PARIS — Twice a year, the luxury fashion houses of the world present their ready-to-wear clothing for the coming season. This creates an international traveling circus of retailers and reporters, high-spending customers and Instagram influencers, executives and a small army of public-relations professionals, many traveling from New York to London to Milan and finally to Paris.
This year, the caravan’s arrival in Milan in mid-February intersected with an outbreak of Covid-19, the new coronavirus, in Italy, then the country worst hit by the illness outside of Asia.
And so, a thousand or so very well-clad people wondered for a few weeks: Would they become a global public health menace, a vector of transmission from the elite front rows of fashion shows to the world at large?
The final leg of this monthlong tour arrived for a week in Paris starting on Feb. 24. On the first day of shows, the number of reported cases of coronavirus in France was just 14; by the last day, there were more than 200, and the country had banned gatherings of more than 5,000 people in confined spaces.
Many attendees were sleep deprived; some were already sneezing and coughing from seasonal colds. Design houses were handing out face masks before their shows. Several high-profile American buyers and magazine editors, including those from T: The New York Times Magazine, decided to leave Paris early; some didn’t come at all. (The United States communications team for Chanel and Louis Vuitton was told to stay at home.)
The largest of the shows were attended by up to 1,000 guests. Another show took place in a sealed plastic tube, as if it were its very own petri dish.
By midweek, Americans had begun strategizing with their employers in New York about their returns to the United States. Would they need to self-quarantine — work from home — and for how long?
At Lacoste, the penultimate show of Paris Fashion Week, roughly 20 to 30 percent of media guests had canceled.
What remained uncontained were the rumors. The Miu Miu show was going to be canceled, people said. (It was held as scheduled, but Miuccia Prada, the designer, chose not to host her usual post-show meet and greet, although she had performed the same ritual less than two weeks earlier, after her Prada show in Milan.)
With some transport in Italy grounded, Louis Vuitton was rumored to have used the personal jet of Bernard Arnault, the head of the parent company, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and the third richest man in the world, to transport its handbags from coronavirus-infected Italy to less infected France.
“I wish I had invented that!” said Michael Burke, the Louis Vuitton chief executive, when asked about the rumor.
At the Vuitton show on Tuesday, held in a closed courtyard at the Louvre, Antonio Belloni, the group managing director of the company, was pantomiming fist bumps rather than greeting people with a handshake or a double-cheek kiss, the industry standard.
It was an eerie setting: The museum’s staff had walked out on Sunday amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus, effectively closing the French monument. (After three days, the Louvre reopened on Wednesday.)
Sidney Toledano, the chief executive of LVMH Fashion Group, shared squeezes of hand sanitizer from his pocket-size bottle with Jonathan Newhouse, the chairman of Condé Nast, and both of their wives.
At one show, a New York Times journalist was approached by a reporter from another outlet. Was it true, the reporter asked, that someone at The Times had already contracted the virus? (It was not.) At the next show that day, a Swiss fashion executive recoiled when another Times reporter tried to greet him with a handshake, avoiding the gesture (and eye contact).
The End of Fashion Shows?
The crisis has accelerated a question hanging over fashion in recent years. Runway shows are expensive, laborious andenvironmentally harmful. Are they still worth absorbing an entire month?
Before the Alexander McQueen show in Paris on Monday night, François-Henri Pinault, the chief executive of the luxury conglomerate Kering — owner of Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga — wondered whether the industry should begin digitizing showrooms and considering a new system. (Throughout fashion week Mr. Pinault joked, or half-joked, that he had been taking his temperature twice a day to monitor for fever, a symptom of coronavirus.)
Anna Wintour, the artistic director of Condé Nast and editor of Vogue, said she had also been thinking about the future.
“At a time of crisis, we have to think about a radical reset,” she said.
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