Elisabeth Ponsolle de Portes’ career has been as rich and diverse as French luxury itself. She started out as a teacher and a researcher in French literature. In 1981, she joined the department of museums under the French ministry of culture and worked on the development of new audiences for museums. From 1986 to 1997, she developed museum programmes for Africa and Arab countries and worked on projects related to the fight against illicit traffic of cultural property, museum ethics and protection in case of armed conflicts at Unesco.
She took the reins of Comité Colbert, an association that houses 69 French luxury brands, in 2003. Her strategy prioritizes opening up at international levels. She is currently gearing up to take the association to Russia and India in 2007.
When she’s not working, Portes likes to spend time with her two sons, visiting exhibitions, attending concerts and decorating her family house in the south of France.
In an interview with Campaign, Portes dwells upon topics ranging from Comité Colbert’s objectives, the problem of counterfeits, and her India plans. Excerpts:
How does an association of luxury brands typically work and what are your main objectives?
Comité Colbert represents a tremendously diverse group of crafts, unique in the world—a total of 130 in 10 categories. As a result, Comité Colbert is an ideal representative for French culture and identity, symbolizing the world-acclaimed French art of fine living.
It gathers seven working commissions whose members are chairmen and CEOs or other senior executives from member companies. A total of 120 people sit on these commissions, responsible for steering the projects and actions undertaken by the association and defined by the board.
Our main objectives are to promote the cultural values of the brands, their heritage as well as their projection into the world of today and tomorrow with their capacities to innovate and create. We are also working to lay the groundwork for the future of this French industry, and to create an environment conducive to collective and individual brand development.
As the head of the apex body of French luxury brands, how do you deal with fake products all over the world?
The Comité Colbert action is three-fold: supporting new legislations in France and the world to ensure better protection of intellectual property rights, collaborating with enforcement agencies and creating public awareness on the phenomenon.
The association helps its member companies combat counterfeiting by setting up anti-counterfeiting units, intervening in “source” countries, and through actions with national and international authorities. In 1994, Comité Colbert played an important role in the enactment of the Longuet Law in France and the creation of the National Anti-Counterfeiting Committee. Since then, we have regularly undertaken poster campaigns to raise awareness among the general public. A new campaign will be launched in April in France.
India recently opened up 51% foreign direct investment (FDI) in single-brand stores. What does this mean for the French luxury industry and especially, Comité Colbert?
For Comité Colbert, the liberalization of FDI up to 51% is a first step. However, only three brands out of 68 owned by Comité Colbert companies today have shops in their own name, despite the fact that people in India are very familiar with our brands and go to buy them in Dubai. Taxes, calculation of countervailing duties, labelling of maximum retail price on imported products and non-VAT harmonization remain very difficult for our brands. We will try to lobby the Indian government on this issue of market access.
It is very important for a luxury brand to have control on its distribution—it is part of its specificity.
The luxury market, reportedly, is worth $17.7 billion in India. What are the challenges and opportunities for luxury players and which direction do you see the luxury market taking?
Comité Colbert has recently conducted a study with a consulting firm, AT Kearney, on the economic impact of our members. The findings reveal the undisputed leadership of Comité Colbert members across the world, with sales standing at €20 billion, up by 5.5% a year since 2001, and a sales volume of €31 billion.
Outside Europe, they have nearly the same economic weight as the French motor industry and 10 times more than the French rail industry. They represent one-quarter of the world luxury sector, nearly twice the Italian luxury sector and 2.5 times the US luxury sector. The challenge for us is to illustrate this success story today and tomorrow, and maintain our leadership.
What are the opportunities and challenges for luxury marketers in new, emerging markets? How are you pushing growth in developed markets?
In mature markets such as Japan or the US, collective action has made it possible to define each member’s image in terms of French excellence in the past.
Comité Colbert’s action is now concentrating on emerging countries—India, China, Russia—where the value-add of collective action is high. It aims to provide support for members as they set up local operations and communicate the cultural component of the luxury message to new customers. One of the association’s missions is providing support to members undertaking this new challenge.
To achieve this purpose, Comité Colbert develops projects and targeted actions such as organization of large-scale cultural events to promote the values shared by its members, assert the cultural identity of the luxury sector and enhance its image through themed exhibits and communication actions. High-level contacts with political authorities of targeted countries and group trips of CEOs for discussions relevant to the sector are also very important to push growth of the markets.