Comité Colbert has entered the arena to defend French luxury

Béatrice Peyrani

By Béatrice Peyrani01 juillet 2020

On March 26th, at the height of the Covid crisis, Bénédicte Epinay was appointed deputy director of Comité Colbert , the banner under which 83 leading French luxury companies are united. The enthusiasm of the former deputy editor of Les Echos, who had been at the helm of the luxury division of the Pelham Média agency for the past four years, remains undiminished. In this exclusive interview, she unveils the new ambitions of Comité Colbert.

French luxury is an economic heavyweight accounting for more than 30% of the CAC 40 and employing more than one million people in France (Shutterstock)

How resilient have the different brands that make up Comité Colbert been?

Bénédicte Epinay has been appointed deputy director of Comité Colbert (DR)

It's too early to say. Comité Colbert brings together fourteen different luxury sectors - from haute couture and fashion to the automotive industry, hotels, gastronomy, leather, vineyards… The health crisis has affected some more than others. Just look at Paris, where historic palaces will not reopen before September because of a lack of tourists from outside Europe, who make up the bulk of their customers. Others, like caterers, have no choice but to wait, given the health requirements and the ban on large gatherings in France. For Potel et Chabot, the Roland Garros tennis tournament may be the first truly major event of the new school year. The first half of the year has been unprecedented for all the players in the luxury sector. But it has also brought about some remarkable surprises, paving the way for long-term changes. For example, while all points of sale were closed during lockdown, one of our Maisons in the perfume sector managed to replace almost all of its in-store sales with online purchases.

Does this mean that there will be a different luxury after COVID-19? Giorgio Armani called for “timeless elegance” and “a more authentic and meaningful landscape”, but isn’t there a risk that luxury will no longer be fashionable?

Giorgio Armani muses on a new meaning for fashion. But the brands of Comité Colbert represent much more than fashion: they represent luxury in the broadest sense. And luxury has always been timeless and authentic. It says something profound about our societies. It is its marker. It has never been out of fashion, and often it has come out of wars or crises even stronger than before. Just think of the Roaring Twenties and the unbridled creativity that followed two particularly traumatic episodes: the First World War and the Spanish flu. I am sure that after this period of confinement, luxury creators - who also went through this introspective phase themselves - will be extraordinarily imaginative. Just consider the challenge posed by the absence of fashion shows for the world of couture, it puts their imagination to the test. More than ever, French luxury is going to amaze the world, it is going to reinvent itself while remaining true to itself: calming our anxieties and fulfilling our desire for status at the same time. Two immanent, permanent and intangible objectives, regardless of economic circumstances! I remember the Lipstick Index, a concept invented by Leonard Lauder, president of Estée Lauder, who noticed that lipstick sales increased in times of recession as women replaced their most expensive purchases, like dresses or bags, with tubes of lipstick. Our desire for luxury did not simply vanish during confinement, it just took second place after vital needs. But this demotion was very short-lived in China, where sales of luxury products picked up again very quickly, no doubt because this is a first-acquisition market.

What role will Comité Colbert play in the coming months to enable Paris to remain the capital of luxury?

Since 1954, Comité Colbert has been acting in the shadow of its members, committing itself in the field to opening new markets or fighting against counterfeiting, among other things. Now, the time has come to step out of the shadow and into the light. This mission is expressed in our new raison d'être: “to promote passionately, to develop sustainably, and to patiently pass on French know-how and creativity to breathe life into dreams.” This is expressed in Comité Colbert’s ambition to become the voice of French luxury beyond the circle of its members, a voice we listen to because Comité Colbert brings together the finest Houses and the best experts in the luxury industry. We deserve to have a voice because French luxury is an economic heavyweight even in these unstable times, accounting for more than 30% of the CAC 40 and employing more than one million people in France.

In the absence of international tourists, is Paris, the capital of luxury, going to go digital to reach out?

We do not intend to step in for our members, who have their own digital strategy. But just consider how nimbly our major luxury and fashion houses converted their shows into digital events. On the other hand, we are going to be particularly vigilant in the fight against counterfeiting online. The rise of digital technology is a tremendous asset for the luxury sector, increasing the visibility of brands and their creations by a factor of ten, but it also carries with it some risks if the right safeguards are not put in place.

On this crucial subject, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, opened a consultation on June 2nd for the introduction of legislation on digital services, the Digital Services Act. The aim is to make platforms more accountable by applying the same competition rules online that are in place offline. This is an important turning point. And counterfeit goods are specifically identified as “illegal”. To this end, we have set up a task force and we have until September to make proposals and, in particular, to demand that the major platforms that “host” counterfeit products can no longer evade liability. This new regulation will complement the e-commerce directive of 2000, which was drafted at a time when neither social networks nor smartphones existed and Amazon was still just an online bookshop.

But Comité Colbert is not the enemy of the web. And the virtual world is not the enemy of luxury or culture, either! The Louvre, which is an associate member of Comité Colbert, has seen the number of visits to its website soar during confinement: 10 million connections in two months, as compared to 14 million for the whole of 2019.

Since March, have you been able to start any new projects despite the confinement? What is your roadmap for 2020-2021?

First of all, just yesterday we were pleased to have been able to welcome our 83rd member, Charles Heidsick Champagnes, owned by the EPI group (Bonpoint, J.M Weston). This is proof that Comité Colbert, a unique association in the French industrial landscape (which has more of a history of organizing itself into federations), is more attractive and important than ever for French luxury brands. In addition, earlier this year, Comité Colbert created a commission in charge of sustainable development chaired by Cédric Charbit, chief executive of Balenciaga. This is an issue that is particularly close to our hearts. Comité Colbert took it up in the early 2000s, when it was not yet making headlines, by creating a system of benchmarks for luxury goods. We have started to update these guidelines because CSR strategies have changed a lot over the last few years. We are also in the process of mapping the know-how of our companies by region. Relocalization is not an empty word in luxury; our Houses are contributing to the preservation and transmission of time-honored traditions that continue to define the reputation of French craftsmanship and luxury products around the world.


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    Comité Colbert, a forward-looking committee created in 1954 by perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain, is made up of 83 French luxury houses of various sizes, both old and new, representing fourteen different professions in the French art of living (from A. Ducasse to Balenciaga, to Christian Dior Couture and Perfumes, to Hermès, and even Cartier and Breguet, controlled by the Swiss groups Richemont and Swatch, respectively) and 16 cultural institutions (such as the Paris Opera, the Louvre, the Château de Versailles, and others). Members are co-opted annually on the basis of five criteria: international ambition, high quality standards, creativity, imagination and ethical conduct. Together, the brands of Comité Colbert have a turnover of 59 billion euros and export 86% of their sales. Comité Colbert

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