The fire at Notre-Dame de Paris on Monday 15 April produced an astonishment on a scale as rare as it was sudden, seizing the whole of France and many other countries beyond its borders, in Europe, America and Asia. While the embers had not yet been extinguished, very early on there was a spontaneous desire to make a major contribution to the immense reconstruction work that was about to begin. As everyone will have noticed, it was the luxury families who launched the movement: the Pinault family, the Arnault family, the Bettencourt family. These are the three big names in French luxury goods, the very ones who are helping to develop the soft power of France, its culture, its influence on world markets, through the renowned luxury brands of the Kering, LVMH and L'Oréal groups.
CEach was also struck by the significant amount of donations announced, the cumulative total of which was exceeded one billion euros barely 48 hours after the tragedy. These sums are commensurate with the immense fortune of the donors, but also commensurate with the probable cost of the work. They are finally at the level of the exceptional symbolic charge of this fire which almost brought down a building that alone embodies the whole of the "European Union".History of Franceits roots, its culture, its identity, whether one is a believer or not.
Why has luxury gone to the forefront of the will to refuse the announced destiny and of the forces for the reconstruction of Notre-Dame? Let's eliminate from the outset the theses that will want to see there only a communication or fiscal strategy. This is not knowing the creators of these groups very well. In reality, the causes are of a different nature, linked to the profound function of luxury and the specificity of French luxury.
Luxury, a religious origin
Luxury is the industry of excellence, but it began as a sacred activity. From time immemorial, in all the countries where the luxury industry has been able to develop, the best craftsmen have been mobilized to invent, create, and manufacture exceptional products, made of the most precious rare materials, and on which working time was not counted, invaluable gifts offered as sacrifices to the gods, either to reconcile them before the battle, or to thank them for victories, or good harvests. The very high price of these products is precisely what makes it possible to be offered as a sacrifice, that is to say, in the literal sense of "what is sacred". This is why temples were covered with gold, churches were decorated with the most beautiful objects, and artists were quick to give their best to this end.
After the gods came the demigods, the nobles, the dominant castes, to whom nothing was denied, the privilege of birth. The French Revolution put an end to the privileges of birth, but not to the right to access the beautiful, the sublime by virtue of one's own fortune, that is to say one's destiny and means. The communist revolutions themselves began with a phase of eradicating inequalities, but the countries that experienced them were forced to revive their economies by letting go of entrepreneurship and innovation. In other words, to liberalization ... which recreated inequalities on arrival.
Luxury feeds precisely on inequalities, because some people need more money to pay for objects that are worthy of their preciousness. Everywhere in the world, the rising social classes want to enjoy their efforts and be recognized. Hence the notable growth of the luxury industry.
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Even if it is true that this sustained growth is the result of the successive arrival of waves of the new rich, yesterday from Japan, then from Russia and now from China, it would be a mistake to see luxury consumption only as the search for appearances, for "bling bling". This is true in the first stage of customers' lives, but very quickly they reach a deeper truth, that of the cultural and sacred dimension of the objects they buy so dearly. For the paradox of luxury is that it elevates the buyers, not only in the perception of others through the known value of the products and logos displayed, but also by offering them a way out of everyday life, thanks to the possession of an incomparable piece that condenses all the spirituality, the living culture of a country, its history, its art.
Cultures of place, time, the sacred
Luxury, especially French luxury, is building up in condition sine qua non to be the luxury of being able to condense the uniqueness of a place, a historical heritage, and a filiation. This luxury makes space, time and blood the basis of its influence and its quest for supremacy. Hence the importance of the " made in ", the cult of origins, respect for the founder and his legacy. Luxury brands, such as Hermès and Chanel, constantly refer to it as their most precious heritage, because this durability anchored in a place of origin and carried by a creator is the basis of their "non-commerciality", the refusal to consider themselves as mere commercial products.
In reality, the luxury industry is also sacred: its brands talk about their "icons", they build "cathedrals" in the capitals of the world, dedicated to the magnificence of the brand, to the development of the community of believers, who adhere emotionally. No other industry values the notion of heritage as much as it does the foundation of its uniqueness: luxury brands project themselves all the more into the future as they are assured of a past that distinguishes them, just as it confers distinction on the brand's followers.
One then understands the deep affinity between this area and Notre-Dame, the heritage of French culture and its history, where the national sacred has been concentrated for eight centuries. Luxury is the showcase of France, of its ability to produce objects derived from art, from brands of elegance nourished by their history and their places. France, which represents a history and a terroir common to these brands, has as its symbol a few monuments erected at the rank of world heritage...with Notre Dame in the forefront.
Families, not brands
It will not have escaped anyone's notice that luxury houses are the new patrons of art today. Yesterday the patrician families of Florence or Venice encouraged the arts, just as our Kings of France did before the State became the guarantor of culture and its diffusion to all by developing museums, art schools, academies, etc. But the welfare state cannot do everything. Moreover, art has become a highly speculative market where the prices of paintings or sculptures are soaring, because these pieces are unique, and therefore objects of rivalry for their possession by museums around the world, including those now, emerging countries.
With the State having limited spending, luxury has become an essential patron of the arts. It has the means and the know-how. This is also part of a long-term approach known as the "Art of the Art".artification aiming to transform non-art into art. Luxury is the by-product of art. Hence the multiplication of collaborations with contemporary artists from all over the world, the sponsorship of grandiose exhibitions that are an anthem to fashion designers, or the creation of museums such as the Louis Vuitton Foundation.
This changes the perception of luxury items themselves. As such, it was natural for the great luxury houses to come to the rescue of this great symbolic house that is Notre-Dame. The luxury sector owes a lot to France, and it had to give it back.
Finally, it should be noted that the offers of donations were made in the name of the families themselves, Pinault, Arnault, Bettencourt... certainly through their foundations, whose function it is, but not through their well-known brands. For the symbolic significance would have been quite different. The promotion of brands means "doing business", it means reintroducing the merchants of the temple at a time when the building itself had a foot on the ground, and when any idea of short-term interest is banished. Above all, it would have been to depart from the sacred...
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Jean-Noël KapfererSenior Professor, INSEEC Business School
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