An abandoned building, a good idea and the right partners came together in Paris to transform a fire station that had been empty for decades into a state-of-the-art and very promising incubation center for sustainable fashion. With the new project called La Caserne, the city of Paris is strengthening its ambition to position itself at the forefront of sustainable fashion capitals.
The city council, owner of the property built in 1877, had launched a call for tenders in 2017, and the contract was awarded to the two founders of the dedicated fashion retailer L'Exception: Regis Pennel and, more importantly, Maeva Bessis, who now serves as the general manager of La Caserne. The project received great support from several institutions, such as the IFTH (Institut Français du Textile et de l'Habillement) and financial aid from the luxury groups Kering, LVMH as well as Aigle, but above all from the investment holding Impala.
Maeva Bessis, general manager, La Caserne
The imposing, now completely renovated building with 4,000 sq. meters of space and an inner courtyard of 800 sq. meters officially opened its doors–delayed due to Corona–at the end of October 2021 and hosted in a preview the renowned international Conscious Festival, which also took place in parallel in London and Singapore at the end of September. The incubation center in the 10th arrondissement, north of Paris' Gare de l'Est, sees itself as “the largest hub for ecological transformation of the fashion and luxury industry in Europe” and houses around 300 sq. meters of retail space, 1800 sq. meters of offices and studios as well as a photo studio, event space, a laboratory for textile research, a dance studio as well as restaurants, cafés and terraces.
The studios and offices are available to young fashion start-ups selected by a jury. Currently, 40 young entrepreneurs, 25 from the fashion industry and 15 from the leather goods and accessories sector, have been accepted as tenants. They receive support over three years to bring their company forward. In addition to a mentorship program and reduced rent for the studios, the “residents” can also use the textile lab, photo studio and production machines, such as sewing machines, 3-D printers and thermal presses, which are available to all tenants. LVMH's new digital platform Nona Source, which offers remnants of the luxury group's fabrics, also has a showroom in the building where the range is presented and the fabrics can be felt and examined directly.
Nona Source showrom at La Caserne
External start-ups are given access to the facilities via a club card. Bessis says: "France has a large reserve of exceptional talent in the field of fashion and creation. With this project, we want to create a working environment for these talents where they can exchange ideas and thus drive the necessary transfer to greater sustainability." In addition to this permanent hub, there is an extensive event, conference and talk program. She adds, "Here, the main topics are sourcing, traceability and production volumes. In January 2022, for example, we offer master classes on denim, wool and alternative leathers."
The general events, such as concerts or even flea markets, are intended to raise people's awareness on the topic of sustainability in fashion. La Caserne sees it as a centre open to the public, that' s why there has been a push to integrate shops into it. In addition to a sustainable florist offering only local seasonal plants and a restaurant with local suppliers, the shop of the two founders, L'Exception, has also moved into the Caserne. The boutique of the fashion retailer specializing in national and sustainable brands used to be based in central Paris near Les Halles and was closed after the first lockdown in France. Pennel is venturing a new start here.
Woolmark x Casablanca and Thebe Magugu installation by Aapo Nikkanen
It remains to be seen to what extent La Caserne will also have an influence on the next local environment of this very mixed district and whether this ambitious incubation center will set a precedent–nationally and internationally. A similar project has already existed in Lyon for 20 years. The "Village des Créateurs" there enjoys great success.