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Where Does French Fashion Go after Haute Couture?

The world’s oldest department store is stoking interest in artisanal fashion with a new exhibit.

Until October 15th, Le Bon Marché in Paris — the world’s oldest department store, founded in 1852 — is showcasing one hundred artisanal Paris-based clothing, jewelry, beauty, and stationery labels. Curated by Le Bon Marché’s style director, Jennifer Cullvier, and complemented by Christine Taconnet’s book Made in Paris, as a guide to Parisian artisanal ware, the LVMH-owned department store discovered nearly 8,000 independent fashion designers in all parts of the French capital, choosing one hundred of them to showcase in their annual exhibit. (Last year’s exhibit focused on Brooklyn-inspired fashion.)

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Offerings from Le Bon Marché's Paris exhibition.

"We spent days, weeks in our city, trying to discover new brands," Cullvier told me recently, "and while many you cannot see from the street, behind hidden doors we discovered beautiful ateliers, beautiful spaces."

Artisanal design houses — or fashion created by a single, independent designer — have been popping up all over the French capital, especially in less august neighborhoods, from Château Rouge to Barbès to Montorgueil, where rents are cheaper and fashion designers, like painters and writers, can afford to work in relative obscurity before sharing their vision with the world.

As more and more people have been leaving their jobs to dabble in design, the number of independent designers reached a critical mass and department stores began to take notice.

"A lot of these people were doing another job before," Cullvier said, "as bankers, in the law, and they exchanged that for more creative activities: to be designers, creative directors. In the end it became almost a joke; we’d ask, ‘what was your job before?’ and it was almost always some office work."

The selected brands — including Maison Château Rouge (minimalist streetwear: skirts and tops cut out of wax fabrics), Louise Damas (jewelry inspired by female literary characters), Aurélie Chadaine (eco-friendly leathers: bags, shoe fringes applied with vegetable tannings), Body & Clyde (lingerie bodysuits), Esquisse (laser-cut panties) — have been plucked from their relative obscurity and placed in bas-relief at Le Bon Marché in Paris’ seventh arrondissement alongside many of the store’s permanent collection of brands.

Christian Louboutin, Chloé, Jérôme Dreyfuss, Balenciaga, Dries Van Noten, Stella McCartney, and Baccarat, among others, have created exclusive items, which they’re calling "capsules," for the exhibit, including a black Balenciaga dress à la Édith Piaf, Baccarat crystal glassware with engraved images of Paris, and a starry Dries van Noten top that’s "inspired by Paris at night."

Upon entering the multi-floor exhibit in Le Bon Marché, one quickly sees a stark difference between the typical luxury wares of the established brands and the sketched visions of the artisanal design-wear on show. But this diversification is a particularly welcome sight, and a rare one at that.

In many ways, department store exposure is a coup for independent artisans. In the case of Le Bon Marché, designers are gaining free publicity and space in one of the globe’s most frequented stores; they’re able to make money to hire new people and expand their vision; perhaps a few will even break out and get purchased by Richemont or LVMH.

And yet, one must ask what is lost when independent craftsmanship is put within the context of a department store?

Firstly, because artisanal designers require exposure for financial success, department stores need not pay exorbitant fees to gain access to the newest and brightest creative minds; they need only offer them window space. The trouble is that this window space, while financially vital to an artisan, has the potential to soften the potency of the designer’s vision — the very attribute that made that designer interesting to the department in the first place.

"In department stores, there’s more potential for diluting artisanal brand identity," Hazel Clark, the research chair of fashion at the Parsons School of Design in New York, told me recently.

But before the pitchforks come out against department stores and what they might mean for the fate of emerging independent fashion, it would be wise to look back at what today’s artisanal designers are trying to accomplish — namely, a reinvigoration of the same spirit that drove haute couture — and how department stores might help facilitate it.

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Images by Foc Kan/Getty.


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