoes, leather goods, etc.), perfumes and cosmetics. These activities as a whole account for 1.7% of France's GDP; 2.7% if we include employment, particularly service-related, and its knock-on effects, which represents 1 million jobs in total. Amazingly, this is more than the automobile and aeronautical industries combined.

Christian Dior Haute Couture, Spring / Summer 1994, Gianfranco Ferré (From the collection of Fondazione Gianfranco Ferré)

But all major French brands – in the same way as the many young labels – are creativity-driven rather than consumer-driven. This doesn’t mean that they misunderstand their consumers and their clients, but rather that they ensure their designers have the freedom to express their artistic talent. This approach retains a sense of continuity with the French tradition, which has its origins in humanism and the Baroque, where the work of art takes precedence over its direct usefulness. Brands develop their imagination, deploy creative vigor, and transmit an emotion that will resonate with consumers to stand the test of time.

Corset worn by Beyoncé front view, by Thierry Mugler (From the collection of Centre National du Costume de Scène)

This focus on creativity and international development explains the economic weight of French brands, who alone achieve worldwide annual sales of 45 billion euros. This figure rises to 67 billion if we include brands belonging to French groups.

The creativity and success of French designers and brands is inseparable from the expertise of the workshops and the craftspeople who make their products. This culture stems directly from the tradition of decorative arts and haute couture. First documented in 1298 by Etienne Boileau, Provost of Paris, these 'métiers d’art' were developed alongside new technical innovations, reaching their golden age during the Second Empire, before enjoying a resurgence with art deco. As for haute couture, it was foreshadowed by Rose Bertin, Marie-Antoinette's 'fashion minister', who started to free the female body while also adorning her creations with embroidery, lace and rose petals.

Marie-Antoinette, by Louise Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, 1783 (From the collection of Château de Versailles)

Charles-Frédéric Worth, a Briton who settled in Paris in 1845, first determined these principles, before the term ‘haute couture’ became its official name a century later.

Walking and Visiting Suit, by Woth & Bobergh, c. 1867 (From the collection of Albany Institute of History & Art)

While industrial ready-to-wear fashion and functionalism have certainly increased since then, French fashion has never rejected ornamentation or ceased to nurture the link between creation and technique.

Installation view, evening dress, by Yves Saint Laurent, 1966 (From the collection of Kobe Fashion Museum)

Consequently, in the fashion manufacturing industry there are 140,000 jobs focused on developing individual products and small series, thus remaining closer to traditional craftsmanship than 'big industry' methods.

Chanel Close Up, by Loomis Dean (From LIFE Photo Collection)

Brands themselves have their own workshops where tens of thousands of highly-qualified employees give shape to creations from designers and their studios, and carefully ensure the high quality of their prototypes.

Artisanal and industrial know-how is spread out over the French regions. Some have developed specializations, such as clothing in the Choletais district and silk in the Lyon region, but it is Paris where fashion is presented on a global scale.

Textile with Design of Floral and Leaf Meanders, by unknown, circa 1730-1750 (From the collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Paris Fashion Week, held both for haute couture and for womenswear and menswear, takes over 38 days of the year. It is by far the most international fashion week: 50% of the brands that show are not French, in addition to the major international openings of French brands.

Dior, Autumn / Winter 2010, by Michael Howells (From the collection of British Fashion Council)

The Paris Fashion Week economy is substantial in itself. The shows and events associated with it generate over 400 million euros yearly, not counting the fairs linked to Fashion Week that are attended by tens of thousands of professionals from all over the world, leading to a total expenditure of over 1.2 billion euros per year.

No doubt the digital revolution – which is already impacting all levels of the value chain – is transforming fashion. It’s led to increased product and service individualization, promotion of uniqueness, and the continued development of expertise: a code of conduct for which haute couture forms the benchmark. French fashion is equally subject to the challenges of sustainable development. The brands that embody French fashion will be set to tackle this issue in the coming years to ensure that their ecological and societal credibility becomes the underpinning of their identity.

From its environmental impact, to its creative value, to its economic importance, the French fashion industry is integral to the past, present and future of France.

Explore more on the impact of fashion:

- Claudio Marenzi on the importance of fashion to the Italian economy
- Caroline Rush on the importance of fashion to the British economy
- Back to We Wear Culture

Pascal Morand

Pascal Morand has a Master in Management from HEC Paris and holds a Doctorate in Economics. As of January 2016, he has been appointed Executive President of the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de mode. He also is a Professor at ESCP Europe Business School and a member of the National Academy of Technologies of France.

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