Xavier Romatet, dean of IFM, on building a world-class fashion school in Paris
Nov 5, 2019
They have a dream, do the CEOs of French fashion.
One of the enduring mysteries of French fashion is why Paris, widely acknowledged as the world’s leading fashion capital, has never had a truly great global powerhouse fashion school to match.
If one were to classify the 50 greatest women’s runway shows in the world each season more than half of them would be staged in Paris, but barely a handful of those collections will have been designed by creative directors educated in the French capital. Instead of leading in fashion education, Paris has historically dawdled badly behind its greatest rivals. Though that seems very likely to change and rather quickly, thanks to a major new project launched in Paris named the Institut Française de la Mode, or IFM, which began receiving its first pupils this fall.
The IFM is in effect a fusion of the existing IFM, a reputable fashion business school founded by Pierre Bergé in 1986; and the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, a college created back in 1927 that focused on the technical aspect of creation from haute couture skills to pattern cutting.
“Paris is one of the great capitals of fashion, in some ways the most important one. Yet when it comes to fashion education we lag behind. Our goal is to build a unique multi-disciplinary school, the first anywhere to include three key elements - management, savoir faire and creation,” explains Xavier Romatet, who became the dean of IFM this summer.
A highly experienced fashion insider, Romatet knows the industry rather well. His previous position for 12 years was as CEO of Condé Nast France, overseeing such title as Vogue, GQ, Glamour and AD.
Known for his direct approach, Romatet is bluntly honest about whom he sees as IFM’s international competition – Central Saint Martin’s in London; Parsons and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York; La Cambre in Brussels and the Royal Academy in Antwerp.
“It’s clear that when major houses hire creative talent, they look first at graduates from those schools. There is not enough creative talent coming out of Paris,” he concedes.
France does boast other smaller respected fashion colleges like Esmod – the alma mater of Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing; Simon Porte Jacquemus or Franck Sorbier – or Studio Berçot, whose famed graduates include Isabel Marant and Roland Mouret. It’s true that the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale can boast such exceptional alumni as Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, André Courrèges, Valentino Garavani and Issey Miyake. However, it is hard to think of a great name from this school this century, except perhaps Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski of Hermès, though even she has studied previously in Antwerp. Moreover, no Paris fashion school is presently seen as truly in the top five of any international classification when it comes to creativity. A huge lacunae, considering the number of exceptional fashion and luxury brands based in the French capital.
A key element in Romatet’s plan is to exploit the unique force of Paris haute couture houses, since one third of the classes for IFM’s Bachelor of Art in Fashion Design degree will include technical classes in couture and modelism, or pattern cutting.
“The creative director of today is often more like a theatre or film director or a tastemaker who needs to be surrounded by technically gifted talent, and they understand what each does,” argues Romatet, who plans to harness the support of many great brands. Multiple CEOs have already addressed his students this year, from Sidney Toledano, CEO of LVMH’s Fashion Group, to Guillaume de Seynes of Hermès. While François-Henri Pinault, CEO of giant luxury group Kering, is due next week.
“Only in Paris can you ask such an array of true experts to meet your students,’” he opines.
IFM is a non-profit-association, unlike many other fashion colleges, such as Marangoni, which has schools in Milan and Paris and is owned by investment firm Providence Equity Partners.
“We are autonomous, and our first responsibility is the quality of our teaching. Ultimately, private schools first duty is to the bottom line of their shareholders,” he sniffs.
The new college is located at Cité de la Mode on the Quai d’Austerlitz, in a serpentine green glass structure on the banks of the Seine in the 13th arrondissement. Built in 2008, it is sometimes nicknamed Les Docks; and is currently undergoing a 20-million-euro renovation, financed essentially by its owner, the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, a French state savings bank. Once completed, expected in September 2020, IFM will sign a 15-year lease for most of the Cité de la Mode, which had been shared with a motley crew of tenants – art spaces, pop stores and night clubs. Over the next year, the Chambre school will also gradually close down its current site at 119 rue Réaumur, and relocate to the Quai d’Austerlitz.
Romatet sees IFM’s key goal as producing “employable graduates.” Currently an impressive 93% get a job within six months of graduation. Prior to this September’s fusion, IFM had 250 students and the Chambre school had 220; though this fall the total number at the combined college rose to 760 students. The goal is to increase that to 1,300 within three years.
“And we need to keep that number at 93%. Which is a lot more complicated,” he admits.
IFM was founded back in 1986 by Saint Laurent’s dynamic partner Pierre Bergé, whose vision was to create a unique college of fashion management. Though widely respected, even Bergé’s French Wikipedia page criticized his running of IFM for its “authoritarian management.”
Comments the diplomatic Romatet: “Perhaps Pierre Bergé’s vision was not to overdevelop IFM and maintain more control.”
Bergé passing in 2017 led to a sudden burst of activity, which saw a whole gang of highly competitive fashion houses and their CEOs unite around a long-term plan to create a top-ranking fashion college in the French capital. Many of those houses – Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Hermès, Lanvin and others –have helped fund IFM’s development, with an additional budget of €6 million. Moreover, the entire industry is lending support from the local textile, ready-to-wear and knitwear federations to DEFI, the French fashion quango financing events and young designers. As part of Austerlitz’s revamp, the school will add what the French call a “Fab Lab,” or Laboratory of Fabrication.
“IFM is a school of the whole industry. It’s remarkable that all the great houses have united in support of IFM. They are normally at war with each other, and are highly competitive! But when it comes to creating a great fashion school everyone is working together. There is the sense that it’s vital to transmit our values, techniques and ideas to a new generation. To see them all in agreement is formidable,” smiles Romatet, who commutes to work on a scooter from his 6th arrondissement home.
All told, the college boasts 10 academic professors; 15 technical professors and around 70 other contributing lecturers. At present, some 35% of students are non-French, though Romatet sees that rising to 50% within five years. And in the case of the master’s program that figure could reach 85%.
Though located on the Seine, a key element in future growth of IFM will be the English language: with half the master’s programs 100% in English.
Currently, IFM’s annual fees run between €12,000 and €14,000 for EU students; 30% more for the non-EU attendees. That’s in line with better fashion colleges in Europe. One result of Brexit, of course, is that if it takes place, British kids will pay the higher rate in Paris. Under the guiding hand of Bruno Pavlovsky, President of Chanel’s fashion and accessories divisions, IFM has been busy creating scholarships with around 100 students enjoying an average of €8,000 annual grants for their courses. Romatet is also planning for master’s graduates to stage actual runway shows, brand-new for IFM, though standard operating procedure at leading colleges.
His next big date is November 27 with Fashion Reboot, when professors and experts will offer their vision of the major issues ahead for fashion in the next decade.
Romatet was first approached about becoming the dean by Ralph Toledano, president of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, the Paris runway season’s governing body, and a noted executive who has managed such houses as Karl Lagerfeld, Guy Laroche and Chloé.
“Xavier is the right man, in the right place at the right time. We realized we needed an experienced manager; someone who understood fashion and business. He is clear, precise and energetic,” says Toledano.
Underlining the French boss’s determination to build a great fashion college, Toledano adds that when he attends the IFM executive committee, “all the top guys are present from the great Paris labels, but everyone seems to forget what group they are from. It’s not ‘this brand’ or ‘that house,’ it’s ‘let’s really do the very best for our students’.”
Romatet, however, is rather less optimistic for his former profession.
“Fifteen years ago everyone, and not just Condé Nast, believed for a long time that digital journalism would be easy; and make lots of money. But it turned out that: A, you need a designated digital team; B, that as you made daily content, you needed specific sorts of people who could work quickly and take photos and make videos; and C, they all had to work very hard! It was not magazine work! And, all be led by someone who knew what they were doing. All that required far greater investment than we expected and produced far less revenues than we thought! Because the fact is digital advertising earns one-tenth as much as ads in print magazines,” he grimaces.
“And Google and Facebook took the majority of all the revenues!” he shudders, noting that this explains all media brands efforts to create ancillary revenues – events, conferences, cafés and pop-ups – though they suffer from one major defect, “they tend not to be scalable!”
Romatet himself was instrumental in creating the respected Vogue Fashion Festival in Paris, which attracted up to 1,800 people to hear debates with “quite a few big egos,” as he puts it. Standard entry tickets to the next edition this coming weekend cost €270.
“I believe national dailies have shown themselves capable of generating revenues as their loyal readers switch their subscriptions from newspaper to digital. And I see niche properties that act like start-ups, like BoF or FashionNetwork.com, as having a bright future. Plus I see readers still wanting to get ideas from brands like Vogue or [Harper’s] Bazaar. But transforming those magazine brands is very costly. And you have to work very hard again to add on events, photos, videos, etc. It won’t be easy,” he concludes, evidently rather happy to be in a different line of business today. From publisher to educator.
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