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Innovation & Know-How

“Corporate espionage is what made French luxury relevant”

After investigating for more than ten years, Parisian journalist Laurence Picot publishes: “Les Secrets du Luxe” ( “Secrets of Luxury”). A fascinating publication that goes back to the origins of French luxury, with its many colorful characters, its darkest secrets and its stokes of genius.

Fabio Bonavita

By Fabio Bonavita30 novembre 2020

Specialized in the luxury industries, Laurence Picot has worked for more than fifteen years as a journalist with Le Monde, ELLE and Paris Match. She also taught a master in luxury industry management at l’Université de Paris Est and created the art science collective LuxInside. From 2012 to this day, she has investigated the origins of French luxury, going back to the 17th century, in order to understand all its aspects. To do so, she examined the public and private archives in France and abroad, using often unpublished and original documents.

The journalist Laurence Picot investigated for more than ten years. (DR)

Your book starts in 1661. At the time, France strangely looks like it does at the moment, with a pandemic, climate instability and mass unemployment.

That is correct. Similarities between both periods are rather troubling. In 1661, France was going through climate disruptions that were destroying crops, with scorching summers and freezing winters. Agriculture was the main industry in France. From then on, many workers ended up on the street, unemployed and with no money so sustain. In parallel, France was the most populated country with twenty million inhabitants, twice as more as in England and Russia. And the plague was also making its big come back.

That’s when Jean-Baptiste Colbert gained power…

Yes, he was nominated as minister for Louis XIV, the Sun King. One of his first measures was to conduct a great inquiry to determine how to enable economic recovery in the country. Very soon, he realized that France needed to turn to superfluity.

Which will later be called luxury?

It’s true that will happen later, as the word luxury doesn’t exist in the French language in 1661. It appears in the dictionary in 1694. By superfluity, we need to understand what is considered superfluous. Therefore in 1665, luxury manufactures are created in France. Colbert’s initiative also explains the name of the Comité Colbert, which oversees all the main luxury houses in France today.

In order to become relevant, manufactures used unorthodox methods back then…

Fantôme, scanner et photographie, LuxInside artwork inspired by Marie-Antoinette’s « vaisseau à mât », 1754, Manufacture de Sèvres, 2020 (Bellota Films/Laurence Picot)

Even worse. Actually, it wasn’t the companies back then, but the French state that used corporate espionage to acquire its neighbors’ production secrets. Italians excelled in mirrors and glasswork, England in fine linen and China in porcelain and looms. Colbert also hired the most talented artisans and even exfiltrated them away from their countries to have them work in Paris. It’s like a true James Bond or cloak-and-dagger movie.

Do you imply that French luxury is not really French?

It’s a historical lie. To say that French luxury has existed since the dawn of time is false. It was built on the influence of the whole world. During the 18th century for example, French spies stole everything from China, including porcelain or silk techniques. It’s funny observe that many centuries later, the West is worried about being copied by companies from the Middle Kingdom.

In your book, you mention startups, influencers, androids, networking, businessman: why these contemporary words in a historic book?

You would be surprised to know android is a word that already existed in the dictionary back then and refers to anything that looks human. Regarding startups for example, I noticed that the manufactures’ attributes created by Colbert were the exact same as the ones of startups, with a certain competitive aspect and a capacity to innovated for instance. My book speaks to the greater public therefore I also wanted to tell the story of French luxury in a casual way.

France owes its luxury manufactures to Jean-Baptiste Colbert (DR)

According to your historian and journalist perspective, how has 17th century luxury evolved over time?

I discovered that exceptional artisanship was not everything. Luxury at the time always depended on a technical innovation born from the scientific world (chemistry, mechanics…). The leaders of the mirror royal Manufacture for instance hijacked the artistic cast glass technique by Bernard Perrot. They developed this technique to replace blown glass and outperform the Murano glassmakers with very large mirrors. From copying as of 1665 to innovation in 1693, this was Colbert’s strategy exactly.

What do you think of luxury today?

While waiting for libraries to reopen, «Les Secrets du Luxe» is available on Arte boutique: https://boutique.arte.tv/detail/les-secrets-du-luxe

In my opinion, it should go back to its fundamentals by capitalizing on rare crafts. For example, to create luxury shoes, it is essential to use bi-material nails. However, there is only one nail maker left in France and if we were to proceed without bi-material nails, the sole would shatter. Since the 1980s, luxury has been too focused on its image. It should rather invest in research to be great again.

Inspired from the book «Les Secrets du luxe», the documentary «L’invention du luxe à la française» produced by Stéphane Bégoin, will be broadcast on December 5 on ARTE

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