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Comité Colbert's Bénédicte Epinay: “The crisis has been a catalyst for French luxury”

Alissa Demorest
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Comité Colbert's Bénédicte Epinay: “The crisis has been a catalyst for French luxury”

Bénédicte Epinay was named President & CEO of French luxury association Comité Colbert in December 2019, on the eve of the global health pandemic. One year on, the Comité is launching its first advertising campaign aimed at promoting the values of French luxury and its ties with artisanal craftsmanship. Luxe Packaging Insight spoke with Epinay about the initiatives she put into place in her first year at the Comité, and her view of the current crisis as an opportunity for France’s luxury players to reinvent themselves.

Comité Colbert was founded in 1954 with the goal of promoting and exporting « le luxe à la française ». Where does the association stand today?

First of all, what has set the Comité Colbert apart since its inception is that each member has equal weight, no matter what the company’s size. This differs from other industry federations where the bigger the company, the more one’s voice is heard. At the Comité Colbert, it’s one company, one vote. There were 15 founding members, all family-owned companies, and unlike today, the star maisons of the day were in the tableware sector: Baccarat, Puiforcat, Christofle… There were smaller players as well, like Dior and Hermès, which at the time was mainly dedicated to saddle-making and just beginning to make inroads into leather goods.

Along with its founding members, the Comité defined three key missions that are still valid today through its eight commissions: to promote French luxury on an international scale, to defend the industry when it comes to regulatory and legislative issues — lobbying of sorts — notably when it comes to intellectual property and fighting counterfeiting, which are two of our major battles. And lastly, the Comité has the role of spokesperson for French luxury.

We receive around 15 membership requests each year and acceptance depends on both subjective and objective criteria; the company must already have a major proportion of its sales in export markets and be actively involved in “spreading the word” of French luxury abroad, notably thanks to a strong DNA. Another criterion that is taking on an accrued importance today is ethics, in other words, how our members’ products are manufactured.

Today we have 85 members as well as 16 cultural institutions: the Opéra de Paris, the Chateau de Versailles, the Louvre… Recently the Comité expanded its membership beyond France to six European companies, including Greek jeweler Zolotas, Delvaux, a Belgian leather-goods company and Austrian crystal maker Reidel, that don’t have the equivalent of the Comité Colbert in their markets. We also have a European umbrella association, founded by the Comité Colbert, that gives us more weight in Brussels when bringing our voice to issues that concern our industry.

What was your vision for the Comité Colbert when you came on board?

I was appointed in December 2019, before the health pandemic began, so my analysis at that point was radically different from when I actually began the job in March 2020. By choosing a profile like mine, a woman whose entire career has been in the media (editor’s note: Epinay spent nearly 30 years at French daily Les Echos) the Comité was clearly looking to gain visibility, and to be more communicative, open and in sync with today’s world.

For the past year, we’ve been working on boosting our visibility; our brand new website went live in December 2020.

You’ve just launched the Comité Colbert’s first advertising campaign. Why now?

My motivation was in great part to change how luxury is perceived today. Generally when we think of luxury, we think of luxury consumers. But what if we changed our perspective, and instead what comes to mind when we say luxury are the one million people, who directly or indirectly obtain their livelihood from these luxury houses? We mustn’t forget that some 49% of employees in luxury houses work in manufacturing.

In addition to the print ads, which highlight the value of artisanal professions, we’ve produced a series of podcasts with the presidents of some of our member companies as well as video formats.

The campaign also promotes luxury as a motor of job creation in France. 

In the last five years, 3,500 manufacturing jobs were created in France in the luxury sector. What other markets have done as much in recent years? And let’s not forget that jobs in luxury manufacturing tend to be the starting point for lengthy careers. The sector creates value, and we needed to hammer home that message of pride and optimism.   

Last year, Emmanuel Macron called for a re-industrialization of France, but I believe that when it comes to luxury, it’s already a reality thanks to our numerous terroirs of expertise: La Glass Vallée, Champagne, Cognac, Limoges, Cosmetic Valley…

The Comité published a report last month, Le luxe français, créateur de valeurs, that highlights the sector’s industrial fabric in France and maps out the national footprint of all the different areas of expertise supported by various federations. When we saw the results, and especially the production sites that some of our members have recently opened, we realized that luxury has been very active. 

Yet this industrial activity is mostly concentrated in leather goods.

Yes, absolutely, and Hermès and Louis Vuitton have clearly been the drivers of this development. Louis Vuitton opened two production sites in France in 2020, creating a total of 470 direct jobs, while Hermès has two new workshops in the pipeline for 2021 and four additional ateliers for 2022-2023. These companies have chosen to invest and bring their savoir faire to specific regions, and in some cases revive leather-goods manufacturing tradition that had all but died out. The approach is very clever as they create workshops that are on a human scale, with no more than 250 staff per site, and as one reaches capacity, they open a second atelier not too far away. Over time, this forms an industrial fabric and helps to create an entire socio-economic ecosystem.

Has the health crisis encouraged member companies to bring some of their production back to France?

Opening industrial sites in France is always top of mind for our members, but a lot of companies also want factories that are close to their end-consumer. On this issue, we’ll have more visibility in a year or two, when the crisis has passed.

The transmission of manufacturing expertise and the lack of training programs are key issues facing France’s luxury sector. What needs to be done?

The current situation is problematic as numerous trades continue to face recruitment difficulties. In our report, we outlined the professions that are having trouble finding workers and it spans most of our sectors, from fashion and jewelry to cosmetics, hotels, wines and spirits.

However, I don’t see the problem as simply a lack of training structures or programs, but more generally that manual professions have a negative image in our society. Our aim is to make the artisan a role model for younger generations and we’re making headway. While there are a significant number of schools today and luxury groups are very active when it comes to in-house training, there is still work to be done to attract candidates and communicate that these métiers are noble ones. This is a major motivation behind our ad campaign and it's a message that will need some time to sink in.

Where does the Comité Colbert stand on CSR issues?

The Comité created a dedicated commission, Ethique & Durable (ethical and sustainable), just before I arrived, and these issues have only accelerated since then. The fears that CSR investments would be cut as a result of the crisis were clearly unfounded. The commission is currently drafting a White Paper to be published in June featuring "best" case studies from our members in the area of CSR policies. Our members felt that it was high time that the Comité Colbert were more vocal on the subject.

The Rayonnement International commission, which up to now was in charge of organizing events around the world to promote French luxury, is spearheading a new initiative to launch on April 16th. Initially, we had planned to invite our maisons' VIP Chinese clients last November to Paris for three days of experiences that “money can’t buy”. This is an event we do on an annual basis with clients from different regions and in 2020 it was China’s turn. In light of the pandemic, this wasn't possible, so we opted to transform the experience into a digital platform on WeChat. Developed in partnership with a Chinese agency and featuring the work of a Chinese illustrators’ collective, the platform is geared to young Chinese consumers. The six-month program will be a sort of promenade through our maisons and their savoir-faire. Visitors will choose different experiences they want to explore: scent or terroir, for example, and within those areas they will enter the universe of specific houses and have an immersive experience. The launch was meant to coincide with the opening of a major exhibition, La Chine et Versailles, curated by the Chateau de Versailles at the Forbidden City in Beijing, but unfortunately it has been pushed back to 2022.

Among our numerous projects in the pipeline, the Comité is also considering creating a major international event that would spotlight French luxury houses and provide an overview of the sector by addressing not just the key issues facing us today, but those of tomorrow.

How do you see 2021 panning out for France’s luxury sector?

I am quite optimistic. A lot of maisons have been incredible agile through this difficult period, and have taken strategic decisions that had been in the pipeline for several years in very short time frames. Many had been toying with the idea of launching in the digital realm in China for some time now, and due to the crisis they went ahead with it. The same goes for selling on social networks. The crisis was a catalyst of sorts; initiatives that formerly would have taken a few years came to the fore in just six months. Fashion is one example: brands mixed digital and physical runway shows with fantastic results in the space of just two seasons!

In the Comité’s 2020 annual report we published a study on how crises in the past have given the luxury sector opportunities to innovate, and how each crisis boosts creativity to result in beautiful creations. This will also be the case for the crisis that we are going through today and good things will come out of it. I believe that we will have gained five years in a single year and that can only be beneficial to the sector.

 

 

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