Translated by
Nicola Mira
Mar 12, 2020
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Did Paris Fashion Week manage to avoid the worst of the crisis?

Translated by
Nicola Mira
Mar 12, 2020

As was expected given the worldwide spread of the Covid-19 epidemic, the turnout of fashion industry professionals - between buyers and journalists - at the Paris Fashion Week from February 24 to March 3 has surely been one of the lowest in years. Despite the fact that Paris already experienced a downturn in visitors in the months that followed the terrorist attacks of November 2015.

The French Haute Couture and Fashion Federation (FHCM), the body that runs the Paris Fashion Week’s official calendar, forecast that “one third of visitors would be absent, with approximately 5,000 people attending” the event’s February-March 2020 edition. This was a mere estimate, since FHCM said it is “in charge of journalists’ accreditation, but has no figures for actual attendance,” and underlined, unsurprisingly, that “considering the travel ban, China is the Fashion Week's main absentee.” Nevertheless, the Parisian catwalk shows’ appeal is such that there was no empty-seat effect, with always plenty of people keen to see the shows.

Along the aisles at the Première Classe trade show in Paris, in early March 2020 - Antoine Motard

Contacted by FashionNetwork.com, Chanel said it observed “a slight decrease in the presence of journalists, especially those from the regions most affected [by the epidemic] at the time, like Asia and Italy. We observed the same in terms of our buyers’ presence. Buyers from certain areas decided to travel in smaller numbers, or to be represented by members of their staff already present in France.”

At first, only the Chinese visitors’ contingent was expected to be impacted, but the acceleration in the epidemic's spread a few days ahead of the start of the Paris Fashion Week raised the level of concern, and international attendance in a broader sense slumped. Some American buyers in particular decided to return to the USA as a precaution, just as the Fashion Week opened.

Visitors in Paris down by a third during Fashion Week

Catwalk shows by leading labels are the industry’s showcase, and if they struggle, the entire sector working behind the scenes starts to slow down. The trade shows scheduled in Paris during the Fashion Week, from February 28 to March 2, were also directly affected by the decline in visitors to the city. The three main trade events, Première Classe, Tranoï and Woman, all experienced a downturn in attendance. Everyone thinks it was inevitable.

WSN, organiser of the Première Classe show at the Tuileries Gardens, recorded a fall in visitor numbers very similar to the figure mentioned by FHCM, posting a 32.63% decline. It was felt mostly among buyers from Japan, Italy, the USA and China, in this order, according to WSN figures. Unsurprisingly, China was out of the top 10 in the visitor ranking by country for this edition. France was impacted less, and its visitors accounted for 48% of the total.

While well aware of the difficulties caused to exhibitors, WSN nevertheless reckoned it “avoided a disaster,” according to Frédéric Maus, managing director of WSN. “Clearly there were far fewer visitors, but representatives of the leading purchasing departments did attend, as well as other key buyers, even though they often travelled alone and not with their staff,” he added. The organisers of Première Classe underlined the solidarity shown by the industry as a whole, which mobilised to keep the show on the road, despite the bleak outlook. Première Classe is also hoping to make up at least partially for this season’s visitor shortfall by deploying its newsletters and social media activity more extensively, affording greater visibility to exhibitors.

Among the buyers present, even those who did place some orders were very circumspect. “No one is currently taking any risks, seeing the economic situation,” said the senior executive of a Tranoï exhibitor. Some are also wondering, for example, about the wisdom of doing business with brands whose products are made entirely in China.

A reluctance regarded as a “double blow” by Boris Provost, the newly appointed director of Tranoï, who also admitted attendance was down, without giving any figures: “A miracle didn't materialise, and this uncertainty is highly frustrating, at a time when we would like to move forward, assess the results of our new initiatives; these aren't the ideal conditions for making progress,” he said. But trade shows aren’t the only ones under pressure.

The Chanel Fall/Winter 2020-21 show - AFP-Christophe Archambault

Some labels are thinking about prolonging their sales campaigns until the end of March, in order to canvass absent buyers extensively using online tools. Antoine Floch, one of the organisers of the Woman trade show, which reported an attendance shortfall of about 20% for its March session, is worried about the seasonal calendar’s displacement: “How will production be able to begin in the coming weeks, if labels haven’t closed their sales campaigns by then, and are trying to make up for lost ground? And how will Chinese and Italian factories and workshops have been affected? It would be disastrous if delivery delays were to compound this season’s shrinking order volumes.”

If you won’t come to the Fashion Week, the Fashion Week will come to you

To avoid losing touch with absent buyers, especially those from Asia, labels are making a much greater use of digital tools. “Purchases are made remotely, via live streaming, video calls and by sending pictures. Swatch books with fabric samples have also been shipped out to various markets, so that [buyers] are able to feel the fabrics, making remote selling easier,” said Chanel.

LVMH indicated that “catwalk shows have been broadcast on the web, as the group's labels have run mini-programmes on Chinese social media. These broadcasts have been a genuine success. For example, Celine said it reached an audience of over 800,000 people with its live-streamed show, despite the late hour in Asia, and 1.2 million people when the show was re-broadcast last week-end.”

Louis Vuitton “addressed several messages of support and sympathy to the Chinese people, asking its local brand ambassadors to record messages that were broadcast ahead of the show.” At Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri herself recorded a speech that was broadcast live before the start of the show.

Given the circumstances, FHCM offered to support labels with less social media clout by helping them reach leading Chinese platforms like Weibo and Douyin, on which the French organisation gave “advance notice of its opening plans on Chinese networks.”

A few days before, the Milan Fashion Week had pioneered this approach. The Italian Fashion Chamber launched the ‘China We Are with You’ initiative, supported by all the leading Italian labels, and broadcast 29 catwalk shows live on Tencent, watched by an audience of 16 million according to the organisers, and also posted extensively on Weibo.

Gucci, as well as joining the initiative, made its own arrangements for its Milanese show: “In addition to broadcasting the show live on our websites and on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Weibo, we deployed a digital showroom experience, with the possibility of accessing 360º views of the various garments, of zooming in on specific details and buying the items in question, all using the same tool.”

Epidemic a factor in accelerating Fashion Week digitalisation?

Undoubtedly, digital tools have been an alternative solution for many other labels, besides leading luxury names, that have been caught short by the situation. Many of them have opted in recent seasons for a parallel presence on digital showrooms as an alternative to featuring on brick-and-mortar ones, also to cut down on staff travel and sample shipments. This season, this proved to be a winner.

“In the last two to three weeks, we noticed a significant rise in contacts by labels that are coming to us to find ways of carrying on with their business regardless,” said Ambre Pellegrino, sales director France and Benelux for Joor, a US B2B marketplace representing several thousand brands. “Recent events have pushed digital B2B tools top of the list for many,” she added.

Users on French e-marketplace Le New Black have been placing a growing number of orders in recent weeks - Le New Black

“Our figures show an increase in the number of orders placed compared to last year. It seems likely that buyers are turning to labels equipped with remote order-placement tools. But I wouldn't go as far as calling it a real windfall,” said Romain Blanco-Espuny, CEO of French B2B marketplace Le New Black.

The current situation is forcing industry operators to modify their business practices. Extending the sales campaign is an important element, but sourcing issues seem also to be coming to the fore. “This situation might be the chance for some to stand out,” said Pierre Sapin, in charge of Europe at Born, a French networking website for fashion labels and retailers.

“Small and medium-sized labels do not generally source from China, but more locally. Smaller labels might become much more attractive if they focus their narrative on their history and production processes. Nowadays, saying ‘I have no problems with production’ has become a strong argument,” he added.

The editorial team

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