Paris Fashion in an Uproar

Robert Altman has Paris fashion in an uproar. Feeling used, abused and terribly misrepresented, industry professionals are screaming “foul play” over the film “Prêt-à-Porter.” “We are portrayed as a class of sex-crazed, dishonest, bubble brained idiots,” designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac told Paris Match.

“This is pernicious because, first and foremost, fashion is an art. In Altman’s film, the craftsmen, the dedicated workers and all the rest of the industry are absent.” Charles Gandee, a journalist for American Vogue, agrees. “There wasn’t a single element of fashion truth in ‘Prêt-à-Porter’….Instead there were only gags and an overly ambitious cast.” Does the industry take itself too seriously? Of course it does…but for good reason. French fashion is worth nearly 30 billion francs in annual sales, and it didn’t get there in the manner portrayed by Altman’s fickle characters. “Altman missed the serious, clever, hardworking side of the industry that explains how people reach the top,” insists Roy Campbell, fashion writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Designers and journalists alike are all demanding the right to air their side of the “Ready-to-Wear” story. Meanwhile fashion experts are heavily promoting recent books that tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the real fashion industry “behind the scenes,” and probably a whole lot more.


Resembling Rodin with a full beard and horn-rimmed glasses and clad in a dark, classic suit, Gianfranco Ferre is a soft-spoken man who commutes between Milan and Paris cranking out five fashion collections (both women’s and menswear) for his own very successful firm, along with the couture, ready-to-wear and two fur collections for Christian Dior. After six years at the reins of France’s most prestigious high fashion house and 17 years in business for himself, Ferre is stretching out a helpful hand to would-be designers with “Lettres à un Jeune Couturier” (Editions Balland, 70F). Unlike the usual glossy book containing a glacial “puff piece” of the designer and his works, Ferre speaks openly and intimately to the reader through a series of “personal” letters pulled together in a modest paperback and addressed to a make-believe friend. “Dear Federico,” each chapter begins.

“For someone like me who is not at all worldly, it is difficult to give in to the rites of fashion journalists,” he says in one letter. “I don’t see myself meeting them over dinner or hanging out with them out of interest, image or, even worse, opportunism. Naturally, I am aware of the importance of the media, its role and even its power; however, I am more interested in personal rapport, if not real friendships…something which goes beyond simply politeness. I want to be able to share ideas, laugh and joke without worrying about my image. I’d rather be judged by my work.”

The book begins with an account of Ferre’s debut in fashion, his travels, his childhood in Milan, as well as things and places dear to his heart. He also shares his thoughts on working in France and Italy, particularly for Dior, while offering tips on getting into the industry and staying on track. “My dear Federico, you need to hold within you an ‘interior formula,’ a way to express yourself, a method of analyzing. And never, ever stop working…. When success finds you, learn how to distance yourself from it, otherwise it will swallow you up like quicksand. The moment you are aware it’s there, you will already be its. Success should always be kept at arm’s distance. As for me, I have managed to maintain a balance because I keep my private life to myself. For example, I spend my vacation in my house or on a boat with my close friends and relatives.”

Having taught at Domus Academy in Milan and worked with interns from Paris’ Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, Ferre reveals in the book his support of fashion schools and goes so far as to recommend several leading schools at the back of the book. The book is in French, with Ferre’s sketches at the end of each chapter; an English translation is due later this year.

Fashion is a phenomenon in constant mutation, historically, geographically and socially. The speed of its metamorphoses over the years, the complexity of its many facets and its current internationalism led a team of writers under Bruno Remaury, director of creation at the Institut Français de la Mode, to compile the most complete guide ever to 20th century fashion, “Dictionnaire de la Mode au XXe Siècle” (Editions du Regard, 650F). In this sumptuous work of 592 glossy pages, 2,500 entries divided into 40 categories cover everything past and present connected to the world of style, including an international roster of established and young designers, past and present top models, great photographers, noteworthy periodicals, top design schools, professional organizations, illustrators, luxury jewelers, keynote accessories, famous perfume, clothing trends and terms, as well as machines and technology, fabric, stores, careers, jargon and much more. Even if you can’t understand the French text (which would be a pity), the book is still worth purchasing for the hundreds of keepsake photos and illustrations packed from cover to cover.

Veteran fashion journalist Ginette Sainderichin must have been keeping a diary during her years at GAP (a professional review), Jardin des Modes, Les Echos and the women’s pages at Sud-Ouest. Her book “La Mode Epinglée…sous toutes les coutures” (Edition 1, 75F) gives a detailed account of French fashion beginning with Christian Dior’s postwar “New Look” down to the current wave of Korean designers hitting the French capital. Organizing the book by decade and subject matter, Sainderichin begins by talking about the success of haute couture’s triumph after the war, the birth of the ready-to-wear industry in Paris in the late 1950s and the important role Prisunic played in helping launch styles for the young. One chapter, “Les Vampires du Podium,” provides an interesting look at the evolution of the fashion show and its principal players, from Dorothée’s Bis’ show held in the boutique’s basement to Chantal Thomass’ presentation atop the tables at Brasserie Lipp, Thierry Mugler’s “pompous Hollywood productions,” Gaultier’s crazy carnivals and the antics and contributions of “Karl Dracula.”
The changing face of clothing trends from the ’60s through the ’90s, along with the designers and all those responsible for launching them, is a connecting thread that leads the reader straight through to the end of the book. The last chapters explain the trials and tribulations of big business deals orchestrated by Bernard Arnault, Sanofi and the like, the current problem of advertiser-controlled editorial pages in fashion reviews and the ludicrous phenomenon of the supermodel and her effect on the industry. One small problem is that the text is cut-and-dried reporting, and as such cites a dizzying number of facts and figures, leaving little space to reflect on the social and historical influences surrounding the last 40 years of garment trends. Still, as pure reference material, the book is fairly complete except for the omission of two important figures in Paris fashion: Patrick Kelly, the first American designer to enter the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, and Oscar de la Renta, the first American to take over the reins of a Paris couture house.


If your French isn’t up to par and you need pictures to help you visualize the evolution of clothing cycles, the third edition of the late Elizabeth Ewing’s book “History of 20th Century Fashion” (Batsford Press, 324F) is a good bet. Alice Macrell revised the work and includes commentary about style in the ’90s. A chronology of clothing trends throughout this century and the world events that helped bring them about is fully illustrated through pictures and text. The social, technological and economic developments effecting the industry, manufacturers and consumers are also explored.

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