Catwalk circus is killing design, says French fashion boss

By Susannah Frankel
Thursday 15 January 2004 01:00

One of the leading figures in French fashion has called for a radical overhaul of the system of showing ready-to-wear collections, in a bid to curb cheap high street copies of designer creations.

Didier Grumbach, president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, the body that governs French fashion, said the current method of showing collections six months before they are due in stores is nothing short of "collective suicide". M. Grumbach's proposal is to stage private shows for buyers and a separate media display once the designs are ready to go into stores.

It is no secret that copies of garments seen on the catwalk make it onto the high street before the originals that inspire them have been wrapped in tissue paper and shipped for sale. "That is really embarrassing," M. Grumbach said. "Not only do they deliver faster, but it's 10 times cheaper and eventually nobody knows who invented the product any more because the copycat delivers ahead of the inventor."

The current system dictates that the autumn/winter season - which goes on sale in August - is shown in March, and that spring/summer - available from January - is unveiled in October. As well as giving designers time to sell and produce their collections, this also fits in well with the fashion glossies which carry both fashion advertising and editorial and have lead times of up to three months.

This system, according to M. Grumbach, is archaic and has failed to keep abreast of technological advances., American Vogue's website, is well-known for posting photographs of most collections the day after they have been shown. Many designers themselves also now choose to show live on the internet. "We are the only industry to send out global innovations on the internet for free," M. Grumbach said.

Until the beginning of the 1990s, the fashion show was still, for the most part, an elitist affair. The use of cameras was prohibited by all but the accredited few. Today, show attendance levels have rocketed from no more than a few hundred to, at times, more than 2,000. Images from the shows are regularly featured in national newspapers. The requisite television crews equally ensure that a collection can be seen from start to finish by millions only hours after it has taken place. The internet, in particular, provides design blueprints for any high street chain worth its fashion credentials. They would no doubt protest that their collections are "inspired by" the catwalk rather than copied from it.

Not everyone is worried. "I don't think it's such a terrible thing for me," Sophia Kokosalaki, one of London's most feted designers, said. "The quality is always less good and, in my case, the copies tend to come out a season later." Kokosalaki, incidentally, also produces a scaled-down collection for high street chain Topshop. Coco Chanel famously sold her designs to the high-street chain Wallis in order both to ensure quality control and profit from any plagiarism of her work. Today at least one major brand is known to be selling patterns to a prominent high street chain on a seasonal basis, on the understanding that the chain releases garments after the original has had an impact in stores.

Kokosalaki acknowledged, however, that for a designer such as the American Marc Jacobs, whose designs are copied immediately after they hit the catwalk, the situation might be more problematic.

M. Grumbach admitted his solution was controversial. "Of course [the system] is not going to change overnight. To tell you the truth, I don't know when it will change. But I can promise you it will happen."

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