The global fashion industry is grappling with a crisis fueled by high inflation and Russia's invasion of Ukraine. France's pret-a-porter sector is no exception.
Even as French luxury labels such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton continue to churn out profits, many midrange brands have been forced to enter bankruptcy proceedings. Except for those with innovative approaches.
Insolvent brands include shoemaker Andre and women's fashion labels Camaieu and Kookai.
"Our company used to be incredibly successful and we had about 300 retailers in ten countries," Kookai's marketing director Jennifer Cohen Solal told DW.
"But after the French group Vivarte bought the company in 1996, things started to go downhill — our clients gradually withdrew their love," she said.
Vivarte downsized the company's business to three countries — France, Spain and Switzerland — and stopped investing in the remaining 120 stores.
When Australia's Magi purchased the brand in 2017, one restructuring plan had already been implemented. A second one was to follow in 2021.
"Our frail financial health was the reason why banks then rejected our two demands for government-backed emergency loans after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic," Cohen Solal recalled. Kookai entered insolvency proceedings in February this year.
Hit by multiple crises
But Philippe Moati says today's high inflation and sinking purchasing power are just the final straw for many midrange pret-a-porter chains. He's a professor of economics at the Paris Cite University and founder of the Paris-based market research company ObSoCo.
"France's midrange fashion labels have suffered from multiple crises," he told DW.
"The monthslong yellow vest protests for more social justice from November 2018 meant many customers didn't feel like going shopping and more recently, weekslong lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic aggravated the chains' cash-flow problems," he said.
"What's more, France has too much shop floor — the market is saturated — and since 2017, sales are allowed all year round, which has amplified competition," Moati noted.
He added that websites selling secondhand clothes such as the Lithuanian platform Vinted were putting the sector under further pressure.
Tough competition from fast fashion
And yet, France's midrange pret-a-porter sector did have a golden age, Gildas Minvielle, director of the Economic Observatory at Paris-based fashion school Institut Francais de la Mode, recalled.
"These stores outpaced small boutiques in the 1980s and had a very successful period until 2010, even 2015," he told DW.
But now, the sector is also having to cope with so-called fast fashion brands — extremely cheap and continuously updated clothes.
"The Chinese company Shein is particularly tough competition — this pure player with only an online presence sells all sizes including very small and very big ones," Minvielle explained.
Just like luxury brands, very cheap clothes remain popular. That particularly worries Minvielle.
"Every purchase has an impact and young people should be aware of how polluting fast fashion is," he said.
The fast fashion sector is sparking environmental and ethical concerns for using a high amount of resources and producing under dubious labor conditions.
'The market is shrinking'
Since the beginning of the pandemic, which instituted working from home in the business world, people bother even less about what they wear, reckons Michel Resseguier, a fashion industry veteran.
"In 2019, people were no longer sporting a tie at the office but still wearing a formal shirt — now, they are working from home in a t-shirt," he told DW.
The expert says the trend towards more casual clothing at work started around the year 2000 when US technology giant Apple's Steve Jobs, who died from cancer in 2011, started addressing press conferences in sneakers and turtlenecks.
"Brands in this segment need to accept that the overall market is shrinking," underlined Resseguier.
But he also sees a silver lining — something he's trying to attain with the female fashion brand Paprika he's currently working with.
"Brands can survive if they go back to their raison d'etre," he said. "We are giving employees and local managers on the shop floor more power and responsibility as they understand the client's needs and know how to recreate a bond with them."
Innovative concepts to brave the storm
Some brands are performing well despite multiple crises — through innovative concepts, as Yann Rivoallan, head of the Paris-based Federation of Female Pret-a-Porter, says.
"Companies such as Loom or Bonne Guele are successful with their sustainably produced clothes," he told DW. "Chains that are being creative and have crafted a good image online have also been doing well."
A large network of stores can also be a positive factor.
"Brands can, for example, use hybrid models where customers reserve goods online to pick them up at a certain store. Or they can organize promotional events in their shops," Rivoallan explained.
That's exactly what Kookai's Cohen Solal has in mind.
"We want to boost our e-commerce — but only for it to reach 15% of our turnover," she said.
"A higher e-commerce share wouldn't be reasonable, as online publicity has become incredibly expensive since the introduction of the GDPR data protection rules in 2018, which means we can no longer rely on cookies but have to buy ads," she said, referring to the European Union laws on data protection and privacy.
"And we will strengthen our social media presence to focus back on our core clients — women who are between 25 and 35 years old," Cohen Solal added.