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).

john_galliano_dior_paris_fashion_week

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

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