Literature on French textile industry highlight a long decline and the low weight of the sector in national industry. For a couple of years now, the textile sector in France has shown its survivor instinct, an observation that can also be said for Spain (Santos-Roldán et al., 2020). However in truth, the French textile industry has actually been experiencing a long and slow decline since the ninetieth century. This new crisis has only served to further accelerate that decline.
Textiles have long been a strong French specialization. From 1835 to 1844, textiles (including clothing and fabric works) represented 42% of industry added value. Silk, wool and cotton fabrics with varying quality levels, were the principal exports in French international trade (Becuwe & Blancheton, 2020). From the mid-ninetieth century, clothing emerged as a new area of French expertise made possible by Paris’ global reach (Becuwe et al., 2018). In 1858 Charles Frederick Worth created the first true fashion house in Paris. In the years to come, Gustave Beer (1886), Callot Soeurs (1895), Coco Chanel (1906), Madeleine Vionnet (1912) and Jean Patou (1912) would follow suite, creating famous brands and building Paris’ reputation as a fashion capital. Clothing export unit values increased significantly. Shortly after WWI, silk fabrics enjoyed a short stint as the number one French export, representing 12% of total exports in 1919 (Tableau Général du commerce de la France). However, from 1935 to 1938, the textile industry’s added value dropped to 23% (Becuwe & Blancheton, 2020). Christian Dior (1946) and Yves Saint-Laurent (1961) amongst other designers, brought new life to French fashion and further reinforced Paris’ status as a fashion capital of the world. However, not even their positive influences were able to counteract the clear decline of the textile industry in France.
The second phase of modern globalization was fatal to the French textile industry as it was unable to compete with emerging foreign market prices. At the end of the 1980s, French producers were already noncompetitive in capital-intensive activities and low-cost products (Battiau, 1991). The ratio of investment to sales was not high enough, and it was difficult for French manufacturers to adapt to new trends appearing in global clothing markets. By the 1990s, a large gap in income had started to surface between the knitted fabrics industry in competition with emerging markets and the manufacturing of high-end clothing which was prospering, particularly wool combing and sewing-thread manufacturing. Innovation and quality became the only ways to survive during this phase.
In 2018, according to INSEE, textiles represent only 2% of added value in the manufacturing industry. Over the last twenty-five years, it has lost two thirds of its workforce and more than half of its production. France is now massively importing "textile" products, especially clothes and shoes, half of which come from Asia and a third from Europe. Since 2008, fashion and textile consumption has fallen from year to year (except 2017 (+0.6%)). Recorded sales were only € 29.3 billion in 2018.
French manufacturers can be found all across the country, though certain regions have richer histories than others and are therefore more deeply rooted and woven into the regional industry fabric (Normandie, Vosges, Drôme, Rhône, Nord…). Combining the efforts of these manufacturing regions does not yield significant positive results (Hlady-Rispal & Blancheton, 2020) however each region has its own distinctive value proposition based on its local heritage.
Composition and organization of textile industry in France
According to the French National Statistics Organization (INSEE), the value of textile production amounted to € 16.4 billion in 2015. Five categories of products made up two-thirds of production: clothing (19%), leather goods (18%), made-up textile articles excluding clothing (10%), "technical and industrial textiles" (9%) and fabrics (8%). Traditional products, typical of high-end expertise such as leather goods, rub shoulders with the “technical and industrial textiles” category which consists of high-tech industrial products such as reinforced and ultra-resistant textiles used in the aeronautical and automotive industries. According to the French Textile Industry Union website “l’Union des Industries Textiles”, France’s textile industry was made up of 2164 companies in 2018, employing 61,296 people with an annual turnover of approximately € 13.6 billion.
French production is mainly organized around large companies of 200 or more employees, especially multinationals (Table 1). These groups specialize in the production of luxury items or textiles with high added value such as technical textiles used in the aeronautical and automotive industries (examples: Petit-Bateau in Troyes or Aigle International in Vienne). In regard to clothing the little industrial activity remaining in France is mainly that of industrial contractors and foreign subcontractors. In 2018 French textile exports represented € 9.4 billion (exports of goods € 491 billion) and imports € 16.9 billion (imports of goods € 551 billion). China remains the main source of textile imports for France followed by Bangladesh and Italy (Blancheton & Chhorn, 2019).
The COVID-19 crisis has started a debate on de-globalization and reshoring France’s strategic sectors. In France, politicians mourn the days of national dependence in certain sectors (health, chemistry, etc.). The definition on what constitutes a strategic sector depends largely on context. Today, defense activities, energy, health, food, big data and communication are considered crucial. An economy must be evenly diversified in order to be able to absorb shocks; this is achieved by rapidly reorganizing production to keep it stable. Sectors must also be intelligible and flexible. Textile is part of both a traditional industry and the old economy. On this basis, relocating textile production back onto French soil cannot be considered as a realistic option. An international labor force and a complex value chain (Bruce et al., 2004) are not compatible with a textile that is fully made-in-France. A company approach with this mission (CSR 100% made-in-France) just seems to be a niche strategy like “le Slip Français” (men’s underwear) case. Fashion needs extensive product ranges and low-cost stock in order to satisfy local demand.
Reshoring is not a panacea in terms of national job creation (Mouhoud El Mouhoub, 2017) and activity. Mouhoud El Mouhoub shows that industrial reshoring is generally capital intensive (robots, machines). Reshoring cannot be considered as a realistic solution to fight unemployment in France.
An asphyxiated sector during the COVID-19 global health crisis
Due to the government decision, during the strict lockdown in France (March 17th to May 11th, 2020), French textile production was almost completely stopped. By May production levels had fallen to as low as 20–30% of normal figures. Textile companies that supply the tourism sector, aeronautical and automotive industries have been severely impacted with the only continuing production being that for healthcare. According to the president of “l’Union des industries textiles” Yves Dubief, “to tell the truth, the sector is only surviving thanks to the fabrication of masks”. Companies’ motivations were ethical and economic. In 2 months, the textile industry has gone from zero to between 4 and 5 million units produced per day. Far from stopping, this production must be maintained until long after the end of the crisis. Also, according to Yves Dubief, throughout France, the manufacturing of masks safeguards more than 10,000 jobs. Proximity delivery times are strictly adhered to. French companies use recyclable fabric and guarantee sanitary tracking as well as a price per unit (average production cost between € 0.15–0.20). In June, the French administration continues to order masks and an overproduction is rapidly appearing. A sizable amount of the population prefers low cost masks from China.
According to INSEE textile consumption, French textile sales have tumbled to as low as 15% over the last 10 years. A secondary market on-line has been established in fashion (Vinted, Le bon coin, etc.). In retail, market structure is very atomistic and brands are fragile. In accordance with industry experts, postponed summer sales (from July 15th to August 11th) however were still not successful.
COVID-19 is accelerating the difficulties of several big names in entry-level fashion, such as Célio, Naf Naf, Chipie, Catimini, Kenzo Kid, La Halle or Camaïeu. In 2020, national press describes regularly that employment in the sector is about to pay a heavy price.
In June 2020, Celio, leader of the male market in France, asked the commercial court of Bobigny to be placed on the bankruptcy watchlist. The chain founded in 1978 by Laurent and Marc Grosman, employs more than 4000 people worldwide and has 488 shops in France. They explained that like other competitors, they are facing a severe cash crisis and therefore can’t get credit.
Placed in receivership, Naf Naf was recently taken over by its supplier, Sy, a Turkish group, in June, which has retained 75% of its employees. The Bobigny Commercial Court ordered the Naf Naf bankruptcy, 2 years after its acquisition by a consortium of investors led by Chinese group La Chapelle, in Vivarte. This group has been engaged for several years in an asset disposal and restructuring plan without much success.
Camaïeu was placed in receivership in May 2020. In August, the Court of Lille authorized the takeover project carried out by FIB (Foncière Immobilière Bordelaise), FIB plans to keep 511 of the 634 stores and 2659 of the 3146 employees of the group.
La Halle, an active brand in both clothing and footwear, which employs more than 6000 people in France and remains the property of Vivarte, has been on the bankruptcy watchlist since April.
Damart, a clothing brand specializing in warm and comfortable under garments (head office in Lille, Nord), is cutting its workforce by 10% in order to restore profitability.
The sector will emerge from the crisis weakened. Mid-range brands have experienced the most difficulty during COVID-19. This crisis has revealed structural fragilities in terms of margin in a society with a shrinking middle class. Luxury brands have also suffered from the absence of foreign consumers during the summer holidays. Only smaller brands with loyal customers and shops providing personal touch services such as makeovers, have succeeded in overcoming the crisis.
Behind the masks: ethics and corporate responsibility during the COVID-19 crisis. Case study
Mask production involves major issues like innovation, ethics and fashion. It can be considered as a case study useful in the analysis of textile challenges.
During lockdown, roughly 400 French companies manufactured masks. This production made it possible for the fashion and textile disaster-stricken sector to maintain minimal activity. Mask-making undertaken by numerous players in the industry has brought to light several revelations concerning their corporate responsibility and attitude to innovation. Some companies have produced masks, others have even gone as far as marketing them.
French luxury groups such as LVMH, Kering, Chanel and Hermès were active during the COVID-19 outbreak to help battle the spread of the virus. They announced that they would continue to pay their employees’ wages during the pandemic to spare the cost to the nation. In addition they also stated that they would grant financial aid to hospitals and launch clothing workshops to aid in the production of masks and gowns.
These groups decided not to take advantage of government aid payments and instead pick up the tab themselves. According to Chanel’s end of March official press release: “The goal is to not put pressure on the public purse, so that the French State can focus on helping more vulnerable businesses”. To further help combat the virus, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior Couture, Loewe, Celine and Kenzo have all either been producing large quantities of alternative non-surgical face masks and hospital gowns or supporting their production and subsequent distribution.
With hospitals around the world facing shortages of materials and equipment, the private sector has quickly stepped up in the fight against COVID-19. Teams from both Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior have been working away for several weeks now after repurposing their production workshops in order to make non-surgical face masks for the general public. Christian Dior reopened its Redon workshop (IIle-et-Vilaine), which normally is purposed with producing their line of Baby Dior clothes. Volunteer workers produce personal protective equipment that is imperative to halting the transmission of the virus. Masks are distributed first to workers in contact with the general public in order to keep the country’s essential services running, these include supermarket cashiers, retailers and employees in government services. Christian Dior Couture is extremely proud of the strong sense of solidarity among its teams, without whom this initiative would never have been possible.
Louis Vuitton has geared up several of its French workshops to make large quantities of officially certified non-surgical face masks. Over 300 leatherworkers have been mobilized at twelve Louis Vuitton workshops around France: Marsaz and Saint-Donat (Drôme), Condé (Indre), Saint-Pourçain (Allier), Ducey (Manche) and Sainte-Florence (Vendée). The masks are being made in partnership with “Mode Grand Ouest”, a grouping of regional textile businesses, that is providing one of the key materials for production. These masks are also being distributed to the country’s most vulnerable, including, for example, the Marpa nursing home for seniors. In addition, Louis Vuitton is making gowns for frontline hospital workers in Paris, who are facing a serious shortage of personal protective clothing. The gowns are being made by volunteers at a workshop near Louis Vuitton headquarters in Paris.
Luxury groups have been exemplary in terms of corporate responsibility during the crisis.
During the crisis, certain lesser known manufacturers also decided to enter the face mask market. For example, Innovatex (Vendée), specialized in fabricating windsocks primarily used at airports to show direction and strength of wind, decided to create a mask designed for health professionals. They advocate the advantages of a mask that doesn’t fog up glasses and "keeps the nose and surrounding areas dry". Their masks feature an interior lining that drains water vapor and are made from 100% polyester that’s capable of withstanding high temperatures. The local designer opted for sublimation rather than print to avoid clogging the material with ink deposits therefore inhibiting its filtering ability. The price is set at 13€. Chantelle in Cachan (Paris) decided to reorganize their workshops in order to produce masks (category 1 and 2, reusable, for non-sanitary use). They meet AFNOR manufacturing standards and have been validated by the French Defense Procurement Agency. Each week, 500,000 masks are fabricated in their factories for the French group which currently has five separate brands: Chantelle, Passionata, Chantal Thomass, Femilet and Livera.
Mask-making appears also as a crucible for innovation in: lightness, technical fabrics, advancements in antiviral protection, improvements in breathing conditions… We can quote Géochanvre (Vosges): “we want to develop a mask made from natural hemp fibers that’s vegetable-based, organic and compostable”. Certain companies offer masks with a transparent view of the mouth as a solution for the deaf. In the Rhône region, Trajet-Aunde has developed fabrics that have the ability to self-disinfect without the need for a disinfectant. To achieve such a result, the textiles undergo a treatment based on titanium dioxide. In Isère, Serge Ferrari company invented a fabric with silver particles able to destroyed 99.5% of coronavirus in 1 h.
In the May 2020 edition of Vogue magazine, an article titled “Cloth Masks Available for Purchase” was published. Experts and trend forecasters are increasingly suggesting that masks may need to be worn for at least a year, until a vaccine is developed. During the spring of 2020, reports of new companies that were manufacturing masks or pivoting to offer them were frequent. During summer when mask wearing became compulsory in enclosed spaces (and some streets), masks became trendy and grew to be a part of daily life, donned by all with the same air of unconscious acceptance like a coat or sunglasses when leaving the house.
Depending on company values and beliefs regarding corporate responsibility, some businesses have decided to get involved in the mask-making trade and some have not. Before the coronavirus pandemic even began, masks had already been introduced into fashion collections. For example, those conceived by Marc Jacobs and Richard Prince for Louis Vuitton, those of Rick Owens and Alexander Wang, are all completely out of stock (now being sold for 3 times the price on resale websites). With exception to rappers, celebrities have not hesitated to don their masks on the red carpet, as seen by high profile stars such as Billie Eilish, Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande.
Due to COVID-19, masks and fashion have come together again, but not all for the same reasons. While several brands have helped to fight against the coronavirus, either by making masks for caregivers, or by passing on their profits to hospitals in France, now more and more designers are embarking on the creation of fashionable masks. The principal is to help people find masks, protect themselves from the virus, while bringing themselves a little cheerfulness. So, is the mask a new fashion accessory to shop for until the end of lockdown? Cheaper than those of the brand Off-White, there are, for example, those of Pierre Talamon, a tailor in Paris selling them for €15 each. He thinks that masks are becoming a fashion accessory.
On the large luxury house side, there is complete silence on the subject of masks in fashion. Those who before lockdown had lent themselves to the trend of masks seem no longer to appreciate this ‘accessory’ as much, its connotation having changed since the pandemic. From their perspective now it would be inappropriate and vulgar to promote masks as fashion accessories. The mask is an object designed solely for one’s safety, one that shouldn’t be fooled with or invite delusions of grandeur.