Unbuttoned: Woven Into the Fabrics of France

There has never been a fashion show inside the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, or in the piazza splayed in front of it, the way there have been in French cultural landmarks like the Louvre, the Palais de Justice and the National Archives.

But there might as well have been. It is embedded on the psychographic style map of the city, its two towers as defining a silhouette as the New Look, its image practically a brand in itself.

Four times a year, as the couture and ready-to-wear shows dawn in Paris, town cars and editors and retailers shod in stilettoes or Stan Smiths would crisscross the quais from the Tennis Club de Paris to Bercy, Austerlitz to the Pompidou.

Each time, they would swirl past the towers and rose windows of the cathedral on the Île de la Cité, the nexus of a diagonal from the Sixth Arrondissement headquarters of Sonia Rykiel to the Fourth Arrondissement home of Azzedine Alaïa, all around it other showrooms and ateliers like pearls on a string.

When it burned, so did one of the poles by which the fashion world orients itself, and not just geographically.

The tragedy at Notre-Dame pierced viewers around the world, and leaders of all kinds have responded with emotion and support. For the French, there’s a more visceral connection between French fashion and French monuments that has to do with definitions of the country’s culture and how it is disseminated around the world.

A model at the cathedral, shot for Glamour in 1962.CreditFrances McLaughlin-Gill/Condé Nast, via Getty Images

To designers of French brands, whose identity is wrapped up in the history of Paris, Notre-Dame is not just an example of gorgeous architecture (though it is that, and designers often cite various buildings as catalysts for their imagination), nor is it just another tourist draw that helps bring their customers to France (though it is that, too).

It is, in a more abstract sense, part of their own patrimony, an example and embodiment of the values they hold dear and that define their work at its best: beauty, artisanship, handwork, heritage, the emotion that can be evoked by creativity. A concrete — or rather, stone and wood — example of the worth that resides in these concepts. A character in the myth of Frenchness written by Victor Hugo and Disney.

And for anyone trying to capture that elusive quality of Frenchness and give it form — which is, let’s face it, part of the promise of French fashion, especially those brands that are synonymous with that je ne sais quoi (Dior, Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Chanel and Hermès) — Notre-Dame was an essential reference. Just as it was shorthand for the sagas that surround it, be they of Joan of Arc, Napoleon or de Gaulle, which also provide the elements of a sartorial vocabulary all designers share.

That is why over the years it was so often used as a backdrop in glossy magazine features, an image that could immediately telegraph place as well as aura and association. As the photos of flames went round the world, so many designers joined the chorus of mourning.


A French haute couture look for spring 1951, shot by the Seine.CreditAgence France-Presse — Getty Images

“While it was burning, a part of all of us was smoking away with immense sadness,” Anthony Vaccarello, the creative director of Yves Saint Laurent, said on Tuesday. Earlier he had posted a photo of the burning building on Instagram with one simple word: “sad.”

He was not the only one to demonstrate solidarity on social media. “Sadness for what is happening right now at Notre Dame, a place which holds a big space in my heart,” posted Riccardo Tisci, the Burberry designer who was creative director of Givenchy for 12 years. Diane von Furstenberg and Clare Waight Keller of Givenchy likewise took to Instagram to express their emotions.

In a text, Nicolas Ghesquière, the artistic director of Louis Vuitton women’s wear, called the cathedral a “testament to human strength, inventiveness and faith.”

And Peter Copping, the former designer of Nina Ricci, who is British but based in Paris, wrote in an email that when he moved to the city, Notre-Dame “was the first place on my list to see. It is a huge part of the fabric of Paris — a city I love, that I have made my home and is very special to me.”

Little wonder that the titans of the two largest French fashion and luxury groups — Bernard Arnault of LVMH and François-Henri Pinault of Kering — were among the first business leaders to pledge millions of euros to the restoration of the cathedral. (Together their donations total over $ 300 million.)

For those who aspire to be guardians and stewards of French savoir-faire, what better way to prove it? Especially at a time when luxury itself is under attack, the windows of its gilded emporiums broken by the so-called Yellow Vest movement, a symbol of elitism and division rather than culture.

Now, of course, Notre-Dame’s famous buttresses and centuries-old lines have been warped by disaster. But if there is one thing that fashion knows, it is that the designs of the past can be given new form, and new life.

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