More often than not, we imagine the fashion designers living in their ivory tower, and creating only for people of their kind. But fashion is a real business, deeply anchored in reality. Jean-Baptiste Truong tells us about it with great lucidity. After a Master’s degree from a Business School, he worked in New York with fashion buyers, then left the world of fashion for cosmetics, at MAC and Chanel. This year, he decided to go back to his first love, and entered the Institut Français de la Mode. According to Business of Fashion, this Parisian school is in the top 3 of the best fashion schools in the world!
What is the Institut Français de la Mode?
It’s a one year program that trains for jobs in fashion, design and luxury management. The Institut Français de la Mode is acknowledged worldwide, which allows us to have visits from prestigious speakers and to meet a lot of different inspiring people from all over the world. It’s global. We learn how to recognize fabrics, create selling spaces for luxury bbrands and deal with designers. I think that knowing how to handle an artist is one of the biggest challenge in a creative industry as they do not necessarily understand the economic stakes behind the brand.
What do you mean?
A brand with no solid business mindset to rely on will not last. Fashion brands are created every day, but which are the ones that last? And how do you remain on the fashion scene when you’ve been on the market for 30 years? However creative, creation become very complicated if you can’t manage to keep it in the spotlight. Our role is to make the designers understand that we don’t want to alter their creations, but that the brand must feed families. That’s why you can’t do just anything.
I think that we should also keep in mind that we’re working in a superficial field. It does not really matter if creativity is not at its peak, as long as the product works. That’s what makes the economy work! In today’s context, you cannot highly regard fashion when it is self-centred. Yes, it is beautiful, but we don’t work at Doctors Without Borders – we make handbags. It’s important to stay down-to-earth.
We always hear how retail is dead, and how the Internet is going to replace the shops, but that’s not true
Can you tell us about your master’s thesis?
I wrote a thesis about the relationship between fashion and spirituality. In religion, there are 3 main protagonists: the God, the ritual and the place where ceremonies are held. You can find the same organisation in the great fashion brands. The God is a designer, usually deceased, who has been raised to the rank of icon – Christian Dior or Coco Chanel. The paradox is that we completely forget about the negative aspects of their lives. For example, we forget that Coco Chanel had very controversial links with the Germans during the Occupation. We can only see the creative aura she brings to the brand.
The second thing is the ceremony that brings the community together: the fashion show. When you go to a fashion show, you don’t necessarily understand what is happening. We like it, we shut up, and we watch. Even if we don’t have all the codes we need to understand it. It’s sort of like attending a mass in Latin – you don’t understand a thing, but you know that you’re part of the community, and you can interpret it as you like.
And thirdly, the place of cult. Today, the luxury shop has become a place of experience. You’re not here to buy; you’re here for an encounter with the brand. In religion, the Church is the mediator between the people and God. That’s the thing with Colette in Paris. It’s the intermediary between the designers and the customer. When you enter a shop, you are cut off from the outside world.
Then the shop must always play a very important role!
We always hear how retail is dead, and how the Internet is going to replace the shops, but that’s not true. The big stake is to offer a particular customer experience, justifying the effort of going all the way to the shop. With the Internet, we are over-informed. 30 years ago, when you arrived in a Chanel shop, it made sense for the seller to explain the history of the brand. Today, the customer knows more about it than the seller!
The form of art as it used to be at some point no longer exists
You have to offer something completely different. So, OK, you know the history of the brand, but do you really have insight into our know-how? Do you know what our values are? Shops organise events, fashion shows for private customers, and workshops. Every Chanel and Dior shop has its own private showroom.
Most luxury shops also look like museums. Art is very present there. I’m thinking of the Hermès Lutetia, for instance.
Indeed, that’s also why the shop is a very creative and artistic place. From art that paid tribute to gods, we progressed into art for princes with Louis XIV, and then into art for art’s sake with Picasso or Van Gogh who wanted to go beyond these religious and aristocratic dimensions. These previous forms of art no longer exist. Today, it’s art for market’s sake. We realised that art is a product meant for consumption, just like everything else. The form of art as it used to be at some point no longer exists. Maybe we could go beyond that, and offer some form of art that is an art, a market and a product all at once.
Brands invest a lot of money in their shops. The artist Daniel Buren renovated a Louis Vuitton shop, and the architect Christian de Portzamparc designed the new Dior shop in Seoul. Beyond creation, the brands are also part of cultural patronage – the Cartier Foundation, the Louis Vuitton Foundation… The question is, is it just business, or are they real aesthetes?
I guess you have some ideas on the matter?
I think that it is a good vector of communication. Generosity calls for generosity. It’s important to show your customers that you’re altruistic, that you subsidise artists. It shows that you’re getting involved. Of course, it’s not the same thing for everyone, you have to take the interests into account.
If fashion were really art, brands would die along with their creator
Designers are creative people, so it sounds logical for them to be close to art and to draw their inspiration from art…
Sure. There’s also the fact that most designers come from Europe. In Europe, we’re traditionally very steeped in History of Art. That’s why we can find all these stories about art in fashion here. There are also exhibitions on fashion, retrospectives about fashion designers like Valentino or Alexander McQueen that took place recently at the V&A Museum. Artists are designers, and designers are artists.
But the fashion designers have season constraints, contrary to artists…
We’re going towards the see-now, buy-now process. You have to know what you want. We live in a world where there is so much consumption that we need to make choices. You can choose to focus on art, but the sales will be less important. If you consider fashion as an art, you’re not going to find the next Picasso. That brings us back to the aura of the mythical figure – if fashion were really art, brands would die along with their creator. But then, it depends on how you use that aura. What’s left of Balmain’s spirit with Olivier Rousteing? I really like his style, but still, it’s quite different from the original brand. We need to know today how he’s going to renew himself.
It’s important to have muses everywhere!
When you look at an artist’s work, you immediately recognise his style, his colours…
It’s really ambiguous, there’s no definitive answer to that. Managing to reinterpret codes is a form of art. Does Olivier Rousteing really reinterpret things? I have to admit that he is incredibly talented, and he moved the brand back up. Business-wise it is a success, but creatively speaking, wouldn’t Pierre Balmain have preferred his brand to die of its own death? We’ll never know. It’s just like Balenciaga, who closed his brand when he retired, because he didn’t want his name to be used again. In the end, it got reopened. Today, Demna Gvasalia’s and Vêtements’s involvement is an important change, and I can understand the reason for criticism.
Who are your muses?
I have a lot of inspirations, not necessarily in the world of fashion. I’m a big fan of Alexandre Vauthier, Alexis Mabille, Dries Van Noten, and Jacquemus. I’m not very conceptual, and I like it when it’s wearable. I love Christophe Michalak’s cooking, Xavier Veilhan and Damien Hirst – I know, it’s quite paradoxical – in Contemporary art. I also love tattoos. I think you have to see beyond fashion, draw your inspiration from everywhere, and be curious. It’s important to have muses everywhere!
Look at the world with your eyes wide-open, because fashion is everywhere, and not only rue Saint-Honoré!