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Art, luxe et industrie: Bianchini F?rier, un si?cle de soieries lyonnaises

Author(s):Vernus, Pierre
Reviewer(s):Sheridan Jr., George J.

Published by EH.NET (February 2008)

Pierre Vernus, Art, luxe et industrie: Bianchini F?rier, un si?cle de soieries lyonnaises. Grenoble: Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 2006. 431 pp. ?35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-2-7061-0997-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by George J. Sheridan, Jr., Department of History, University of Oregon.

The silk industry of Lyons is best known in history under two rubrics. The industry is a typical example of traditional specialized manufacture organized on the basis of putting out and remaining, well into the era of industrialization, wedded to both a decentralized business model and handicraft methods of production. Additionally, the Lyons industry was the site of uprisings and affiliated proto-union and social movements, in the years 1831-1834, that collectively bear the title of the “revolt of the canuts [a popular term for silk weaver],” the first genuine working-class insurrection in history according to Friedrich Engels. It is in relation to the first of these two reasons for the celebrity of the Lyons silk manufacture that Pierre Vernus’s study of the Bianchini F?rier firm commands special interest.

Bianchini F?rier (originally Atuyer Bianchini F?rier) was created in 1888 by three former employees of one of the city’s renowned manufacturers of high fashion silks. Two of the three were from well-to-do Lyons families: Charles Bianchini, son of an Italian (Lombard)-born silk yarn merchant, and Fran?ois F?rier, son of a sales representative and related on his mother’s side to a leading Lyons chemical manufacturer. The third partner, Pierre-Fran?ois Atuyer, had more modest origins. On both his father’s and mother’s side, these were solidly canut, that is, he originated from the milieu of the silk weavers who had given Lyons its celebrity in the annals of the “revolt of the canuts.” With a modest capital to which all three contributed equally and forming a partnership where the three shared full financial responsibility, they embarked on the manufacture and sale of the highest quality silk fabrics, the haute nouveaut?. This was the sector of fabric manufacture most closely linked to Parisian high fashion dress design (haute couture, or Couture for short). The enterprise was thus among the more risky, but benefited from a singular combination of the creative and entrepreneurial talent, the familial and commercial contacts, and the training and technical expertise brought to the group respectively by the three founders.

These assets positioned the firm for a strong start-up on a self-financing basis. From the outset it pursued a “double strategy” of integration on both manufacturing and commercial fronts. By 1914 the enterprise included two weaving factories equipped with mechanical and hand-operated looms, another factory for silk throwing (yarn preparation), and a third for dyeing and cloth printing. On the commercial side it had a sales office in Paris, located in the Opera district and closely affiliated with leading fashion houses, and sales representatives and offices throughout Europe and America, including permanently staffed offices in London, Brussels, and New York. In the 1920s it added the production of artificial silk to its manufacturing activities and opened new sales outlets in Montreal and in South America. Its New York operation acquired a weaving factory at Port Jervis, New York, the Vaucanson Silk Mills Inc., to provide silk articles in particular demand on the American market without paying import duties. Such direct involvement in operations was exceptional among the Lyons silk manufacturers and proved to be a highly successful strategy for sustained profitability and investments financed from retained earnings well into the 1920s. The advantages of this integrated approach were evident especially in the firm’s privileged access to Paris dress design. Intimacy with Paris Couture insured that its haute nouveaut? products were taken up in each fashion season in advance of pattern imitations of those same fashions by competitors, notably on the American market. Its direct operations in weaving and finishing enabled the firm to meet the rigorous and fickle design specifications of its highly valued dressmaking clientele, with a rapidity of execution and a control of quality that would otherwise have been less feasible under the sub-contracting arrangements that were the norm in the industry.

This account of the early years of the firm’s history highlights the first of three features that give Pierre Vernus’ study interest beyond the particulars of one silk enterprise. The study illuminates the distinctive nature and workings of an entire industry that defies easy description, with an exceptional mastery of detail and clarity of presentation. Especially impressive is the treatment of the subtle interplays among high fashion, the decorative arts, and the technical possibilities for creative design and manufacture of fabrics, illustrated most vividly in Bianchini F?rier’s exclusive design contract with the renowned artist Raoul Dufy. On the side of production, the author provides a detailed description of technique, work process, plant layout and equipment, and labor recruitment for each of the firm’s weaving, throwing, and finishing (dyeing and cloth printing) factories, and follows trajectories of capitalization and profitability in its manufacturing sector. The elaboration is most extensive for the 1920’s, the best years of the enterprise. There is much to be learned, in short, about the workings of the twentieth-century Lyons silk industry in the broadest sense.

The second feature evoking larger interest in the study is the reading of great events, shocks, crises, and global transformations of a century of European economic history through the lens of a key player in a valued industrial sector. This amounts to an experience of that tumultuous century “writ small” in the conditions imposed on the firm and the decisions taken by it. For example, World War I accentuates difficulties of recruiting a skilled labor force for the firm’s specialized manufacturing operations while turning its international marketing initiatives away from war-torn Europe and towards Argentina, initiating the postwar extension of its commercial network to South America. The 1930’s and the Second World War challenge the carefully equilibrated integration of manufacture and commerce that had been the firm’s special path to success. Assured profitability through foreign sales and exclusive contracts with high fashion designers, self-financed investments, haute nouveaut? production of fabrics using natural silk fibers, and certain manufacturing operations ? notably silk throwing ? are sacrificed or modified as enhanced protectionism, fragmented international markets, weak incomes, and, under the German Occupation, rigid state administration of the economy alter the more congenial industrial climate of the earlier years of the enterprise. The conditions of occupied France elicit tensions among firms of different sizes and reputations within the silk industry, and Bianchini F?rier finds itself among the industry’s “elites” favoring more coordinated and forward-looking responses over the resistance of small and medium-sized firms. In the era following World War II, the more democratized, youth-oriented consumer culture elicits a challenge of a very different sort. Ready-made fashions using artificial textile fibers compete with Couture and force the haute nouveaut? into an ever narrowing market niche, the only place where the brand name of Bianchini F?rier makes a difference. Competition at home and abroad from the new trend-setting “stylists,” especially on the all important American market, reduces profit margins. These developments threaten the self-financing strategy of the enterprise over the long run and force major changes in company form and internal organization.

The third feature concerns the remarkable capacity of the firm to survive and even to thrive well into the twentieth century, as an essentially traditional form of enterprise. Ownership and structure remain within three, and after 1912 two, families, financed by a combination of retained earnings and capital drawn from family members. Only rarely and then in moments of exceptional crisis does the firm borrow from outside sources. This type of enterprise was the norm for flexible specialized production of highly differentiated products in the nineteenth century, especially in the luxury goods sector, even in the United States (Scranton 1997). The Bianchini F?rier case stands out as exceptional for a context and a period when its viability would appear to be questionable. It illustrates a form of industrial enterprise that has been characterized as an “historical alternative.” The historical alternatives approach to business strategy and business history has been conceptualized in terms of factors such as “economies of variety” enabling the rapid adjustment of volume and composition of output to ever changing demand conditions and manufacturing imperatives, and the adoption of “hedging strategies” to deal with uncertainty and contingency (Zeitlin 2003). These elements would seem to fit well Bianchini F?rier’s early decision to integrate towards both manufacturing and commercial poles of the haute nouveaut? sector and to make strategic adaptations at each end in response to emerging opportunities and new challenges. Through its permanent sales office in Paris, for example, it positioned itself at the point of maximum creative engagement in the market for its products, where high fashion, dressmaking, and the decorative arts converged. Through its silk throwing operation, at least initially, it inserted itself into the emerging sector of artificial silk, a move that enabled it to maintain a line of profitability amidst otherwise difficult times in the 1930s and after World War II. This study provides an unusually well-documented instance of an historical alternatives model of a modern industrial firm, with a fine sense of the enabling context for such a firm’s longevity and success. The study would do well to articulate the logic of this firm’s multiple strategies of adaptation in light of that model’s theoretical concepts, along the lines undertaken, for example, for the putting-out silk manufactures of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Poni 1997, Cottereau 1997).

This is an empirical business history that benefits from the author’s vast knowledge of every aspect of the Bianchini F?rier enterprise. That knowledge reflects the author’s wide-ranging familiarity with and understanding of all the key elements of the industry of which Bianchini F?rier was a part and of the business environment in which it first established its name and to which it subsequently adapted in creative ways as circumstances changed. It also reflects the unusually rich archival record of the firm’s history, of the kind more commonly available, in French business history, for the sectors of banking, electricity, and automobile manufacture (Cassis 2003). The only other business histories of Lyons silk manufacture of note are a recently published monumental history of the family and silk enterprise of Claude-Joseph Bonnet (Pansu 2003) and an older master’s thesis on the Lyons putting-out firm of Lamy Giraud (Charpigny 1981). Both of these concern primarily nineteenth- century cases. Pierre Vernus’s study is the only twentieth-century business history for this industry and, in the empirical mode of such an undertaking, sets a high standard for future work.


Cassis, Youssef. “Business History in France,” in Business History around the World, eds. Franco Amatori and Geoffrey Jones. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 192-214.

Charpigny, Florence Patricia. “La Fabrique lyonnaise de soieries: Une maison ? travers ses archives. De Lamy et Giraud ? Lamy et Gautier, 1866-1914.” M?moire de ma?trise, Universit? Lyon II, 1981.

Cottereau, Alain. “The Fate of Collective Manufactures in the Industrial World: The Silk Industries of Lyons and London, 1800-1850,” in World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization, eds. Charles F. Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 75-152.

Pansu, Henri. Claude-Joseph Bonnet: Soierie et soci?t? ? Lyon et en Bugey au XIXe si?cle. Les assises de la renomm?e: Du Bugey ? Lyon. Lyon: Tixier, 2003.

Poni, Carlo. “Fashion as Flexible Production: The strategies of the Lyons Silk Merchants in the Eighteenth Century,” in World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization, eds. Charles F. Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 37-74.

Scranton, Philip. Endless Novelty: Specialty Production and American Industrialization, 1865-1925. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Zeitlin, Jonathan. “Productive Alternatives: Flexibility, Governance, and Strategic Choice in Industrial History,” in Business History around the World, eds. Franco Amatori and Geoffrey Jones. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 62-80.

George J. Sheridan, Jr. is Associate Professor of History at University of Oregon (Eugene) and author of “Craft Technique, Association and Guild History: The Silk Weavers of Nineteenth-Century Lyon,” in Guilds and Association in Europe, 900-1900, eds. Ian A. Gadd and Patrick Wallis (Centre for Metropolitan History, University of London, 2006): 147-168, and co-editor (with Evlyn Gould) of Engaging Europe: Rethinking a Changing Continent (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005). Current work includes two book-length manuscripts on the silk industry in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Lyon, one focusing on silk weavers’ associations and the other on fashion and fabrics, weaving technology, and social ideology.

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII