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A Discussion on French and American Fashion

Following the NYC Fashion Week frenzy, the Institut Français de la Mode in Paris and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy brought together five distinguished experts from the fashion sector (including The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology) in France and in the United States. The well-heeled panelists included:

Florence Müller is a highly-regarded fashion and art historian, and professor at IFM Paris. She is currently Denver museum’s Avenir Foundation Curator of Textile Art and Curator of Fashion. Her extensive experience with museums and collections in France and as an independent curator has led to the curation and contribution to more than 100 exhibitions worldwide, including the 2012 Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective exhibition. She is also the author of several books, among them: Art&Fashion, Fashion Game Book: A World History of 20th Century Fashion, Women in Dior: Portraits of Elegance co-written with Laurence Benaim.

Valerie Steele (Ph.D., Yale University) is the director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she has organized more than 25 exhibitions since 1997, including Daphne Guinness, The Corset: Fashioning the Body, and Femme Fatale: Fashion in Fin-de-Siecle France. She is also the editor-in-chief of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture and the author of more than 20 books, including Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power, and Fashion Designers A-Z: The Collection of The Museum at FIT. Described by The Washington Post as one of “fashion’s brainiest women” and by Suzy Menkes as “The Freud of Fashion,” Steele has been instrumental in raising awareness of the cultural significance of fashion.

Mary E. Davis has served as Dean of the School of Graduate Studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology since 2012, she specialized in cross-disciplinary studies of fashion, music, and culture. Her most recent book, Ballets Russes Style: Diaghilev’s Dancers and Paris Fashion, earned praise in sources ranging from The New York Times and The Guardian to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Her earlier books include the monograph Classic Chic: Music, Fashion, and Modernism, the biography Erik Satie, and Waiting for a Train: Jimmie Rodgers’s America, which she co-edited. She has published numerous book chapters and essays and has been a featured speaker at institutions including New York University, Parsons The New School for Design, Harvard University, Boston University, UCLA, and the University of Montreal. Dr. Davis earned Ph.D. and AM degrees in musicology from Harvard University.

Laure Heriard Dubreuil is Founder and President of The Webster, an exclusive multi-brand luxury boutique with locations in New York, South Beach and Bal Harbour, Florida, Houston, Texas and Costa Mesa, CA. Established in 2009, The Webster has quickly evolved through Laure’s vision and direction, who is not only responsible for The Webster’s exquisite selection, but also the development of exclusive worldwide brand partnerships with major retailers such as Lane Crawford, Ritz Paris, Le Bon Marche and Target, along with one of a kind global product collaborations, including Eres, in which she was named the first ambassador of the brand, in addition to creating a capsule collection.

Laure also currently serves on the expert committee of LVMH’s annual fashion prize, which fosters young talent, and has been recognized by Business of Fashion for the past two consecutive years, among their top BoF 500: The People Shaping The Global Fashion Industry.

Anne Fontaine is a self-taught fashion designer. She was born in Rio de Janeiro to a Brazilian mother and a French-German father, she has been a French-based designer for 20 years developing her own brand (60 retail shops) and imposing the white shirt as the main staple of the feminine wardrobe. She recently moved to NY. Passionate about ecology, she decided to live six months in the Amazonian Forest when she was 17. Since then, she has made a commitment to ecological causes and created the Anne Fontaine Foundation in 2011 for the protection of the Mata Atlantica Forest. She has been the recipient of several awards, including the French National Order of Merit (Ordre national du Mérite) and received the award of l’élan de Mode in 2006 (French Federation of Fashion).

The evening’s discussion began with highlighting the admiration for French art and culture that has shaped the consumption of fashion in the US since the 19th century.

Yet, the potential of the American market has also inspired French couturiers to fully understand the needs of these consumers. Going beyond an analysis acknowledging the appeal of Paris Haute Couture, this discussion also aimed to consider the important American contribution to French fashions, from its mediation to its retailing.

Here are some key points presented by the experts:

The French were fashion powerhouses early on — Consider for example that Le Bon Marche was founded in Paris in 1838 as the first ever modern luxury department store. Fashionable women could respectfully spend their entire days there shopping for their homes and themselves, dine, and catch entertainment. Today there is fluidity between French and Americans. We have style post jeans!

It was the American journalists that supported Chanel and Dior. They embraced Chanel because she gave us lovely uniforms, although Dior confused them

with odd hemlines? Prior to these designers, American women dressed more like soldiers — indeed they were serious with WWII and the Nazi era — however, Dior wanted them as flowers, birds of paradise. Further, Dior was so instrumental to France, he made up 50% o the fashion textile commerce there!

While France had polish, the US had theatricality and knew how to mass produce ready-to-wear for different sizes. RTW was then brought back to France from the US. Also, American sportswear is our great contribution to global fashion.

Pivotal designers by decade: The 1980s had Donna Karan who introduced suits and bodysuits for women. Whereas American fashion had to be efficient to take you throughout your day, the French will go home and change outfits! Looks were also super flattering and comfortable, even with shoulder pads. The 1990s had Calvin Klein who is more severe and all about boys and girls. Everyone has kept a teenager and body shapes look the same. Then when Ralph Lauren comes in, there is a shift, a fantasy of English “heritage” that the French find appealing. They like our version of British aristocracy. In the late 1990s, American designers head French fashion houses, i.e. Marc Jacobs helms Louis Vuitton. Yes, the French were skeptical at first, but the US “shook things up.”

Today, France remains very welcoming to new designers showing new ideas during fashion weeks, wherever around the globe they come from.

And online shopping is making it easier for retailers and customers to connect worldwide.