Paris trade shows close ranks to weather Covid-19 crisis
Battling the weather and the virus. There was nothing traditional about the autumn 2020 edition of the Paris fashion shows, staged in the heart of the French capital on October 2-4.
It was the first major show session held in France since the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic in Europe, early in the spring. A genuine challenge, since the majority of B2B and B2C events have been cancelled this autumn. Even the high winds and heavy thunderstorms blowing while the shows’ marquees in the Tuileries Gardens were being erected weren’t anywhere near as challenging to the event organiser, WSN Développement, as the threat of a last-minute cancellation of the whole session.
French Health Minister Olivier Veran had in fact introduced restrictions in France’s major cities the evening of October 1. However, neither weather nor virus managed to prevent the Première Classe, Who’s Next, Impact, Man/Woman and Silmo shows from going ahead. A welcome window of opportunity, since on Monday, the head of the Paris Police announced that trade events were prohibited in the city for at least a fortnight.
Symbolically, the shows were opened on Friday morning by Alain Griset, the minister in charge of SMEs attached to the French Ministry of the Economy, Finance and Economic Recovery, which is very keen to galvanise the economy.
“For us, being able to stage the show was incredible, and also a positive signal for the entire industry. Economic recovery is a matter of confidence,” said Frédéric Maus, general manager of WSN Développement. “We’ve closed ranks with industry federations and associations. For us, it was very important to put into practice what was said during the lockdown period in terms of working together. Many requests fell on deaf ears. Together with the Man/Woman [show], we also wanted to give concrete proof that the fashion community is ready,” added Maus.
“For us too, being there was extremely important, even if with only a handful of exhibitors,” said Antoine Floch, co-founder of Man. Floch added that “in the course of the week-end, I received forty or so messages from exhibitors who didn't make it to the show, saying they were proud of us. I think people have had enough of video-conferencing and phone calls. [Staging the show] sends a clear message to the industry. It reassures everyone concerned. Exhibitors have spent months by themselves, running their businesses at half speed, working on collections, environmental plans and the like, they need to meet up and talk.”
Of course, there was no denying that attendance at the shows, and the commercial business they generated, were not on par with normal editions. Usually, Première Classe alone fills up three marquees with its accessories, footwear and ready-to-wear exhibitors. This time, one single large marquee hosted a reduced number of Première Classe exhibitors, the exhibitors of Who’s Next, a number of ecological and sustainable brands exhibiting at Impact, and the more directional selection of exhibitors of the Man/Woman show. Another marquee, on the Place de la Concorde side, was home to Silmo and its hundred or so eyewear and optics brands. They were all willing, but heterogeneous, companions.
“Exhibiting alongside brands from Who's Next wasn’t ideal for us. I understand the predicament, but for us this solution didn’t generate enough traffic,” said Marie-Emmanuelle Soler, sales director of French leather goods label Jack Gomme, which operates three stores in Paris.
“We prepared our collection well in advance, and many [clients] told us they didn't want to travel, they were afraid of Covid. We did however make a few contacts, and saw some clients at the show. Some of them are also visiting our showroom, which is open until Tuesday,” added Soler.
A similar opinion was voiced by scarf brand Mii, which found the show was quieter than usual: “There was a decent amount of traffic on Friday. But Saturday was quiet and Sunday was busy only from midday onwards. We had visitors from all over France, but very few orders were placed. Many people came with ideas about opening stores.”
On Sunday, visitor numbers were constantly monitored at the marquees’ entrance, so as not to exceed the maximum of 1,000. Hand-sanitiser gel was available at the entrance and at multiple locations inside the marquees, and visitors were careful to always wear a face mask. There was no crowding at the entrance even if the aisles were busy. Visitors came from all over France, and some Italian speakers were also heard in the marquees.
“Compared to a normal edition of Who’s Next, attendance was much smaller,” said Maus. “Compared instead to Première Classe, it was much more acceptable. What’s most important is that, according to the feed-back we received, many exhibitors managed to make new contacts. Some foreign buyers were able to come over and, for example, some Japanese department stores as well as Bloomingdales were represented by local purchasing offices, which took care of sourcing for them. Some business did get done, despite Covid,” said Maus.
It wasn’t just a matter of making initial contact, order books were also at the ready in many stands. While the retail trade as a whole in the Paris and Ile-de-France region is experiencing a very tough year, many businesses outside Paris benefited from a summer in which French people stayed in France, and spent part of the money they saved, because of lockdown, during their summer holidays. These businesses needed to replenish their stocks for the next season. Of course, the pandemic was at the heart of the conversations about the uncertainty on future health-protection measures, and the hit businesses have taken since the spring.
“We usually exhibit at Who’s Next,” said Ugo Amsallem, at the helm of ready-to-wear label Léo & Ugo. “We were quick off the blocks after the end of lockdown and we managed to put together a strong collection, which was well received. But now the sales campaign is over, and there aren’t many clients interested in our products, most people are keen on fast fashion. The show didn't live up to our expectations, unfortunately. On the other hand, on Friday morning I managed to exchange a few words with Minister [Griset] and explain our problems, notably the lack of support exporters receive, in comparison with our European competitors. It seemed to me he was listening,” said Amsallem.
Minister Griset did indeed spend some time at the Tuileries Gardens on Friday. “The fact that the minister whose job it is to make PMEs thrive did visit, and listened to the companies that have been struggling, and to those that are doing well, was significant,” said Maus. “The fashion industry has been heavily criticised in the last 10 years. But there are plenty of initiatives, plenty who are getting back on their feet and challenging themselves, and all of this shows our industry’s strength,” he added.
Many in the industry considered the Parisian show week-end proof of the fashion sector’s ability to bounce back. “In normal times, we have up to 20 people working in our stand at Who’s Next, and September is the month in which we do the most business,” said Karim Meflah, general manager of Parisian label La petite étoile. “This time, there were five of us in a small stand. But we played the trade show game, we presented a collection with a top ballet dancer during the event. This is quite a busy period for us, we work carefully with stocks. Clients can't see far ahead, so they're reassured by the fact they can tweak their orders on a weekly basis. Of course, the pace is far from normal. The most important thing though, is to get together, to talk with clients and with other labels. To keep moving. What we’re doing here is weathering the storm.”
With this in mind, Who’s Next is notably operating Vimeet, a virtual tool for facilitating meetings between buyers and exhibitors, for a whole month.
“Coming to the show was complicated for many brands in these difficult times, they weren’t sure whether it was going ahead,” said Maus. “For months, we kept saying that physical shows are crucial for bolstering the industry. And we’ve demonstrated that, if we say we’ll do something, it happens. Prospects are good for next year, because people are already asking us what the show format will be in 2021.”
“That's important, if we don’t put dates forward, we encourage brands to play a waiting game,” said Floch. “We at Man/Woman are going to work on the show format, but we’ll tell exhibitors that we’ll need a commitment and a down payment from them, for us to be able to stage the show next January. It's a way of giving visibility to the event, and forcing everybody to turn their minds to next season,” he added.
While the health situation clearly remains a question mark, the dates have already been set. Man will take place during the Paris Fashion Week Men, on January 19-24, and Who’s Next will be held on January 22-25.
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