The accidental historian of fashion’s inflection point

Technically Prigent should have been on holiday when we speak but he returned to Paris from seaside Normandy to meet the young designers who turned to him for solutions to show their collections at Paris Fashion Week, which kicks off on Monday, September 28. The pandemic has drawn the curtain on large-scale shows.

“I sense a new creative saturation point,” he says. “When you have designed a collection, and in Paris that always happens very close to the show, it’s difficult to imagine a new way to present it. Not everyone is Baz Luhrmann.”

Prigent spots Kim Kardashian at the Balenciaga show in Paris in 2017. Getty Images

Prigent’s ability to decipher the zeitgeist is informed by an obsessive curiosity. Born in Normandy, the son of an artichoke farmer and a mother who knitted his sweaters, he made witty fanzines from the age 10 at school with his friend Gildas Loaëc, who would go on to found Kitsuné, the part-fashion, part-music brand.

At university they started Têtu, a fanzine dedicated to music that was eventually so successful that Prigent sold it to Pierre Bergé, then the director of Yves Saint Laurent.

Chatting with rapper and fashion designer Pharrell Williams at a Chanel show. 

In 1995, he moved to Paris as a freelance writer and joined Liberation, a newspaper with a tradition of humorous fashion coverage. When its correspondent Gérard Lefort announced his absence for a day, Prigent found himself in his front-row seats. His writing immediately established a tone at once tender and irreverent – and he swiftly gained access to the leading designers.

Within a year of joining Liberation, he got into filming. “I would often wait an hour to talk to Stella [McCartney] or Tom Ford at Saint Laurent after a show but I always had access and often alone. I loved retelling the stories I heard from the inside.” His audience adored what he called “fashion unveiled” and he was invited to join Canal+ in 1999.

He made his first big documentary, he says, after overhearing a Chanel client say it had taken 3000 hours to make her dress. The comment inspired the 2005 five-part TV series Signé Chanel, which won record audiences and sold worldwide.

With his film crew, Hyacinthe Lapin and Clément Duché. 

By then, Prigent had started his own company to make commercial films for brands including L’Oréal, Chanel and the shoe designer Roger Vivier, and was writing for Madame Figaro, Vogue Paris and the French edition of Vanity Fair.

On the side, he collected witty comments overheard from models, editors, designers, first sharing them on Twitter, and later on Instagram. His favourite pastime, eavesdropping, paid off handsomely, winning him gems like: “She always has a large coffee, it makes her hands look smaller”; “Wait, I just boarded the wrong plane, I’ll call you back” and “I thought I took a vitamin C but it was a sleeping pill.”

It eventually led to two books, I Love to Hate Fashion: Real Quotes and Whispers Behind the Runway, originally published in 2106, and Pass Me the Champagne, I have a Cat in my throat (2019).

In 2008, Prigent filmed The Day Before, which captured the anguish and unabated work ethic of eight designers during the 36 hours before their shows – Sonia Rykiel, Jean Paul Gaultier (“he manages to get me to say these things…”) and Donatella Versace among them.

Prigent describes COVID-19 as “like Savonarola, the Florentine Renaissance monk who thought luxury was a danger to the soul. Because suddenly ‘ethics’ is the word. Fashion was always yin and yang. A weird mix of an idealistic utopian dreamer with a ruthless capacity to rule and pollute the world with T-shirts. But there are clues to change.

Prigent (front row in a cap) at a Jean Paul Gaultier haute couture show in 2017-18.  Getty Images

“The first sign from a big house was an official communiqué from Gucci announcing a fur-free future. If Gucci wanted to hire new people, the management recognised they could not be seen to use fur. Then I saw it first-hand, when I talked to some of the young graduates from fashion schools, in the big Paris houses. Mention the word ‘fur’ they want to vomit. Instinctively. They don’t even articulate it.”

The amount of waste in the fashion industry is unacceptable to them, he says. “They don’t want to be associated with a company that produces $37 million of unnecessary clothes,” he says (referencing Burberry, which burnt $37 million of clothes to ‘maintain brand value’, it revealed in its 2018 annual report).

Filming models at Louis Vuitton by Virgil Abloh. 

Prigent says young designers have taken the biggest hits during the pandemic but are adapting. “While the big houses, like Vuitton, openly say they will go where the business is – to China – the smaller designers who showed menswear in January faced cancellations for orders worldwide, leaving them with unsold inventory.

“Many were nimble. Ludovic de Saint Sernin responded by offering his collection [The Heartbreak Collection] on Instagram. Charles De Vilmorin debuted his collection on Instagram [prompting the Vogue headline ‘Could Charles De Vilmorin be Gen Z’s First Fashion Star?’]. His clothes are made-to-order; he won’t bend to the pressure of presenting a show twice a year.

“It’s very obvious, D2C [direct-to-consumer] is for younger brands. It’s more sustainable. They own the production and the whole supply chain. There’s a huge shift in business. Influencers are now doing their own merchandise; magazines are selling their photography online.

“And there’s a change of mentality among consumers. You need to follow the brands closely on social media to identify their values, like Marine Serre, whose collection references a planet in crisis and who designed face masks pre-Covid.”

In advance of the Paris shows, Prigent says he has never signed so many non-disclosure agreements. “I am seeing the collections in the making, before they are released to the public, and everybody was in confidentiality mode. When the designers do finally show, I know each will be different backstage. For those I cannot cover, the houses will give me the film and I’ll cut it and do my own voiceover.

“It’s not frustrating at all. It’s a new way to report. I could do it from Brisbane or Melbourne. But there is a certain paralysis to contend with. People watching the shows on their computer? It’s not a lot of fun.”

Paris Fashion Week women’s spring-summer collections will be shown mostly online from Monday September 28 and wrap up on Tuesday October 6 with presentations from Chanel, Maison Margiela and Louis Vuitton.

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