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French New Wave: How Paris-Based Designers Reinterpret Couture as Sustainability

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

Back in early 2019 when Paris announced it's goal to become the world's sustainable fashion capital, I shrugged my shoulders. Living in Paris at this time, I was no stranger to the profound apathy towards even the most basic principles of reduce/reuse/recycle in Parisian culture, let alone the extremely wasteful Paris fashion industry. That being said, as I continued to discover more and more small label brands popping up on Instagram, I was quite surprised to see that some of the most dedicated sustainable fashion makers were Paris-based.

Yet, after some consideration, and also attending a Paris-based fashion school (sounds bougier than it actually was) which focused heavily on the French contribution to fashion, I began to realize that the way so many of these French sustainable brands operate is actually quite true to the core of the Parisian couture industry. After all, small-batch, locally crafted and made-to-order were all key concepts of the French couture industry, and have since begun to be applied to small-scale fashion production.

"I began to realize that the way so many of these French sustainable brands operate is actually quite true to the core of the Parisian couture industry."

1951 Dior Show (Getty) ft. Excess Only

At the core of both the couture industry at its peak in the 1950s, as well as many of these French sustainable brands is local production, but for different reasons. Any vintage fashion magazine will absolutely gloat to you about the "inherent" value of French fashion production, and how its quality is unrivalled. And while this may have been true for the era, considering fashion production was a little more difficult back then, today's French brands are localizing for a different reason: to cut emissions.

One thing we don't often think about when it comes to the cost of our clothes on the environment is the emissions created by moving these pieces around the globe during the manufacturing process. I mean it's pretty simple when you think about it, obviously it's going to create a lot more carbon to transport a garment from country to country as it's transformed from a piece of fabric to a dress, than if deadstock fabric is picked up by a designer down the street, walked to their studio, and shot in their backyard upon completion. Local production is a pillar within Paris-based brand Excess Only's ethos for this very reason as the brand states that they "find the best manufacturers as close as possible to each fabric source to minimize our carbon footprint and support our local industry". For this modern brand, localized production is rooted in a modern problem, as opposed to the ever-so-French prestige of the couture industry.

First NYFW 1943 ft. MaisonCléo (ft. Carmel Snow)

Localized production sits at the heart of other sustainable French brands like Miaou or Vogue favourite MaisonCléo for the same reasons. In addition to manufacturing all their pieces in their own home studio à la maison couturier, the mother-daughter duo behind MaisonCléo also produce in small batches, and make many of their products to order. The brand offers custom sizing, which is a bit of a contemporary take on the bespoke tailoring of couture, but is also an ethical adaptation of fashion. First and foremost, this process allows for extended sizing, dressing women of all body types in their sweet and spicy blouses in a world where finding trendy plus-size fashion is near impossible. In addition, made-to-order sizing and small batches ensure that nothing goes to waste. This means that excessive production isn't landing countless garments in landfills overseas, a growing issue that so many North Americans and Europeans are blind to.

"The brand offers custom sizing, which is a bit of a contemporary take on the bespoke tailoring of couture, but is also an ethical adaptation of fashion."

Luckily for us, these new sustainable French labels are also combatting other issues that the couture industry has never touched on, or even directly imposed upon the world. Miaou, for example, focuses much of its sustainability efforts on limiting waste through recycled textiles and repurposing old garments. The brand provides tangible facts on the textiles that they use, which is a huge plus when it comes to determining whether or not brands are actually sustainable. Plus, Miaou works to repurpose, or directly resell their own archival product in order to prevent waste. This is great news for those of us who remember the 2018 scandal that was major brands destroying and burning old merchandise as not to sell it discounted, creating a TON of waste in the process. While this wasn't an issue of 1950s couture per-sé, it certainly was a symptom of the exclusivity of couture fashion that has become so baked into fashion culture dating back to the golden era.

1947 Dior Show (New Look included) ft. Miaou

Oh, and speaking of exclusivity, let's talk accessibility. Couture is not accessible. Period. It isn't technically supposed to be. And we can't really have a global movement towards more sustainable fashion if said fashion is not accessible. Luckily, this central commandement of couture fashion is one that isn't being reinterpreted by sustainable brands of today. While their price points aren't exactly universally accessible, all three do acknowledge this and strive to maintain a price point that many can afford. Besides, as per The Fashion Law's recent article, it's time we start reconsidering what we should be paying for fashion when we bring ethics into account.

Evidently, these production practices are coming from a bit more of an ethical place today than the similar practices of the famously snobby couture industry. That being said, the mirroring between these two models serves as a reminder that slow fashion, in some respect, has existed in the fashion world and can again if we're willing to embrace it. So while maybe the French don't necessarily seem to greet the crunchy, granola image of sustainability with open arms, responsible fashion through the lens of couture could be a well-adapted way to bring better production to high fashion, for a more responsible future.

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