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The Cult(ure) of Luxury

Last month I took a spin through the temporary shows Le Grand Numéro de Chanel at the Grand Palais Ephémère, and Louis Vuitton’s LV Dream next to the LVHM headquarters on the Rue du Pont Neuf. I’m not immune to the allure of French fashion and beauty, but those twin experiences left me wondering where luxury is going these days. It also left me with a strangely familiar uneasy feeling I couldn’t quite put my finger on at first…

The Proliferation of Fashion “Cultural Events”

Do you like crowds? Standing in line? Getting jostled constantly? Not being able to get a decent photo of anything because everyone else is trying to get the same photo? How about feeling like you’ve walked right into an advertorial, willingly giving your full attention for an hour or more to brands whose mission is to sell you something you never knew you wanted and don’t actually need?

Clearly I’ve been skeptical about the fashion world for awhile (see my articles on Ladurée and La Samaritaine). But I went to see the Chanel and Louis Vuitton events because I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to be enchanted, as promised by Chanel; to appreciate the artistic collaborations with Louis Vuitton (and to try the gourmet hot chocolate in the pop-up café).

Entertainment courtesy Chanel

Instead, at Chanel I found myself in a Disney-Carnivalesque atmosphere, surrounded by larger-than-life ads screened onto the walls and ceiling, waiting patiently in lines just to smell the perfume, to have my makeup touched up, to be ushered through clownish casino games to “win” little Chanel branded tchotchkes and samples (the same you’d get thrown into your bag at Sephora). Being patient so that I could possibly find that moment of wonder and discovery. Instead, I couldn’t help but find myself looking around and getting the sinking feeling that *this* isn’t luxury. I’d rather go to an actual Chanel boutique and smell the perfume in peace.

There were moments I was entertained, sure. But Chanel isn’t in the entertainment business, they’re in the fashion business, so I mostly felt like a consumer being sold a finely-crafted image I was expected to swallow whole, no questions asked. It didn’t help that the “gift shop” on the way out was just an expensive perfume shop (including a box of Chanel “essences” selling for €10,000) in a less-than-attractive setting more reminiscent of an airport duty-free shop than a luxury store on the Avenue Montaigne.

What makes something “luxurious” is a matter of personal taste, of course. For me, crowds aren’t part of the picture. Not that I’m a snob or an elitist. Crowds are quite fun in the right context, like in a massive nightclub or even at a carnival, where the crowds add to the festive atmosphere.

I visited LV Dream, a “history of artistic collaborations with Louis Vuitton”, with two contemporary art aficionados visiting Paris. It was set within the former discount furniture store Conforama overlooking the Pont Neuf (which Parisians will remember more readily than the publicity fluff referring to it as the “former Belle Jardiniere department store”) next to LVMH’s headquarters. 

I may have never purchased one item from Louis Vuitton, but I recognized almost every single artistic collaboration they’ve done over the past 25 years because they’ve been so highly publicized and commercialized (okay, and I live in Paris…perhaps I see it more often in the shop windows here than the average American would). We didn’t learn anything new as much as we were presented with a history of Louis Vuitton’s top-selling products.

After touring the products displayed as works of art, we once again end up in the gift shop where the thin volumes of Louis Vuitton city guides seem an absolute steal at €30 next to the €600 sunglasses and €9200 bags. We finish in the pop-up café (run by the 5-star Cheval Blanc Hotel across the street) to try the €14 hot chocolate. And yes, it was amazing hot chocolate, probably the best I’ve had in a long time. We sat on upholstered chairs beneath €4000 Louis Vuitton lanterns, surrounded by lush planters full of greenery. 

And yet…instead of enjoying it in the luxurious atmosphere of the Cheval Blanc or any elegant Parisian salon du thé, we were in a gutted furniture store trying to ignore the noisy queue of people waiting impatiently for our table. No, this isn’t luxury. So what it is, exactly?

They’re packing and presenting it as culture, but it’s really a massive marketing campaign where we willingly show up like sheep to submerge ourselves in their 360° advertisement. Remember when ads were the part we skipped?

They’re Just Immersive Ads. Beautiful, Aspirational, Hypnotizing Ads.

That mysteriously familiar yet uneasy feeling I mentioned at the start of this article took awhile to finally identify. It’s basically how I feel after I’ve finished reading a glossy fashion magazine like Elle or Vogue: not rich enough, beautiful enough, young enough, famous enough, or glamorous enough, but…maybe if I purchase that cream or wear that scarf or go to that resort or make better friends, I too could be “worthy”. But what they’re presenting as aspirational is at best beyond the average person’s means, or at worst a photoshopped illusion that few humans can live up to. That’s why I’m not the only one who doesn’t make it a habit of reading them anymore.

So what is it that makes normally intelligent people who shun the fashion magazines that aim to make us feel inadequate enough to purchase the “solutions” offered in their ads, suddenly arrive in Paris ready to embrace the real-life versions of what are in those pages? It suddenly seems absurd. Has anyone else noticed there’s not one plus-sized gown displayed in the Dior Gallery “museum”? We’re increasingly rejecting a lack of diversity in how women are represented in magazines, but seem to accept it here. It’s like the printed images couldn’t quite lure us anymore, so they’ve turned to the medium of our times, videos and expositions with Instagrammable settings where the smartphoned masses can do their marketing for them.

vintage Chanel ad
Convinced, yet?

We should never stop questioning what the fashion industry is presenting to us as standards for what is beautiful, desirable, or even attainable.

Am I Being a Killjoy?

It’s hard to resist the pretty images, I get it. And everyone wants a bit of pleasant escapism, like taking a break from watching climate crisis documentaries to binge through a season of Emily in Paris. Travel can also be a form of escapism, and Paris offers no shortage of those pleasures. But it wouldn’t hurt for all of us to be a bit more discerning.

Christian Dior, in Time magazine in 1957 said, “Of course fashion is a transient, egotistical indulgence, yet in an era as somber as ours, luxury must be defended centimeter by centimeter.”

I can’t speak for Christian or Coco or any of the fashion world’s historic trailblazers, but I seriously doubt any of them would be tricked into believing what’s being sold in their name today has anything to do with luxury.  

This is hardly a secret.

Pulling Back the Curtain on the Global Industrialized Fashion Industry

I’ve been reading fashion journalist Dana Thomas’s excellent 2007 book “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster”, which focuses on how the luxury industry sold out its values to reach “the masses”. According to her book, Bernard Arnault, CEO of the Paris-based luxury-brand group LVMH (and one of the richest people in the world) once said “What I like is the idea of transforming creativity into profitability. It’s what I like the most.” Thomas goes on to show how, in order to make luxury “accessible” and reach greater market share, tycoons have stripped away all that has made it special:

“Corporate tycoons and financiers saw the potential. They bought — or took over — luxury companies from elderly founders or incompetent heirs, turned the houses into brands, and homogenized everything: the stores, the uniforms, the products, even the coffee cups in the meetings. Then they turned their sights on a new target audience: the middle market, that broad socioeconomic demographic that includes everyone from teachers and sales executives to high-tech entrepreneurs, McMansion suburbanites, the ghetto fabulous, even the criminally wealthy. The idea, luxury executives explained, was to “democratize” luxury, to make luxury accessible. It all sounded so noble. Heck, it sounded almost communist. But it wasn’t. It was as capitalist as could be: the goal, plain and simple, was to make as much money as heavenly possible.” 

From Dana Thomas’s book “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster”

The book is a real eye-opener if you’re at all interested in how these fashion conglomerates turned luxury into an industry. The industrialization process tends to bring out the worst in most creative sectors –  think of food, cinema, or even travel – fashion and luxury are no different. If what they really produced were high-quality, beautifully-crafted items at affordable prices, then at least we could applaud their initiative. But instead, what is now one of the most heavily polluting industries on earth produces lower-quality items manufactured in overseas factories, which they sell to us at inflated prices while raking in unprecedented profits.

Their high prices are more about marketing than quality; we’re paying for the logo and what the image represents in consumers’ minds. These globalized brands are capitalizing on their long-ago fairytale beginnings in Paris to seduce the masses into shelling out for lower-quality products mass-produced outside of France. And they’ll do anything to keep the money flowing. Like free fashion events and museum shows in Paris.

The Grand Palais Ephémère location of the Chanel event is basically a trade show venue, and the former Conforama boutique housing LV Dream is just dead real estate awaiting its eventual transformation into a Louis Vuitton hotel. Both are perfect opportunities for these brands to produce mass-marketing events. Why pay for expensive magazine ads or television commercials when you can make your audience come to you? And hey, don’t forget to pick something up in the shop on your way out!

As a journalist friend of mine who covers the Paris fashion industry said to me, these shows are entry-level boutiques in disguise, “perfume and small leather goods being the gateway drug of choice”.

Museum shows aren’t immune to the influence of the fashion industry, either. Consider the new Galerie Dior (one of the many brands now owned by LVMH), or the current Schiaparelli exhibit at the Muséé des Arts Décoratifs. Their stunning collections have made them among the most popular museum shows in Paris. But most of us think – perhaps naively – that museums are there to educate us in an impartial way. When the brands they’re featuring are also bankrolling the show, we only get half the picture: the half that promotes the image the brand wants us to believe.

Some will argue that Coco Chanel’s collaboration with the Nazis in WWII or the real reasons behind John Galliano’s drug and alcohol-fueled meltdown while Artistic Director at Dior have nothing to do with the work they produced, and therefore don’t need to be mentioned. But they’re going to make sure we all know it’s the lawyer CEO of Tod’s – who bought and “resurrected” the Schiaparelli brand that died in the 1950s (a disturbing trend that’s worth its own article) – who donated millions of euros to renovate Rome’s Colosseum. 

Nothing that contradicts the carefully constructed image gets mentioned, such as Chanel’s quiet relocation of its corporate headquarters to the UK just after Brexit, as exposed last fall by Glitz – the new investigative journalism magazine focusing on the opaque luxury industry – in their three-part series, “How Chanel became British”. That doesn’t stop Chanel from selling its “Parisian dream” to consumers: Chanel was born in Paris, and to some it is Paris.

It’s always a good idea to question what it means when one company such as LVMH has so much concentrated wealth and power over a single industry that few will dare speak out against them. Yet the voices of investigative journalists are literally drowned out by the overwhelming power that these fashion conglomerates now have in controlling the conversation. It seems no one wants to piss off the guy hosting the fanciest party in town.

But you don’t have to fall for it.

Take the Luxury, Leave the Hype

I respect the hard work, the creativity, and the craftsmanship that goes into creating a true luxury product. If I had the means, I wouldn’t hesitate to pay more for something of lasting, high quality created by a French artisan or the talented designers I’ve had the pleasure to meet through my work over the years.

I resent the manipulation that these big luxury conglomerates use to sell their sub-par, non-luxury (yet still expensive) branded items by riding the coattails of the legendary designers and artisans who made their name. I want authentic luxury that makes me feel special and supports real artisans, not canned, mass-market “luxury” that exploits both the workers and the consumers for shareholder profits. 

 And these “shows” simply enforce the money-making power of the latter. 

We are entertained by the slick images, we are dazzled by the Hollywood stars in their ads, we are seduced by their carefully worded storytelling into shelling out for a piece of that luxury, even if it’s a cheap tchotchke souvenir with the right brand on the label.

We’re all being – dare I say it? – groomed into valuing and coveting branded goods that, for the most part, are mass-manufactured overseas. If we don’t end up spending more than we can comfortably afford, our desire is what fuels the brand’s status so that those who do have the means will keep shelling out.

If you’re going to walk into these shows, don’t leave your critical thinking skills at the door. Don’t simply allow yourself to be fed a nostalgic storyline of a luxury brand that bears zero resemblance to the multi-hundred-billion-dollar industry it has become today.

I’m Not Working for Them Anymore

Did any of you notice how quickly I glossed over my own role in all of this? If you’ve been following the Secrets of Paris for a long time in its 22-year history, you’ll know that I’m not immune to the mesmerizing lure of the fashion industry. My first real job in France was actually as the travel editor for ELLE Magazine’s first website back in 1999. There are plenty of times that I’ve attended and even promoted these events, and times when I’ve wrongly equated fashion with luxury, or branding with quality.

When I go to these places, share my photos, and tell you all about it, I’m a willing cog in the industrial luxury machine, mindlessly passing along their message, promoting their events, paying for a little sliver of the luxury they’re offering.

I like to think that you’ve all noticed how Secrets of Paris has moved away from all that in the past few years and towards a more sustainable, ethical, and responsible editorial focus. But in case that’s not clear, I’m going to make a public resolution for 2023…I’m going to use what little time I have to make sure Secrets of Paris brings attention to the independent artists, artisans, designers, and creators doing something unique here in Paris, rather than promoting things that line the pockets of LVMH’s shareholders and other industrialized luxury brands. I’m never going to have enough money to buy haute couture, so they’re not losing me as a client, but they’re losing me as a source of free promotion for their brand. 

What We’re Missing When We Give Luxury Consumerism All of Our Attention

If you’ve gotten this far (chapeau!) and you’re still not convinced, then at least consider the fact that we all have to make choices with how we spend our time. Especially in Paris. Even if you live here there are always more things to do than working people (or tourists on a short visit) have time to see and do.

You don’t need to come to Paris to see Louis Vuitton’s latest “It” bag or smell the latest Chanel perfume. Global luxury fashion conglomerates are so ubiquitous now, you can probably see them at your local shopping mall. They know this, so they’ve started selling limited editions available only at their Paris flagship stores. But unless you’re here to purchase one, do you really want to line up like a lemming to snap a photo to prove you were there?

Some of you might respond to that question with an enthusiastic “Hell, yeah!” Thanks for visiting, but this website probably isn’t for you.

For everyone else, think of it as an opportunity to unravel the mysteries of Paris, to escape the crowds and lines, to dig deeper and go into possibly uncomfortable territory to make a real connection, with the city, its people, its history, and what makes it such a special place.

Think of all of the museum expositions, historic monuments, breathtaking artworks, and hidden gardens we haven’t yet seen in Paris. Think of the possibilities of what we could discover if we look at the city with curiosity instead of with a shopping list. What would we have to experience to see a different side of humanity? To be profoundly moved? To change deeply-held (or simply ill-informed) beliefs? To discover something that made us understand the French culture and its people a little better? Can travel help us grow as human beings if we’re only here to shop and take pretty pictures? Perhaps these are lofty questions, but you might surprise yourself if you take the time to seriously try and answer them for yourself on your next trip.

Looking for some inspiration? There are over 100 museums in Paris: spend a morning in one that covers an era, artist, or subject you know absolutely nothing about, and enjoy the satisfaction of making a new discovery. How can window shopping ever compare? 

If you want to learn more about this topic from the investigative journalists who have plenty to dig up, subscribe to Glitz or check out Dana Thomas’s books and podcast.

6 Comments

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  • Brava, brava and brava! In an advertising and consumer goods SATURATED world-wide culture, never ever have your critical thinking skills not on full-blast. (But, oh, for just one more hour in La Samaritaine’s Vetements du Travaille Dept—truly a portal into another culture, without need for a time machine or a rocket ship!)

  • Oddly, in over a dozen trips to Paris, I’ve never gone shopping except for groceries. With all the gardens, museums and markets, why waste time looking for things you can buy at home or online? Life is too short.

  • I too have lost the “OOOOH” THING THAT USED TO TAKE MY BREATH AWAY AT THE DEVINE CLOTHES DISPLAYED. now I’m somewhat ho hum is this really couture fashion. With class.

  • Couldn’t agree with you more – on all accounts. Have noticed your shifts and appreciate them. Kudos to you for speaking out!

  • I totally agree with you – the photo of the Chanel price tag says it all, ‘made in China’. Years ago, when people still carried guide books, someone gave me a little one about independent craftspeople and their shops in Paris. I must find it! I love going to the fabric/haberdashery shops.

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