Over coffee at the Pasticceria Marchesi, aperitivi at the Armani hotel’s rooftop bar and spaghetti carbonara at the cult restaurant La Latteria, fashion’s top brass have gathered to gossip, network and peacock ahead of Milan fashion week kicking off on Wednesday.
In Paris, where the shows are still over a week away, the vast marquees needed to house 1,000-strong audiences are being built, and seating plans painstakingly drawn up and feverishly amended. Industrial quantities of champagne are being put on ice.
Will this season be deemed très chic – or molto elegante? The battle is on to be the fashion capital of Europe – and, with post-Brexit London losing its edge, the contest is a two-horse race between Paris and Milan.
The stakes have never been higher. In an unstable world economy, fashion is proving to be a lucrative game, and the years since the pandemic have been blockbuster ones for the industry, with 95% of luxury brands increasing profits in 2022, according to a Bain & Company report.
In 2022, according to the Business of Fashion website, Louis Vuitton had an estimated profit margin above 50% (Apple, the most valuable company in the world, had a profit margin of about 30%). Bernard Arnault, the chief executive of the luxury titan LVMH, which owns Dior and Tiffany, overtook Tesla’s Elon Musk as the richest person on Earth.
Milan is abuzz, with the two hottest designer debuts of the season to be staged within 24 hours of each other this week. The Tom Ford brand enters its post-Ford era on Thursday evening, with the first collection since the founder stepped back from design duties. His longtime studio right hand, Peter Hawkings, will take a bow in a show seen as crucial in determining whether the house can survive Ford’s exit. On Friday, Sabato de Sarno makes his debut at Gucci. De Sarno is expected to steer Gucci, a giant of Italian fashion, out of the gender-fluid kooky maximalism it has most recently stood for and towards classic luxury – and, crucially for the bottom line, must-have shoes and handbags.
But Paris, where fashion week stretches to a nine-day extravaganza, is likely to trump Milan for sheer star power. A knock-on effect of the Hollywood writers’ strike looks set to be to pack Paris fashion week with celebrities. Actors who cannot make or promote films can take on non-entertainment jobs, such as modelling and “ambassador” roles for luxury brands. The front row offers spotlight opportunities while red carpets and chatshows are dark.
Expect to see Zendaya, whose schedule has opened up following the postponed release of the tennis film Challengers, in attendance at Louis Vuitton, for whom she stars in a new handbag campaign. Margot Robbie, fresh from her triumphant summer of Barbie, is a likely guest of honour at Chanel. The catwalk glamour will not be restricted behind closed doors: on 1 October, at a L’Oreal Paris fashion show beneath the Eiffel Tower the actors Helen Mirren and Andie MacDowell will join the model Kendall Jenner and singer Camila Cabello on the catwalk, in an event billed as a “spectacular tribute to women’s empowerment” that will be streamed – naturally – live on Instagram.
Paris is in buoyant mood, with the 2024 Olympics seen as an opportunity for the City of Light to dazzle the world, and fashion closely embedded in the heart of the Paris brand. “The beauty of the city and its culture adds to the myth of Parisian style,” says designer Jeanne Damas, the creative director of the Rouje label and a fixture on French best-dressed lists. LVMH will be a headline sponsor of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Louis Vuitton, Dior and Berluti are thought to be among the brands in discussion to create branded uniforms for Olympians.
Paris has confidence in itself as fashion’s centre of gravity – and it shows, at street level. The Louis Vuitton flagship store on Place Vendôme features a golden sun streaming spiralling metal rays over the entire facade of a store the size of a city block, while Dior’s Avenue Montaigne palace features its own museum. These stores are hugely costly, but have proved to be a worthwhile investment as a way of convincing shoppers that key French brands have more intrinsic value than other names.
Milan may be the underdog in this fight, but it is in the ascendant. “Milan fashion week can be summed up by four words: sophisticated, chic, elevated and authentic,” Roopal Patel, senior vice-president of the US department store Saks, said of last season’s shows. Carlo Capasa, the president of Italy’s Camera della Moda, estimates that this fashion week will generate more than €80m (£69m) for restaurants, transportation, hotels and other services, a significant step up from the €70m generated in February. This year’s trend for “quiet luxury” – neutral-toned cashmere, and logo-less but expensive baseball caps – plays to traditional strengths, and has turned heritage brands such as Brunello Cucinelli and Loro Piana into cult names.
Amid all this, what of London?
The British capital’s fashion week just cannot seem to catch a break. The cancellation of almost an entire season of catwalk shows last autumn following the death of Queen Elizabeth was one of a series of blows. The luxury boom has concentrated power in the hands of the major conglomerates: bad news for London, where, Burberry aside, the roster is filled with talented independent designers struggling to stay afloat in the winner-takes-all world of luxury.
Brexit has not only caused recruitment headaches but has altered the mood music of the UK capital, making London a less aspirational brand on the world stage. When Victoria Beckham, a major draw at London fashion week, moved her catwalk to Paris last year, she shrugged: “London is my home, but Paris is the dream.” The business woes of Christopher Kane, the highly talented Scottish-born, London-based designer who was a protege of Donatella Versace in the early 2000s, reflect a tough environment. Kane last month purchased the assets and intellectual property of his label after the company filed for administration.
But there are glimmers of hope. Last week’s London fashion week kicked off with a massive dose of star power courtesy of Vogue World, an all-star theatrical extravaganza masterminded by Anna Wintour and directed by Stephen Daldry that brought together Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Emily Ratajkowski, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista.
British prestige is hoping for a further boost from the cult designer Phoebe Philo, absent from the scene since leaving her last post at Céline five years ago. Philo is expected to announce her return to the industry this month with a design studio based in London, where she lives with her family.
Possibilities abound, too, for Alexander McQueen, which has just parted ways with Sarah Burton, the designer of the Princess of Wales’s wedding dress. One possibility is for a creative director who would lean into the distinctively London heritage of a brand where founder Lee McQueen staged catwalks in locations around the city. They included Bagley’s nightclub in then-seedy King’s Cross, Borough fruit market, and the lawn of the Natural History Museum.
In an industry where change is the one constant, it would be foolish to write off London. In 1993, critics were writing the city off as a “fashion wasteland”; two years later, McQueen’s Highland Rape collection caught the attention of the world, and London fashion week became a hot ticket.
Sarah Mower, Vogue’s chief critic and guest curator of the exhibition Rebel: 30 Years of London Fashion, which has just opened at the Design Museum in the city, describes the current climate as “really tough times”, but predicts a bright future for the capital. “Creativity,” she says, “is a superpower of this country.”