Ask Alexandra: Pros and Cons of Studying Fashion in France

Ask Alexandra is my advice column. Have a question you want to ask me? Fill out the form here.

Paris, fashion schools, fashion jobs, fashion careers, education, fashion advice

Paris: I could think of worse places to live.

I’ve had a number of people write me to ask advice about studying fashion in Paris, so I thought I would write a more general post on the subject. Before I begin, I should mention that I haven’t lived in France in fifteen years, but from what my friends tell me, it hasn’t changed that much.

WHY YOU WANT TO STUDY IN PARIS

1. It’s Paris. And no matter what New York, London, and Milan say, Paris is the center of the fashion world. This alone is a reason to pack your bags and go and study “la mode” in Paris.

2. Great internships. Sure, most cities will offer internships, but will they be at Chanel and Louis Vuitton? Because in my opinion, those brands sound better than Holly Fulton on your CV. And France has a system in place for internships, which ensures no slave labour (like in London and New York.) Basically, they pay you (not much, but it is something) and the internships are well regulated so you get to learn, do interesting things, and be somewhat appreciated. The best part about interning in Paris is that if you are good, you could probably get a job out of it. That’s how I got my job at Sonia Rykiel. Unlike London companies, most of which rely on free labour and have little funds to actually hire any of those people, French companies very frequently recruit their interns. That is awesome.

Paris, fashion schools, fashion jobs, fashion careers, education, fashion advice

Access to freshly baked, delicious croissants = benefit of living in Paris.

3. You learn things the old school way. This applies to French fashion schools in general, but certainly when it comes to technical skills. Some may argue this is a con of studying in Paris, but I can tell you right now that if you know the techniques involved in making a couture gown, you can probably stitch something up that looks like H&M. Whereas if you learnt the H&M way, well, I doubt you’ll ever be making any couture.

Paris, fashion schools, fashion jobs, fashion careers, education, fashion advice

Le Bon Marché, an amazing Paris department store and great place to spend your student loan.

WHY YOU DON’T WANT TO STUDY IN PARIS

1. The French schools aren’t super famous. Some of you have probably heard of some of them (Ecoles de la Chambre Syndicale, I went there, and Studio Bercot) but the big names are in London and New York. So unless you get an internships at a famous company (and let it be known that those internships are also available to students who study in other countries) the school might not be as valuable on your CV as St. Martins or Parsons.

2. You need to speak French. Unless you go to an American school in Paris (which I DO NOT recommend), French schools teach in French (duh.) And no, they don’t make a million exceptions because English is a more popular language. So if you have no grasp of the French language, don’t bother going to study there. Or learn French first.

Paris, fashion schools, fashion jobs, fashion careers, education, fashion advice

Paris apartments: they look nice from the outside, but then you realize you’re on the sixth floor without an escalator, you have a half sized bath with no shower, and the kitchen is a hot plate on a counter.

3. The bureaucracy will kill you. If you are studying in France, you’ll have to live in France, and that means doing things like renting an apartment, getting a doctor, and possibly even a social security number. The French have a special way of doing these types of things. First, they make it impossible to find the information you need to do it. Then, they make you wait in line for hours. Then someone will tell you something, and you’ll rush off and spend hours collecting the necessary paperwork to proceed. The next person will tell you something different, and that the paperwork you have is useless. Repeat five times over two years. Then maybe you’ll have your social security number. And by the way, to find an apartment, it isn’t first come first serve. They will look at “applications” and choose the person who is best looking (no joke, see number 6) or who earns the most money. It is rare that the student earns more than most applicants, so basically, a nice apartment is VERY hard to find.

Paris, fashion schools, fashion jobs, fashion careers, education, fashion advice

Fantasize about French men? The reality is more like Gerard Depardieu types: arrogant, short, and unattractive.

4. You need connections. In France, you gotta know people to get almost anywhere (it’s called “piston” in French.) I really lucked out with my Sonia Rykiel job, and then I met people, and then I had connections, but if you aren’t lucky, and you don’t know anyone, then you might not ever get that job/apartment/sample sale invite. I know that the fashion industry generally works on this premise around the world, but in France, it is particularly bad. So many people get jobs because their Dad is friends with someone who knows the directrice de collection at famous fashion house X and he puts in a good word for you. Those are also usually the types of Dads that have pieds-a-terres in Paris (that means an apartment or house sitting empty, used for little Paris jaunts) and they let their kids live there while they study, thus eliminating the stressful process of securing an apartment to live in, leaving them more time to meet people, make connections and get ahead. Win-win for them, lose-lose for us normal folk.

Paris, fashion schools, fashion jobs, fashion careers, education, fashion advice

Café Flore: one of Paris’ many legendary cafés. Great places to people watch, drink delicious coffee, cheap wine, and waste time.

5. Lots of fashion students in Paris are rich kids. I studied with people who flew the Concorde to New York for the weekend (boy, that dates me.) Whereas in London, I felt rich because I could afford the bus everyday. So if you are going to be struggling to make ends meet, know right now that there won’t be many sympathizing with you, although you might get invited to their chalet in the Alps for the weekend.

6. You need to be thin and pretty. Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration, but life in France is a LOT easier if you are. I have a friend who is probably a size 2 or 4, who used to get criticized every time she ate a mini croissant at work. The women would tell she “would never get a husband eating like that.” I have another friend who wasn’t able to get the apartment she wanted because the (male) real estate agent told her that the other girl who was interested made more of an effort to look nice when she came to view the place. And lastly, I once got a bank loan because I was wearing stilettos and a skirt with a high slit. That’s France!

More fashion school advice:

10 Tips to a Great Fashion Portfolio
Ask Alexandra: Fashion Design Education 
Ask Alexandra: Best Fashion Courses 
Ask Alexandra: Taking a Gap Year 
5 Things to Do to Prepare for a Career in Fashion 

Image sources: Gerard DepardieuParis apartment buildingParis city viewcroissantsBon MarchéParis café.

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  • Cheryl W.

    Oh, my god. Thanks for this! Really insightful!

  • Liz

    Hear hear on French men. When I lived in Paris (for a year in 2012), most of them weren’t bad looking – but they were arrogant and lazy. Ditto point 6, I noticed that making an effort to look sexy/pretty and speak french like a native definitely got things done. Also, doors only open if you look good on paper – i.e., having the right connections and having gone to the right schools.

    The student population at Parsons New York is pretty similar to that described in point 4, with the Hamptons substituting for Swiss Alps. I’ve heard St Martins is quite different though, a lot edgier and it’s not hip to be posh.

  • Lola

    Having connections in any industry, in any city, around the world, is beneficial. This is definitely not a phenomenon exclusive to the fashion industry or Paris. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. Nearly every friend I have got their job because they knew someone in the company or had a “connection”.

    Also, I don’t know if you did much travelling elsewhere outside of Paris, but I have a ton of family who reside all around France, mostly in the Rhone Valley. None of them have anything good to say about Paris. The observations and culture you observed while living there I can say with certainty are unique to Paris and definitely not common throughout the rest of France.

    Having said that, Paris is a benchmark for a reason, and without these exclusive barriers to entry and high standards, they would not be the fashion capital they are. It’s just kind annoying reading about it, knowing these practices and people actually exist!

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    I absolutely agree that having connections is essential in the industry, but I saw that it mattered a lot more in Paris than it did in London. That said, I don’t have much experience in Milan or New York, so I can’t say much about those cities. And yes, Paris is absolutely not a representation of France, but that’s where the industry is. I should have probably called this the Pros and Cons of Studying Fashion in Paris.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    Yes, it is totally not hip to be posh at CSM. When I was there, the ones who were rich certainly did not show off their wealth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bebe.tweet Lily Tweet

    Despite everything, Gerard Depardieu is still sexy as hell.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    No. He. Isn’t.

  • Skating Canuck

    I enjoyed reading this informative, honest, funny, and balanced column. To touch on your friend who loves croissants, on my last visit I tried on a skirt in a shop (the last one). I told the sales associate it was a bit snug in the waist. She turned to me and said in French” aww but you can just lose a few pounds”! It’s irrelevant, but I am not a large person.

  • alexandrasuhnerisenberg

    That’s Paris for you!