While men’s and couture shows have been cancelled throughout the summer, the fate of Paris Fashion Week has been waited upon with bated breath. The Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, France’s governing fashion body, recently announced the Spring/Summer 2021 womenswear shows will go ahead in September, bringing a widespread sigh of relief. In the fight against the global pandemic, it seems fashion was potentially willing to sacrifice London, New York and Milan, but drew the battle line at Paris.
Several top designers, including Yves Saint Laurent, have already decided to part ways with the traditional calendar, causing some fashion observers to prophesise “The End of Fashion Week”. Such grumblings have been perceived as a direct threat to the status quo, and particularly Paris’s standing as the “fashion capital” of the world and cultural heartbeat of the industry. The FHCM has vehemently denied any such possibility, asserting that despite alternations to this year’s proceedings, “the principle of the official calendar is maintained.”
Fashion critics have pointed out that the fashion calendar’s rigid seasonal structure and long lead times are no longer relevant considering modern buying habits. A brief look into the history of the fashion calendar reveals exactly why it may not be suited to the modern day.
The History of the Fashion Calendar
The idea of seasonal collections presented twice a year can be traced back to the 17th century. Under King Louis XIV, the French textiles industry was identified as essential to the national economy, and so was brought under central control and regulated by a strict seasonal schedule. By introducing new textiles on a biannual basis, heightened consumption was encouraged as current fashions were rendered obsolete – not because they had worn out, but because they were no longer in style. As we shall see, this prioritisation of textiles and the changeability of French style significantly contributed to Paris’s position as the arbitrator of taste.
Over the 20th century, fashion shows developed out of Parisienne salons, where designers would host private displays for their exclusive clientele. In France, this system of the couturiers became a fixed calendar in the 1920s, with bi-annual collections presented six months in advance so the rest of the world had time to emulate the latest French trends. The New York Fashion Week in 1943, or ‘Press Week’ as it was then known, is considered the first of the 'Big Four' fashion weeks, later followed by France, Italy and London. These fashion shows became managed by official governing bodies (like the British Fashion Council, or the Council of Fashion Designers of America) and evolved into increasingly grandiose affairs.
Over the years, each location has developed its own ‘personality’. London, for instance, has become known for avant-garde designers and innovation. In the 1980s, Paris secured its reputation as the epicentre of fashion, with international designers like Tokyo’s Yohji Yamamoto choosing to show here, thereby qualifying the city as a cultural hub for fashion’s crème de la crème.
Hundreds of cities now play host to their own fashion weeks around the world, yet still all eyes look to Paris. So, what does Paris have that they don’t?
Paris's Fashion Legacy
Under the Sun King, the French state heavily promoted fashion and luxury goods and, as a direct result, it’s designers and fashions became internationally prestigious. The historical importance of the fashion industry to the French economy and politics is a reflection of just how deeply fashion is ingrained within the nation. This culture went far beyond just fashion designers, models and clothes. Artists, writers, poets, flaneurs, actresses, socialites and many others all contributed to the creation of French fashion culture, particularly in its capital city. Unlike in other societies, fashion was not denigrated as superficial or immoral, but praised in the same way as art, beauty and genius.
Paris was more than simply a place that made and sold clothes. It was a stage on which fashion was paraded, spectated and performed.
And of course, the birth of haute couture did plenty for Paris’s credentials. In the 19th century, renowned couturiers like Charles Frederick Worth (interestingly, an Englishman by birth), Jacques Doucet, Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet opened shop in Paris to create their luxury designs. Haute couture was more than clothing; it was art. By the 1980s, haute couture was internationally recognised as the birthright of Paris.
Is Fashion Week dead? Is the reign of Paris over? To some extent, only time will tell. The format of the fashion calendar is archaic, and based on the need to stimulate the economy through over-consumption and capitalist greed. With the rise of the green movement, there is a sizeable demand for sustainable fashion that preserves natural resources, protects garment workers and slows down the heady pace of the fashion industry. The current conditions, with the recent health crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement, could be the perfect catalyst for such a change. Personally, I have faith that Paris will survive the upheaval – it’s made it through countless revolutions over the years, it can make it through one more.