A select group of French couture houses can be credited with setting modern luxury standards in the 20th century. Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, Yves Saint-Laurent and their fashion houses have maintained their status as industry heavyweights well into the 21st century, and are considered, at home and abroad, to be an essential part of France’s heritage. Sandrine McClure looks at the the museumification of French luxury.
There is an undeniable sense of national pride derived from France’s domination of the global luxury scene, with French brands amongst the most highly respected and sought after the world over.
But this desirability represents something of a double bind: luxury as defined on Avenue Montaigne has proved to be rather too marketable, and amongst French consumers there is now a vague – but increasingly widespread – anxiety around the idea that they are less and less able to enjoy their own cultural heritage as luxury becomes the preserve of rich buyers from abroad.
The end of exceptionalism
It’s fair to say that the world looks to France for luxury. So how does France look at luxury? French women feel a certain sense of ownership with regards to the culture and codes of luxury – that famous je ne sais quoi.
Luxury ought to be respected and respectful, and always backed-up by a certain savoir-faire, a way of life and a code of behaviour. However, they worry that the material goods with which to express this flair are moving well out of their budgets.
Brands have sought to make the most of emerging markets and their impressive disposable income by producing ever-more luxurious and expensive goods. As a result, prices for everything from luxury handbags to runway fashion show a clear upward trend over the last few years.
French luxury consumers’ sense of alienation is often crystallised through disappointing or even unpleasant retail experiences. Whether in Parisian department stores or luxury boutiques themselves, they feel that their meagre spending power compared with large groups of (sometimes spectacularly) wealthy tourists makes them second class luxury citizens.
There is also a sense that the more widespread access to luxury goods that is part and parcel of increased tourist numbers is negatively impacting luxury service: geared towards an ever more massive market, the discretion and personalization that consumers consider the hallmark of French luxury service culture is in danger of disappearing.
Though eye-watering prices and unimpressive service are the key drivers of this malaise, there is also a sense that even the style of luxury goods is losing its Gallic edge. The timelessness and elegance that are considered the cornerstones of luxury by French consumers are at odds with the more vibrant, youthful and quirky styles increasingly seen on runways and in shop windows.
Brands appear to be engaged in a crocodile skin and ostrich leather arms race as they strive to produce newsworthy ultra-premium pieces. There is a sense that these opulent showstoppers are edging out the more subtle and dependable luxury staples that French shoppers value for the ease with which they can be worn and mixed with more everyday items.
From the shop window to the display case
There is a clear sense of nostalgia for a golden age when Paris was fashion’s unchallenged capital rather than a shopping destination for moneyed tourists. Locked out by skyrocketing prices, frustrated by generic service, and left cold by flashy aesthetics, where does the French luxury consumer turn?
Increasingly, it seems, to the museum. The last few years have seen a raft of exhibitions dedicated to couturiers and designers in Paris, from Jeanne Lanvin through to Jean-Paul Gaultier. The trend went a step further in 2013 with product-based exhibitions around Miss Dior and Chanel N°5 at the Grand Palais. The opening of the Frank Ghery designed Foundation Louis Vuitton in leafy Neuilly at the edge of the French capital also points to the movement of classic luxury brands away from high-end goods and into the cultural sphere.
These phenomena may well signal the passage of luxury from an attainable aspiration for Parisian women to a cherished but ultimately abstract part of France’s national mythology. Luxury has always been an institution in France, but never quite so literally.
Can Chanel, Dior, Lanvin and other luxury monoliths continue to play up their Gallic identity as they are absorbed into an ever more globalised luxury market and worn by fewer French women? What references and imagery might these luxury brands draw upon for inspiration in years to come if their national origins do become less relevant?
And who will replace the Parisienne on luxury brands’ radars, if the French buyer is set to become an extinct tribe?
Sandrine McClure is a director at Added Value in Paris.
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