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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Luxury in the time of great tragedy
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Luxury in the time of great tragedy

France's great luxury brands haven't done much in this time of tragedy, and they ought to repair that

Brands like Cartier began their story in Paris. Photo: iStockPhotoPremium
Brands like Cartier began their story in Paris. Photo: iStockPhoto

Imagine if you were the head of Dior, Lanvin, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, or Hermès. You are sitting in your corner office in Paris—your beloved Paris—which is in a state of emergency, and will be for the next three months. What are you going to do? Do luxury brands have a role to play in times of crisis?

The simplest and easiest approach is to say nothing; to stay away from any political statement because no matter what you do, it could be misconstrued. LVMH and Kering, the two big conglomerates in French luxury, declared a holiday on the day after the Paris terrorist attacks. Some brands like Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Carven and others posted solidarity messages on their House Instagram account. But beyond that, the French luxury community (if there is one) mourned in private. Is this the right approach? You could argue it both ways, and I—at least this time—am arguing that it is time that French luxury brands speak up. Why? Because this is Paris—the home and heart of the luxury business. The place where storied brands like Cartier, Moynat, Boucheron and Balenciaga began their story, flowered and thrived. Why go silent at a time when their city needs them most?

There are a few good reasons. The biggest is the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. Facebook—a baby brand, relative to these guys—reacted to the Paris terror attacks and got both bouquets and brickbats. Its “safety check" feature in the wake of the Paris and Nigeria terror attacks was hugely useful. At the same time, the company was criticized for allowing users to change their profile picture to match the French national flag but not doing the same for the Beirut bombings that happened a day earlier. CEO Mark Zuckerberg made things worse when he said that the company couldn’t respond to every crisis because “unfortunately, these kinds of events are all too common". Selective outrage, screamed the critics.

The second reason for staying quiet is the belief that it is not their place to react. Luxury brands are in the business of curation and selection. They are arbiters of style, beauty and sensitivity. How to come up with a message that is appropriate and sensitive? John Galliano tried with his “Dior Not War" T-shirts in 2005, but it was at best, an insipid response.

The default mode is to do things quietly; to donate money to the victims of the attacks; to set up foundations; and worry about the effects of terror on their business. The luxury business gains over 40% of its revenue from travellers, says Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at investment company Exane BNP Paribas. Anything that disrupts global travel—primarily epidemics or terrorist attacks—would be a major negative for luxury goods. The Paris attacks, says Solca, “are a clear negative on what was already a difficult market for luxury goods."

The luxury business is also a victim of that fickle variable called “mood of the customer". One Paris-based executive, who did not want to be named, wondered if customers would buy a €2,000 ( 14,1492) handbag in times of terror attacks. The wise approach was to hunker down and soldier on, he said. And yet….. Could a business case be made for doing the opposite? Would it make commercial sense for a brand to take a stance against global terrorism? Certainly, such a contrarian approach would be a clear differentiator; help the brand to stand out in the minds of customers.

Even if I manage to convince luxury executives that they should craft an explicitly political message, what would it be? A Singapore-based CEO, who did not want to be named, suggested a “unity in diversity" type message. “When a French designer, Algerian leather processor, Tunisian embroiderer, Albanian supply chain manager, English merchandiser and Chinese store manager work together to deliver a great handbag to its customer, we send a message that integration creates beauty. And it should be that way in every walk of life—we need to reject messages of intolerance and promote integration," he said. Unity in diversity, or in this case, unity in adversity.

Another choice could be a variation of the French proverb: Mieux vaut prévenir que guérir (It is better to prevent than to heal). In such a time, it is better to prevent and to heal.

Would you buy such a message if it were crafted into a Stella McCartney handbag or an Hermès scarf? Statements like this may help a waffling customer rationalize her spend on a luxury product. One reason to buy something beautiful and unique during difficult times is if it helps the greater good; if you can view it as a retaliation against the fear and horror all around. There are endless options for what the message can be once there is the will to commit; to take a stance.

Crafting such a message, either by one brand or a coalition of all the luxury brands, is a risk. But the results, in terms of goodwill towards the brand and customers buying your product or remembering your brand, could be tremendous. It would be somewhat akin to musicians coming together to sing, We are the world, still remembered after all these years.

Perhaps it is time for the top French luxury brands to stop playing ostrich. Perhaps it is time for them to speak out in unison against global terrorism. Perhaps it is time to stop worrying about the risks of saying the wrong thing and speak from the heart: authentically, emotionally and fearlessly. Why? Because it is Paris.

Shoba Narayan agrees with Arthur Rimbaud that Paris has “shed more tears than God could ever have required". She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at

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Published: 26 Nov 2015, 05:07 PM IST
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