The French System for Fashion & Luxury

14 01 2009

French fashion has long been reflective of social and economic hierarchy, illuminating the distinction among classes. Beginning with the Royal Court of the Sun King, France became the capitol of rich fashion. After Charles Worth created the business of haute couture in the 1800s, Paris became the creative center for a business model that has evolved greatly, yet still remains centered around the spirit of haute couture.

Haute couture is identified as unique pieces constructed with precious materials, made-to-measure, and made for special occasions- not daily wear. A dress of this nature today should run you on average between 20,000 and 30,000 euro and up. Where there were once more than 30,000 clients per year for the highest form of French fashion, today there remain less than 3,000, and most of these are irregular clients. Hence, haute couture is not a big business anymore; it is unaffordable and impractical, as there are fewer and fewer occasions in today’s world to wear such items. Therefore, it has become much less profitable than it once was, having lost the link with modern life.

Most companies that made their name in haute couture today sell mostly accessible products and democratic accessories like lipstick, perfumes, and so on. However, to continue to sell these more “basic” goods at high profit margins, they must continue to produce high fashion. People are now buying the legacy of couture, rather than the couture itself. Therefore, to make the big bucks selling goods at the bottom, you must be positioned at the top.

According to French law as of 2008, 50 garments per season must be produced by hand, by at least 20 skilled in-house workers for a fashion company to be considered a house of haute couture. (This model is changing under the current economic situation, in order to protect the existing haute couture legacy; too many couturiers were closing their doors under the weight of these expensive restrictions.) These companies lack a bottom-up business model, and have no second-lines: consider French powerhouses Dior and Chanel, as opposed to Armani, Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana, etc.

john_galliano_paris_menswear01Brand images and communications demonstrate a high level of arrogance and provocation. Have you ever wondered how or why that “crazy stuff that nobody is ever going to buy” makes it onto the catwalk? The most elaborate and provocative designs are taken onto the runway because the goal is not mass profitability, but to demonstrate creativity and uniqueness. Consider the wild boys Jean Paul Gaultier for Hermes, or John Galliano for Dior (below).


In fact, most clients are unaware of exactly who is the designer behind today’s major labels. Instead, they typically know what celebrities are wearing them (the Poiret legacy lives on!).

To summarize, the French business model is derived from a long tradition of craft and individualism. Couture was the original product of the French fashion and luxury system, which is now integrated with accessories. The image of sophistication and provocation are used to produce the sense of luxury, which is what the companies are selling. Viola!

Here’s my hastily-made visual (with apologies to France):

French luxury business model


Fashion History: Teens in Swinging London

13 01 2009

London became the center of fashion for a specific market segment from the end of the 1950s through the 60s. London’s emergence as a fashion capitol was well-rooted in the production specialization in menswear after the mid-18th Century “grand denial” of the new industrial aristocracy.

In Europe, the post-war decades represented a period of strong economic growth. A new social and consumer group under the age of 30 emerged, and acquired a distinct identity and culture, now know as the Youth Culture. Their incomes were the highest ever registered and they spent to purchase items that symbolized their identity. For the first time, young people had become the engine driving fashion change. Previously, young people had always dressed like their parents.

Subcultures like the Rockers and the mods emerged, and by the 1960s, a new group of British designers had emerged to represent them. They challenged the position of Paris as the capital of haute couture, and were educated in special art schools, going on to satisfy the demand for simple, unorthodox clothing for teens.

Boutiques became the hot places to hang out, and Mary Quant, Vivienne Westwood, and Twiggy came to represent the face of British youth fashion.

Mary Quant opened the Bazaar Boutique on King’s Road in Chelsea in 1955. At that time, this neighborhood was a place where the bohemians lived and hung out. Quant began making her own clothes because she didn’t like the ones her mother had supplied her with. She wore them around Chelsea, and grew a fan base and market through word of mouth. She developed the mini-dress in the mid-1960s (although it is disputed who originated the idea). The mini-dress became a huge fashion staple, as did stockings and wildly colored, clunky shoes. Quant’s own footwear collection made headlines with the 1967 collection of ankle boots made from PVC.

Quant and others experimented with common industrial materials, such as plastics. Some were more successful than others: Quant’s “Wet Dress” was a flop because, though it was made of PVC, it proved not to be waterproof.

Vivienne Westwood took Quant’s philosophy of rebellion to another level. She dated the lead of the Sex Pistols and came to represent Punk and provocation. In fact, she changed the name of her first boutique from “Let It Rock” to “SEX”.

Beyond the mere shock factor of her boutique, Westwood’s fashion fearlessly delivered to a generation embracing the sexual revolution, rock n’roll, and all the goods that went along with it!

Fashion History: Italy After WW2

12 01 2009


Prior to the 18th Century, Como was a leading silk producer. Wool was key in Florence.  Techniques in leather-works and weaving were regionally specific.

Under Fascism, attempts were made to create an Italian style of international prominence, but to no avail. After the war, France was again focused on reviving the haute-couture market, and the US was well on its way as the mass market leader in fast, cheap production. Because wealthy women only wanted French fashion, Italian producers had merely copied them. However, a new post-war market (largely US) was wanting a more convenient, affordable fashion: something between haute couture and mass-produced apparel.  An Italian entrepreneur saw an opportunity in the market, and enabled Italy to become the leading producer of creative, easy-to-wear clothing.

A man named Giovanni Battista Giorgini (1989-1971), who had worked as a buyer for US department stores, understood that there was a demand for well-crafted, yet affordable fashion. He knew that he could rely on Italy’s tradition of diverse craftsmanship for quality and creativity, while the US provided industrial machinery and a hungry mass market. Giorgini told Italian designers to ignore France and create their own designs. He then hosted a show in his villa for American and Canadian buyers, showcasing these Italian houses and boutiques. The show was a success, demonstrating simplicity, a sophisticated use of color and decorative details, and cost less than half its French counterpart. Giorgini had this show immediately after the Parisian Fashion Week in February 1951 because buyers were already in Europe, and could be more easily persuaded to view the new Italian designs. Thus the modern Fashion Week circuit was born.

Giorgini understood that it wasn’t just the dress, but the lifestyle and the image the fashion represented which made sales. Italy became increasingly popular in the US market through magazine articles demonstrating the laid-back lifestyle of Italy. Designers such as Emilio Pucci emerged in the 1950s, demonstrating lively colors in dynamic and soft patterns alike in his silk productions.

By 1958, Italy had overtaken France and England as leading European exporters to the US of textiles, apparel and accessories. Italian exports in women’s clothing had risen from 45 million articles in 1950 to 2 billion in 1957! Shoes alone skyrocketed from 208 million pairs exported in 1950 to almost 19 billion in 1957. In the same period, Hollywodd had taken an interest in italy, and began to produce films such as Roman Holiday (1953), which contributed to the diffusion of Italian style abroad. This same mechanism of integration between fashion and media would come in handy again in the future with Giorgio Armani, but more on that later!

Fashion History: France After WW2… Dior Revolution

12 01 2009


Recovery of the fashion industry was not easy in France after WW2. The geography of fashion has distant roots, and world capitals rely on a large accumulation of materials from around the world. As a Nazi-occupied island, isolated from the rest of the world, Paris lost their monopoly on fashion, with competition growing stronger in New York, London and Italy. In order to recover, French ateliers returned to the haute-couture stage, but with innovative cooperation between the fashion and textile industries.

The Theatre de la Mode was a traveling exhibition of more than 150 wire-frame dolls, each about 70cm tall, dressed in miniature couture clothing (see photo, above). These small sizes were used to save on expensive materials, while still demonstrating the tangible qualities of the garments’ designs and construction. More than 50 French couture houses participated in the exhibition.

In 1946, Christian Dior (1905-1957) came on the scene, opening his own couture house. He was contacted by the French Minister of Fashion (what a title!), a man named Lucien Lelong, and asked to partner with French textile tycoon, “The Cotton King” Marcel Boussac, in order to reinvigorate the fashion and textile industries of France on a global scale. Jacques c, a young civil servant, was hired to serve as business administrator. Dior launched his first collection in 1947 in cooperation with Boussac. The collection embraced the “New Look”, which recalled the formerly popular S-shaped silhouette without the underlying cage. Dior abandoned the masculine look, and emphasized luxury and opulence. The look was indeed new after years of the plain, shapeless ration dresses of WW2, and came with huge amounts of layered textiles and embroideries. Dior and Boussac used their marketing skills to promote the extensive use of fabrics (promoting the textile industry) and opulent details and construction (promoting the fashion industry) by playing to the optimism that followed years of suffering.

“No one person can change fashion- a big fashion change imposes itself. It was because women longed to look like women again that they adopted the New Look.” Dior, 1947

There was a backlash to the New Look in the States in 1946-7, when people thought it inappropriate to display such opulence after such great suffering, and for women to bind themselves again after working in the place of men and revolutionizing their fashion in accordance. They weren’t the only ones speaking out against the New Look. Coco Chanel re-emerged and gave many interviews against Dior, saying that his design was an easy dress to impose on women, but that they needed to be able to be comfortable in their daily lives and be able to move independent of assistance. She remarked, “A woman should do her shopping without being teased by the housewife. Whomever laughs is always right.” (Ironically, the North American market would become Dior’s biggest by the mid-50s.)

Over time, Rouët worked to extend the brand into a range of licensed items, exploiting the financial rewards of export deals and licensing contracts. Dior understood and exploited the promotional value of press coverage, and frequently made headlines while catering to Hollywood’s best and brightest, and by giving headline-generating names to each of his collections.

For a more in-depth look at the life and work of Dior, check out his biography at the Design Museum site.

Fashion History: From WW1 through WW2

11 01 2009


As far as fashion in concerned, WW1 produced a strong discontinuity in the way women dressed (of course, the men were wearing uniforms). The increasing employment of women in industrial activities had relaxed strict dress codes, and allowed women to wear cotton trousers for the first time. As women’s roles in Western society changed, modern fashion changed along with it. Paul Poiret’s extravagantly-modelled business failed after WW1 erupted, as a result of his failure to understand the evolutionary landmark of the War and it’s impact on society and fashion. He failed to adapt to meet the modern needs of his clients, thus opening up a market for Coco Chanel.

Easy-to-wear clothing had diffused into mainstream society, and the use of “poor” materials proliferated. (Wool was necessary for uniforms and interwar unemployment created a further need for substitute and recycled materials.) Garbielle Chanel best exemplified the discontinuities in fashion, brought on by WW1. Chanel began work in the major garrison town of Deauville, where she met an officer who provided the capital for her to start her own millinery.

Chanel believed that a woman could be active and still remain elegant. She put this philosophy into her designs, shortening skirts and using jersey in womenswear. Of course, jersey had previously only been used for men’s underwear and sportswear, so this was considered revolutionary at the time. Her dresses stressed the new social role played by women, incorporating simplicity and masculinity.

Chanel was among the first to validate the fashionable qualities of black, exemplified in her little black dress (beginning in the late 1930s). She felt that for daywear and eveningwear alike, that is was unnecessary to dress in a very opulent way.

In terms of a business model, Chanel ran the house and created the designs, but had her vendeuse in the shops for customer assistance. Assemblers were separated into workrooms by the piece of apparel or accessories being constructed, and further by function (weaving, embroidering, etc.). The work was seasonal and the company was completely hierarchical.

Chanel began diversification of her brand through the production of perfumes and jewels. In the 1930s, the constructed pins made from stained glass. Chanel was the first designer to place great importance on bijoux. She maintained one symbol from her past among “doubtful” women- the camellia, trademark flower of high class prostitutes. She turned this symbol into a luxury accessory. Jewelry was an important decorative element upon the simple, clean Chanel dress.

She launched Chanel No. 5 for her 40th birthday in 1921, named so because it was the fifth perfume trial. However, this was developed in the days before licensing. Chanel accepted only 10% of the Parfum Chanel stock without royalty, and was only granted 2% sales royalty in 1947 by Pierre Wertheimer, owner of the manufacturing company. The unique bottle design of Chanel No. 5 was very simple, geometrical and linear, demonstrating the “essential” nature of the fragrance. Furthermore, it carried a simple, easy-to-remember name. Its scent was the first not to use a natural fragrance, but to incorporate an artificial one derived in a chemist’s laboratory.

Chanel used her own name in all matters, on all products and campaigns. With No. 5, she was selling her look and lifestyle, and therefore her branded self. This branded marketing was so effective that Chanel No. 5 remains one of the top-selling perfumes today. (The company estimates that one bottle is sold every 55 seconds.) However, the next time you are at the perfume counter with a friend, try a blind sniff test putting No. 5 up against a more modern fragrance, like Chanel’s Mademoiselle. These days, 99% of the time, No. 5 will not be appreciated unless the person smelling it knows that it is Chanel’s classic fragrance. It’s nothing against the fragrance- it’s just a bit outdated for our modern noses, and a little heavier than what most consumers today are after. Yet it flies off the shelves. That is some serious brand power!

By the second half of the century, Chanel was making more money in accessories and perfume than in apparel itself. Chanel stopped her business during WW2 and immediately after, due to market shortage, supply shortage and her public affair with a Nazi officer. She finally came back in the 1960s with her infamous suit, which was confident and comfortable, and represented a counterplay to the New Look by Christian Dior.

Fashion History: From the Belle Epoque through WW1

11 01 2009


An intense fascination for the Orient was the largest influence on stylistic change at the turn of the century. The Ballets Russes was first performed in Paris in 1909, and quickly became a blockbuster sensation across Europe. Dancers performed oriental tales, dressed in brightly colored costumes of unprecedented combination. The designs, like that to the left, were originally created by Leon Bakst. It was the first time that a theater event had any major impact on the way we dress.

Consider how great the impact of celebrities -actors, sports stars, musicians, etc.- is on fashion now!

While Charles Worth was catering to upper-class women, Jacques Doucet (1853-1929) was designing stage sets and dressing actresses. Young designer Paul Poiret (1879-1944) worked for Doucet in this regard, until he gave away a design model to a young actress, who had the pattern realized by another designer. (This is one of the first of MANY cases questioning the copyright of a fashion design.) He then went on to work at the House of Worth.

Worth’s legacy had been 19th century dress. After his death in 1895, his two sons were unsure of how to move his style forward (this is the first case of a fashion house having to carry on without their namesake). Poiret presented them with a new style, which was rejected as low-class by Worth’s heirs (if you think this sounds like Marc Jacobs’ 1992 grunge collection for Perry Ellis, which got him fired while rocketing him to superstar status, you are catching on… history does repeat itself). Poiret then went out on his own. He was a marketing genius and focused on window displays, adding shock value by giving them a theatrical stage quality to get attention.

The Poiret dress had no crinoline, no corset and was more tubular than S-shaped, with a higher waistline. However, the corset did not completely disappear; Poiret’s dresses still needed undergarment support, though not as tight. The fabrics were in brighter, happier colors than Worth’s sober patterns.

Aside from helping to free women from the corset and crinoline, Poiret’s greatest contribution to the fashion world was his attention to the means of communication and diffusion for his creations. As fashion magazines were often too sober for his colors, Poiret started a cooperation with young artists, Paul Iribe (right) and Geirges Lepape, to draw his dresses. Again, we are seeing here another first example: this time of an in-house marketing team.

Poiret went further to create a symbol (trademark) of his maison: the rose. This would not only serve as his logo, but the pattern would be incorporated into many of his designs, such as the famous Joséphine dress (1907), named for the Empress Joséphine.

He generally paid more attention to the overall effect than to the fine details of dress construction, and threw a huge party to sell something more than a dress, but rather, a dream. The Féte de la Mille et Deuxiéme Nuit was the name of Poiret’s 1910 traveling party, in which he toured his models throughout Europe. The traveling party was Persian-themed with authentic props, decoration, musicians and so on. Guests came in Persian costume, creating a buzz and word of mouth marketing for the house, which led to mass attention from the press and the world. This was followed by a US tour in 1913.

Poiret was also the first to extend his brand beyond fashion, into perfumes, cosmetics and furnishings (brand extension). As many ground-breaking brand strategies as Poiret introduced into the fashion industry, he could very well be considered the godfather of modern fashion branding.

For a great article on Poiret, check out this article at Fashioning the Century.

Fashion History: The 19th Century Dress Reform Movements

11 01 2009

bloomer costume

The Dress Reform Movement was started by Amelia Bloomer (yes, bloomer) in the US, and was closely related to the first feminist movements. In response to the immobility that 18th Century fashion imposed on women, Ms. Bloomer created a costume that included the upper layers of traditional dress, shortened over Turkish-style pants, tied at the ankle cuffs. This costume did not show more of the body than traditional dresses of the period, but it was still found unacceptable because trousers were only for men.

In addition to “radicals”, social reformers and feminists, doctors and hygienists also supported the Dress Reform Movement. They stressed the medical dangers of corsets, and claimed that women should wear no more than 3 kilos of undergarments as opposed to the more standard 7 kilos containing the crinoline, corset and other accouterments.


The expansion of industry and the improvement of living conditions saw the advancement of leisure activities. Sports became increasingly fashionable among upper-class women, who in turn needed specific kinds of clothing for these activities.

From the last years of the 19th Century through the first decades of the 20th Century, cycling, swimming, golf and riding were especially popular.

The combination of industrial advances, wealth accumulation and social change had led to the fastest diffusion of fashion styles the world had yet seen. The idea that, from this point forward, fashions would continue to emerge and be diffused at an ever-increasing rate has led to our understanding today of marketing dynamics and brand identity. But more on that later…