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Why are the French so chic?

From Marie Antoinette to today’s haute couture, France has long ruled fashion. Joobin Bekhrad explores the reasons why, as a nation, it is the undisputed queen of style.

“It was my dream to visit Paris,” says designer Kenzo Takada, recalling the time he travelled there by sea as a twenty-something visionary. The founder of worldwide fashion brand Kenzo – which has its headquarters in the French capital – admits that while London in the mid-1960s was a “very dynamic and interesting” place to be, it wasn’t the swinging British capital that held sway in his imagination – it was Paris. “When I was growing up in Japan and wanted to enter the industry, fashion was really in Paris… I was driven to go to the capital of fashion.”

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Takada was far from being alone in his sentiments. Despite the fact that Paris had competition from London and New York, as well as that the ‘Golden Age’ of French couture had ended the previous decade, in the late 1950s, many at the time, French and otherwise, believed that Paris was still the fashion capital of the world, if there was one. Little seems to have changed. Just as Takada’s eponymous label is still located in the City of Lights, so Paris – the focus of an exhibition running at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology – continues to be regarded as the epitome of all that is fashionable. But why? What makes the French so chic?

It is actually outside Paris, in nearby Versailles, that the story of French fashion truly begins. During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), the court invested heavily in the arts – and fashion. Visitors to Versailles would be dazzled by not only the ‘Sun King’ himself, but also the palace’s many courtiers and mistresses, who set trends both in France and abroad. According to Dr Valerie Steele, curator of Paris, Capital of Fashion and editor of the show’s accompanying book, this emphasis on fashion stemmed from far more than just aesthetics. “The theatre of power was very important,” she tells BBC Designed. “[Louis XIV] wanted to make sure that his appearance and the appearance of his courtiers were in accordance with his idea of being a modern, powerful, civilised monarch – no longer just a warrior king from the Middle Ages, but a real kind of ‘Sun King’ with all kinds of mythological connotations. And obviously fashion and ceremonial dress… were a big part of that.”

Fashion icons like Marie Antoinette led many to associate Paris with fashion and sensual pleasure

Louis XIV’s sartorial investments were incredibly fruitful, and he came to be viewed as a monarchical paragon. “Everybody [wanted] to look and act like [him],” says Steele. It wasn’t only soft power and cultural branding, however, that Louis XIV was concerned with. In fashion, he and his finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, saw enormous economic potential, too. Accordingly, they together strove to keep out foreign competition and protect the local textile industry, which they also provided with substantial funding. “Colbert said that ‘Fashion will be for France what the gold mines of Peru are for Spain,’” says Steele. “This [belief] would be central to their economic agenda, which is remarkable, because three-and-a-half centuries later, it’s still true: [fashion] is a major pillar of the French economy.”

Following the death of Louis XIV, the courtiers at Versailles began spending more time in Paris. Coupled with the emergence of fashion icons like Marie Antoinette, this led many to associate Paris with “fashion and sensual pleasure”, as Steele writes in the exhibition’s book. The French Revolution may have caused a lull in this respect, but, thanks to  the rakish incroyables and their merveilleuses (members of a fashionable aristocratic subculture in the post-Revolutionary period), fashion was far from forgotten. It would only be a matter of time before the Ancien Régime would be looked back on – at least in terms of style – with nostalgia and admiration.

Power dressing

Even though it had lost the title of the world’s greatest superpower to Britain, France’s superiority in fashion – and all forms of high culture, for that matter – persisted well after the fall of the First French Empire. In contrast to London, which excelled in menswear, Paris’s focus was on womenswear. French fashion revolved around the idea of la Parisienne – the ideal Parisian woman, stylish, cultured, and discerning – and Paris itself was referred to in the feminine, and even anthropomorphised as a woman. But for all its prestige and renown, French fashion operated on a small scale until the British designer Charles Frederick Worth set up shop in Paris in the mid-19th Century. “You had plenty of couturiers,” says Steele, “but… they were mostly small-scale artisans”.

Worth revolutionised the French fashion industry by introducing the concept of grande couture. For the first time in the country, high fashion was being produced on a large scale. However, Worth, who also founded the Chambre Syndicale to regulate and provide a framework for the French fashion industry, later spoke not of grande or large-scale couture, but haute (meaning ‘high’) couture. “That,” says Steele, “was definitely a way of differentiating [grande couture] from the simultaneous rise of confection, the first round of ready-to-wear clothing, sold in department stores in France… He claimed that [haute couture] was an art form and that he was an artist.”

Today haute couture is often used as a catchall term for luxury clothing in general, but in France – and in fashion circles generally –  it’s an appellation reserved only for designers who meet a rigorous set of criteria. Also contrary to popular belief, haute couture pieces aren’t necessarily one-of-a-kind. “[Haute] couture is not unique,” says Steele. “It’s made for your body, but it’s not unique.”

Much in the spirit of Louis XIV, the French once again used haute couture as a means of soft power in the aftermath of both their defeat at the hands of the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and the Paris Commune (1871), when a revolutionary socialist government briefly seized power. If they were clearly no longer a significant economic or political force, the French at least had their culture and their clothes. “It was… no coincidence,” writes Dr David Gilbert of Royal Holloway University in an essay entitled Paris, New York, London, Milan: Paris and a World Order of Fashion Capitals, “that the aggressive promotion of the couture system… followed the military humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent traumas of the 1871 Commune.” Gilbert goes on to say that “Paris fashion… under the Third Republic… was part of a wider external reassertion of French power and influence abroad”. And, in trying to reassert themselves on the world stage, the French, as Steele says, “[equated] France [with] civilisation and Germany [with] barbarity, which [became] part of a longstanding French ethos”.

The French did the Sun King proud. Even after the further devastations brought about by the two world wars, New York – the undisputed economic centre of the world – largely took its sartorial cues from Paris in the early and mid-20th Century. “The Chambre Syndicale,” writes Gilbert,“… promoted the idea of the surpassing taste of Paris’s women, but the lasting power came from the way that this idea was repeated, often uncritically as almost a fact of nature, in fashion promotion and media based in other major cities. And nowhere was this more powerful and of more significance both locally and for the wider geographies of fashion than in the ‘capital of the 20th Century’, New York City.”

It might seem strange that a city as ambitious and powerful as New York would promote Parisian fashion over its own; but there were clear reasons for this, as Steele is quick to point out. “A lot of the [US] magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar were for socially elite people,” she says. “These people had been travelling for decades to Paris to get couture wardrobes… They were heavily invested.” Steele also mentions a feeling of nostalgia many around the world felt for “the glamour they [associated] with French fashion”. That said, the rage for French fashion in the US was double-edged, as cheap copies of French haute couture designs abounded, many North Americans being at the time more than willing to settle for far less than the real thing. “You know,” remarks Steele, “a little black dress, a cheap ready-made copy from New York or Berlin, [looked] pretty damn similar to a Chanel couture version”.

Golden age

In the late 1940s and early ’50s, designers like Christian Dior, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, and Hubert de Givenchy ushered in what’s now referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ of French fashion, and there was no doubt of Paris’s supremacy in womenswear. Things got a bit more complicated in the mid-’60s, however, with London’s ‘youthquake’, led by the likes of Mary Quant, while the 1970s and ’80s saw the rise of Milan and Tokyo as major fashion centres.  And if the ‘defection’ of many Japanese designers to France à la Takada quelled the threat from the East, Paris – despite enjoying a renaissance of sorts with designers like Christian Lacroix and Jean-Paul Gaultier – faced increasing pressure from London and New York, rivals old and new, in the late ’ 80s and ’90s. “But they kept pushing back,” says Steele of the French.

Through soft power and cultural branding, the emergence of haute couture, and the assiduous promotion of French fashion on behalf of the French, as well as vested tastemakers abroad, Paris came to enjoy a reputation of seemingly irrefutable chicness. But today, considering the status of cities like London, Milan, and New York, and the increasing globalisation of the fashion industry – “[Fashion] is pretty much all over the world,” as Kenzo Takada puts it  – can Paris still be talked about as the fashion capital of the world?

According to Steele, Paris still reigns internationally as a fashion metropolis for a variety of reasons. For one, it’s home to some of the world’s most prominent fashion conglomerates. “Fashion is no longer a question so much of small independent businesses,” she states, “but of giant conglomerates. Almost all the luxury groups – LVMH, Kering, etc – are based in Paris, [despite having] bought up Italian companies [and] invested in English [and] American ones.” Steele also believes Parisian fashion shows to be superior to those held in other cities. “It’s not as thrilling to go to Milan. [And] I mean, New York is a wonderful place, but the New York fashion shows don’t have the glamour and excitement that the ones in Paris do, for the most part.”

Paris is quite unique for the quality and level of the shows of its fashion week – Isabel Marant

Her opinion is echoed by Paris-based designer Agnès b: “They’ve tried with Milan and London, [and] with New York – there are shows everywhere,” she tells BBC Designed, “but inspiration comes from Paris, for sure”. Similarly, designer Isabel Marant, also based in Paris, points to the grandeur of the city’s  fashion shows, too, in commenting on its status as the world’s fashion capital. “Paris,” says Marant, “is quite unique for the way that fashion is expressed [there], for the quality and level of the shows of its fashion week.”

Now there’s a new generation of designers, but Paris has still this aura – Agnès b

The presence of major conglomerates in Paris and the quality of its contemporary fashion shows are certainly important to consider. History, though, is perhaps the crucial element in the continued perception of  Paris as the epicentre of fashion – regardless of whether the historical associations being made are rational or the result of clever marketing done by the French and others with a stake in French fashion. “France has always been … [introducing] new ways of wearing clothes,” says  Agnès b. “It has always been [this way] in France. We’ve had this for a long time.” Marant agrees: “France has a great cultural heritage,” she tells BBC Designed, mentioning the likes of Paul Poiret, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Chanel, who “created new trends [and were] admired all over the world”. And as Agnès b points out:  “Now [there’s] a new generation [of designers], but Paris has still this aura, I think.”

It may seem strange to place so much emphasis on Paris’s sartorial past, no matter how dazzling it may be. As Gilbert writes, however, “The status of fashion capital in the 21st Century is as much about reputation, expectations, heritage, and tradition as the design and production of actual garments… Deep and long-running symbolic associations also have real economic and cultural consequences.” Steele puts it slightly more casually. “The law of precedents is really important. If you’ve been the fashion capital longest and have this amazing reputation, then you can ding it around the corners an awful lot and it still comes out looking like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s still the best!’”

In light of such arguments, one is hard pressed to deny the primacy of Paris as a fashion capital. But what about the future? Do those who feel Paris to be the world’s fashion capital think the title could potentially be seized by another? “Of course anything can change,” says Steele, who suggests Shanghai as a possible contender, on account of China’s growing economic clout. And, though they don’t single out any particular cities, Takada and Marant also raise the issue of increasing international competition and the proliferation of fashion shows around the world. “There are many cities [also] showing… very interesting [styles and] emerging talents,” Marant admits. Considering, however, the immense role played by heritage and history in forming perceptions of cities as fashion capitals, it seems unlikely that Paris, the fabled ‘Queen of the World’, will budge from her throne anytime soon, if at all.

Paris, Capital of Fashion is on display at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, until 4 January 2020.

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