If you opened up social media two weeks ago it was difficult to dodge pictures of the Notre Dame spire collapsing and crying face emojis. The feeds of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and more were awash with images of the blaze and smoke blowing across the Parisian skyline. Tragedy struck - in the words of President Emmanuel Macron, the fire struck the epicentre of French life.
Macron’s speech of despair quickly turned to reconstruction: “We will rebuild. All together… it’s part of the fate, the destiny of France, and our common project over the coming years.” And with the discussion of reconstruction came that of an international fundraising campaign to support the cost of recreating the 850-year-old building. The campaign is now live on the Fondation du Patrimoine website with the tagline “Let’s save Notre-Dame de Paris together 19 576 319 euros already raised from all over the World!”
The news the next morning focused on funding, with the star spotlight on a donation from the Arnault family run LVMH luxury group. LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE is a multinational luxury goods conglomerate responsible for brands including Veuve Clicquot, Belvedere, Moët & Chandon, Sephora, Dior, Fendi, Givenchy, Kenzo, Louis Vuitton, Bulgari and Guerlain. The world’s leading luxury group with a recorded revenue of €46.8 billion for the year 2018, the €200 million donation seems only a penny from the bulging pockets of the economic powerhouse. And yet it indicates something more than just a sweet gesture. If considered in light of the nature of the luxury industry, funding the reconstruction has not only cultural and philanthropic motivation, but also marketing incentives for the conglomerate and the family steering it.
The Arnault family and LVMH likely have a cultural and possibly also a religious significance for their donation, especially as the horrific event fell on the week of Easter. Yet, the argument for a matching marketing motivation remains. This motivation? The link between French culture, fashion and luxury, a link which dates back to around the 17th century, epitomised in Jean Baptiste Colbert’s overquoted comment “Fashion is to France what the gold mines of Peru are to Spain.” The luxury industry which developed in France from the 17th century on, via the Haute Couture of Charles Frederick Worth, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior and Paco Rabanne, is innately tied to the image of Paris. During World War II, the Nazis were unable to remove this bond as the couturier and president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (the French Trade Association of High Fashion), Lucien Lelong, stated that the industry was dependent on thousands of skilled artisans and ateliers based in Paris and the surrounding French nation, and would not function in Berlin or Vienna.
With the outsourcing of production during the 20th century, the relationship between luxury and Paris became increasingly symbolic. It focused on images, cultural heritage and symbolism, swirled up in the romanticised glamour of Paris fashion week and the millions of euros that that the biannual event brings to the city. Adverts presented sophistication and style across the capital- in front of the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Sacré-Coeur and debatably the most photographed bridge in the world, the Pont Alexandre III. These cultural icons lent their splendour to the luxury brands and goods that featured them. The cultural and physical history of France and luxury industry became increasingly intertwined, not only for production reasons but as concepts in their own right. Brands based in France sold their products not only for what they were, but for their French nature and their engagement in the cultural hegemony of the country.
While not all the brands held under the LVMH umbrella are French, or based in Paris, they benefit from the glamour of Paris as the centre of the global luxury industry. The Arnault family and LVMH donation is a sweet gesture to the support of French cultural heritage and possibly a goodwill line item in LVMH’s books. However, it also acts as a confirmation of the link of the luxury industry with its epicentre and the locations around the city that reinforce the cultural and economic capital that luxury purveys. Not only is the group supporting French heritage, but also ensuring that the power that emanates from Notre Dame can bathe models bearing items from LVMH brands in years to come.
Alice Janssens is a PhD candidate and lecturer at the Department of History. Her PhD research explores the business history and economic geography of the fashion capitals, focusing on the Berlin fashion industry during the Interwar period.