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Has Luxury Become a Dirty Word in France?

Brands like Dior, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent have always sold a piece of Paris — the world’s temple to luxury fashion — along with their handbags. But France’s bi-polar relationship with luxury is boiling over once again.
Longchamp store on Champs Elysées during the 18th Yellow Vests protest | Source: Getty Images

Has luxury become a dirty word in France, the world’s temple to luxury? Judging by the recent outbursts of populist violence in the country’s capital you might think so. “Thanks for the cashmere” was just one tag left by “black bloc” protesters last Saturday on a luxury storefront on the Champs Elysées in Paris, where stores belonging to Bulgari, Longchamp, Hugo Boss and Lacoste were ransacked and looted. In all, 80 stores on the world-famous avenue were hit — just when the “Yellow Vests” movement appeared to be losing momentum with lower turnouts on the streets. But it seems that “Musty France” — a phrase invoked some twenty years ago by writer Philippe Sollers and more recently in a mid-February headline in weekly news magazine Le Point — is here to stay; “Musty France” which, according to Le Point, “hates Jews, politicians, the police and capitalists…” And luxury?

On the nearby Rue Saint Honoré, a protester had tagged "Le luxe pour tous" ("Luxury for everyone"), a reflection of just how much the recent violence reflects the paradoxical fascination and rejection, hatred and desire for luxury goods that is embedded in popular French society, and is now reaching a boiling point. Luxury is a symbol of success, but it is also a scapegoat. In a country where the fashion industry generates €150 billion a year — surpassing the automotive and aeronautics sectors — and employs some 580,000 people, it is nonetheless accused of being anti-social. In this context, Hedi Slimane's latest collection — sublimating the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie with its riding boots, Harris Tweed jackets and cashmere sweaters — was perhaps the most radical of the recent Paris Fashion Week.

Verbal assaults on the evils of money are nothing new in France. They are actually a treasured part of the country's cultural heritage.

Of course, verbal assaults on the evils of money are nothing new in France. They are actually a treasured part of the country's cultural heritage. "Behind each great fortune there lies a great crime," wrote Balzac. François Mitterrand, president of the French Republic between 1981 and 1995, himself denounced "king money that ruins and rots down to the consciousness of men." In a country where the fear of losing one's job prevails — even though unemployment in 2018 fell to 8.8 percent of the working population, the lowest in ten years — the hatred of money has metastasised and hybridised with a populist egalitarian ethos that is proliferating against a backdrop of conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism and a hodgepodge of social worries.

"This talk of suspicion is sure to have an effect on our vision of success. The industry of indignation?" wrote French philosopher Pascal Bruckner in 2014. “Now that a growing mass of our compatriots can no longer afford to live decently, we are going to explain to them that prosperity is shameful and degrading.”

The parallels with the country's pre-revolutionary Ancien Régime stand out. "Revolution 1789" was graffitied on the smashed window of Repetto’s Champs-Elysées store last Saturday. The protesters’ placards made reference after reference to the French Revolution with the Yellow Vests in the role of the "sans-culottes." Brigitte Macron, who ordered a new porcelain set from the Manufacture de Sèvres and is personally involved in the refurbishment of the Elysées Palace's Banqueting Hall, Winter Gardens and Napoleon Salon, was compared to Marie Antoinette.

In Sérotonine, Michel Houellebecq’s latest best-seller, the author predicted this malaise. The book depicts a country bereft of ideals and transcendence, crushed by widespread depression. "A civilisation dies merely through weariness and self-disgust. What could social democracy have to offer me? Obviously nothing, just perpetuation of dearth, a call for oblivion." Paris versus the suburbs? Avenue Montaigne versus the Agora shopping mall? Slimane versus Houellebecq? The two have one thing in common: they hardly ever speak publicly. In France, the art of silence has become integral to producing one's art.

Paris has the stomach of an ostrich. It digests everything and assimilates nothing.

France has become a minefield partitioned by ideological struggle. Victimhood is now more popular than apprenticeship. Luxury has become surface bling endangered by its own accessibility. Meanwhile at certain elite French universities, the word luxury is not to be uttered. Marc Abelès, author of "An Ethnologist in the Land of Luxury" who lived through the May 1968 uprising, denounces the "do-gooder" correctness he sees among some academics. "Luxury has always retained a fragrance of the forbidden,” he says. “Today, in university circles, showing an interest in luxury comes across as, dare I say it, a luxury.”

And yet, paradoxically, Masters courses in the business of luxury are spreading fast. What's more, business is thriving for the behemoths of French luxury: LVMH, L'Oréal, Kering and Hermès alone account for one quarter of sales recorded by the 100 largest luxury firms worldwide in a sector that is set to reach €320 billion to €365 billion in sales by 2025, and has captured the imagination of China's newly minted millionaires and a new generation of millennials. This, though the temple is burning!

Paris has fallen under the spell of concrete led by architect Le Corbusier, a latter-day sorcerer's apprentice. He, who back in the 1920s decried the "venerable carrions, the tripe of old styles" of cathedrals and the Palace of Versailles, may in his own way have begun the burial of the decorative arts and luxury in the cultural imagination of France. Presently, Olivier Gabet, director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, is facing challenges as he plans an exhibition on luxury — scheduled to initially open in Dubai in 2020. Sponsors are few, and for good reason. Luxury in France is under attack.

And yet, in the very same country, there are signs that luxury is fighting back. Just look at the artisans, florists, jewellers and chocolate makers celebrating the call of luxury on a daily basis with their apple tarts, cashmere sweaters and the celebrated "point de 14" saddle-stitch by Hermès. Fourteen couture stitches, no more, no less. That is because luxury in Paris is a way of life, a way of committing to a craft, totally and absolutely. To quote Jean Cocteau, "Paris has the stomach of an ostrich. It digests everything and assimilates nothing. It is what gives it a look of meekness masking a boundless capacity for resistance." A very different kind of resistance.

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