Excited laughter ripples through the line outside the Gucci flagship on Paris’s Avenue Montaigne. Shoppers, mainly from China, have been gathering since early morning. At 11 a.m., a security guard at the door beckons two women customers inside the crowded store. Straightaway they make for a display of Gucci Dionysus handbags, arrayed like victorious generals on parade, each $4,000 purse bedecked with snake-head clasps, glossy embroidery, and red-and-green ribbons. They are the work of Alessandro Michele, creative director of Gucci since 2015, who has super-charged the brand’s revenue during his triumphant reign; it’s up 44 percent this year.
On the opposite side of Avenue Montaigne, sister company Saint Laurent has also had a jump in earnings—30 percent—multiplying the good fortunes of the labels’ parent, Kering Group, the $13 billion French fashion conglomerate headed by François-Henri Pinault, owner of 14 other status names, including Bottega Veneta, Brioni, Stella McCartney, and Balenciaga.
Each of these brands sells different fantasies, but entrenched in the minds of all luxury-goods buyers is the belief that they’re purchasing a designer’s creation, a piece of fine craftsmanship. If consumers do pause to think of ethical provenance—the wages paid to the person who stitched the bag, whether any chemicals ended up poisoning a river in China, if a flock of cashmere goats grazed grassland into dust—they may assume that nothing really bad happened to produce their purchase. After all, we tend to place implicit trust in a pair of boots that costs $3,000.
Lately that assumption has been called into question, though. Even as sustainability becomes a consideration for shoppers, luxury brands aren’t setting an example. Most remain almost silent about their eco-credentials, doing little more than purchasing carbon offsets and posting bland statements. If pushed, a Milanese CEO might demur that his $5,000 tote is an “heirloom,” a short-run piece of craftsmanship whose exclusivity guarantees sustainability—a tenuous argument in an age of mass-production luxury.
One of the few exceptions is Kering, which is inspiring its own house designers with forward-thinking corporate practices and, in a move of surprising transparency, enlightening the entire fashion industry. Its chief sustainability officer, Marie-Claire Daveu, works from the company’s headquarters, two miles to the south of the Gucci and Saint Laurent stores, in St.-Germain.
“I’m not a fashionista, but I am interested in beautiful clothes, yes—I am French,” says Daveu with a smile, settling down in a meeting room on a basement level beneath the honey-colored stone complex, home to Kering’s corporate offices and Balenciaga, where lavender gardens are tended to avoid overuse of water and five beehives produce honey for the Kering canteen. The immaculately restored 17th-century former Laennec Hospital is symbolic of the Kering brands: Inside the exquisite historic building is a modern, resolutely efficient interior.
Wearing a black Saint Laurent pussy-bow blouse, black leather pants, and silver sneakers, fingers circled with Pomellato rings, her Deneuve-blonde hair tucked in a chignon, Daveu looks like a fashion executive but is also a former senior civil servant who advised two French cabinets on ecology matters.
She wasn’t looking to join a luxury fashion company when she arrived in 2012, Daveu remembers, but during her first interview with Pinault, his convictions about how Kering had to make social and environmental changes to its business won her over. “When I met François-Henri, I understood that sustainability was something he had put at the core of his strategy. I wanted to join a company where sustainability was not greenwashing, was not ‘Speak but don’t act.’” Even his rivals would allow that Pinault has been a man of action during his 12 years in charge of Kering, pushing both eco-initiatives and measures supporting women.
The Kering Foundation, a separate charitable arm, drives women-empowerment campaigns, including Chime for Change, a global campaign that peaked with a London concert by cofounder Beyoncé in 2013, and the White Ribbon campaign, which fights domestic violence. Pinault credits his wife, actress Salma Hayek-Pinault, a Kering Foundation director, for his support of gender issues, telling the guests at a New York City Anti-Defamation League dinner in 2015 that his consciousness was raised by “two women in my life—my mother’s and my wife’s refusal to accept violence against women.”
But aside from the purely philanthropic motive, Pinault has consistently emphasized that protection of scarce natural resources is, for him, essential to the survival of his business. “We see our efforts as strategic long-term investments, not short-term costs,” he has said repeatedly. Daveu, his closest counsel on the subject, echoes the thought: “Sustainability is not an option but a necessity; he believes it stimulates creativity.”
The daughter of two doctors, Daveu grew up “knowing the value of health and of nature,” and is enough of an outsider to have been able to speak truth to the fashion industry, which even at its most rarefied relies on damaging practices. “Every time I give a speech about how the textile industry is the second-most-polluting industry after oil and gas, I discover people who didn’t know that,” she says.
Alarming figures on the environmental cost of fashion are easy to find, but actually fixing the problem is expensive and risky. Take the way leather, the profitable heart of Kering’s brands, is produced. To turn raw cowhide into leather, most tanneries use noxious chemicals derived from chromium that poison the wastewater, causing horrific damage to the environment and to the people who live and work nearby—chromium exposure is linked to cancer and tuberculosis. Cleaning up its tanning process by buying factories and introducing eco-friendly methods—and being transparent about each step of its production, herd to handbag—has been one of Kering’s major aims. It has had some success, rolling out metal-free tanning across most of its brands, but perhaps more impressive is its willingness to share these discoveries with its rivals. “We don’t want to keep it for us; we want to open-source,” Daveu says, highlighting another of her favorite themes: how Kering has a responsibility not only to educate its own designers but also to let its competitors benefit from that research too, in the hope that peer pressure will force change.
The idea of transparency—being open with both customers and rivals—is a new one for luxury brands, which have typically been more secretive than sports giants like Nike and Puma or mass-fashion chains such as H&M. Even as the age of scandalous YouTube clips and citizen journalism has made secrecy obsolete, modern luxury maisons still tend to hide behind sepia-tinted marketing images of craftsmanship and savoir faire while claiming the necessity of confidentiality—for example, many won’t reveal the exact location of their factories.
By contrast, Kering is disclosing its practices, even if they aren’t yet quite as blemish-free as Daveu would like: “You have to be honest; people know. For instance, we made a commitment to remove the most harmful chemical products by 2020. Today, we’ve done that for some products. But for the others, we don’t have the alternative solutions yet. It’s better to say, ‘We’ve tried but may not reach our target.’ It’s better to explain.” A publicly traded company, Kering makes all its sustainability targets public in detailed reports alongside its financial results. Both investment analysts and shareholders are taking a closer interest in, say, how ethically sound a luxury brand’s snake farm or cotton field is.
The next step isn’t just luxury brands being more open on a corporate level; it’s the crowds in Avenue Montaigne stores actually being able to hold in their hands a bag that simultaneously makes their knees go weak and renews their karma—the two qualities seamlessly crafted together. “So that sustainability is really in the DNA of the product,” as Daveu puts it.
Back in June 2016, Daveu found herself far from Paris, standing in the middle of an emerald-green landscape a 90-minute drive outside Nanjing, in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu. Here, the farms of the silk industry grow millions of silkworms in cocoons, a practice that has a 3,000-year history. Daveu had come to talk to a silk farmer about a Kering program to reduce waste and water and energy use. “You have to be pragmatic,” she recalls thinking, managing her own expectations. “People practicing a traditional craft might say, ‘We don’t want to change.’ But you have to explain. Saying [sustainability] is not compatible is a bad excuse.”
Around the world, Daveu and her 50-strong team have been edging toward changing what happens in the group’s myriad supply chains—be it for wool, snakeskin, or gold—while also being honest about what they find. It’s a complex, fraught process, but one that has produced an amazingly wide range of creative answers.
Take one example, says Daveu, navigating around her iPhone to show me a free app created by Kering and available to the public called My EP&L, which allows any designer to quickly work out the environmental profit and loss of a theoretical garment. The app is a simple version of a more-detailed methodology that Kering designers use to compare the carbon emissions, pollution, and waste of different designs. “You very quickly understand, depending on the raw material, the country in which you choose to manufacture, how you can make a huge difference,” she explains. Then there is the “innovation lab” that Kering founded in Milan, a library of more than 2,000 ethical and sustainable materials that any of its design teams can use. “With designers,” she explains, “they have to be able to feel something.”
Daveu needs the creative directors on her side, because Kering’s sustainability targets are ambitious; without design teams who create thoughtfully, Kering will never meet them. Starting in 2012, Pinault set out a number of environmental and social aims for his company, including both the macro (slashing carbon emissions, waste, and water usage by 25 percent) and the micro (cutting all use of PVC, which creates deadly poisons as a byproduct and isn’t biodegradable, by 2016, a target it met). In January, Kering renewed many of these commitments and introduced an even farther-reaching range of targets. For instance, by 2025, the group promises to be 100 percent open about where and how it sources its raw materials—including precious skins, leather and fur, cashmere, cotton, and wool—and will require that all external suppliers meet its own high social and environmental standards.
If fashion is basically consumerism, isn’t the logical way to reduce impact to buy less? This is the call made at the increasing number of “sustainability summits” that fashion schools now host (student designers being among the most invested in the subject). But so-called slow fashion is a radical response, and Daveu says she would never demand that Kering designers make fewer, or smaller, collections. “It’s for the individual brands to organize what they do,” she says. As long as each one reduces its environmental footprint by 40 percent by 2025, Daveu is relaxed about how they achieve it.
Kering’s designers are a heterogenous group (think of the conceptual Georgian Demna Gvaslia at Balenciaga next to Bottega Veneta’s longtime classicist, Tomas Maier), and they all have complete freedom as to whether or not—and how—they talk about sustainability in their marketing. The disparity can be startling. Balenciaga’s website includes a brief outline of its efforts to preserve biodiversity and reduce waste; Bottega Veneta prefers to emphasize the small-scale artisanship of bags like its Cabat, woven entirely in a workshop inside a building that received the highest environmental rating (LEED Platinum certification). Another of Kering’s prize brands, Brioni, the still-sleek 72-year-old nonno of Italian tailoring, has a “manifesto of sustainability” to convey its seriousness on the subject, detailing both its rollout of organic cotton and New Zealand wool and the safeguarding of its tailoring school in Abruzzo. At Gucci, under Alessandro Michele, the environmental message has receded; by comparison, his predecessor, Frida Giannini, had a line of Rainforest Alliance–certified leather bags. But the message is there, whether a customer looks on the brand’s website or asks in the store; sales associates, Daveu tells me, are trained to deal with questions about provenance.
Far beyond all her peers at Kering—and anyone else in ready-to-wear fashion—is Stella McCartney, sui generis for her sustainability credentials. Both Daveu and Pinault note her as an exception and a leader within Kering, not least because her own brand has been leather-and fur-free since its debut in 2001. This fall, the models in her ad campaign, shot by Harley Weir, stand in the middle of a landfill site on the coast of Scotland. The designer has worked with eco-innovative textile company Bolt Threads to create a dress using a silklike material grown in a lab from proteins, to be exhibited at MoMA in New York this October.
McCartney has always spoken passionately on sustainability. “You don’t have to compromise design, quality, or luxury,” she says. “For me, this is the future of fashion. I would hope I’m an example to the rest of my colleagues in the industry.”
“But if you go inside her boutique,” Daveu points out, “she doesn’t put the word sustainability anywhere. You don’t see it.”
Still, Daveu says pressure to prioritize sustainability is nonetheless coming from customers. She encourages it: “Ask questions in the shop. Go and see the website. Millennials have this kind of inherent culture to be more sensitive, more questioning. Until now, I think customers trusted the name of the brand they are buying. That’s why, if you don’t do what you promise, you can destroy a brand very quickly.”
While Kering can afford to invest in the development of mushroom-grown leather (coming soon to a Stella store near you), minor players who can’t will also benefit from its research. Already, smaller-scale luxury brands, like New York designer Gabriella Hearst, have made a splash in the eco-luxury sector.
The real verdict comes from the cash register, whether in-store or online. “Values are really changing. It’ll be interesting to see where all this lands up,” says Ruth Chapman, co-founder of Matchesfashion.com, the luxury e-commerce giant that counts Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Stella McCartney among its most prominent brands. “I think so many of our customers want to make sure they’re doing things right. With the shape the world is in now, they want to make sure they’re taking the best possible care. What’s important now is provenance, how it’s made, not just for their conscience but from a quality perspective.”
With a generation of more ethically engaged customers growing older and wealthier, in a few years’ time the pressure will be more acute, but it’s possible that the luxury goods available to us will be even better. Daveu speaks of the “produit parfait,” an ideal super-product for which the consumer feels both lust and trust. “It’s a sustainability which is inherent to the quality. We’re convinced that consumers expect this of us, that we’re taking care of people and the planet.”
Change is happening now, but even Daveu, the woman poised to make it happen, is impatient at its rate. “If I have a question mark,” she says, waving one jeweled hand over the imaginary plan set out before us, “it’s about the speed of change. We know that climate change, loss of biodiversity, is happening now. It would be smarter if things were moving more quickly. We have an emergency to act.”
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