Sunday, March 06, 2011

Logo'd schmattas UPDATED

Continuing this blog's long tradition of defending the indefensible, and more recent one of covering scandals in the fashion world, I'm going to have to take LVMH's side over that of Hermès in this battle of the luxury-goods purveyors. That is, I'm not weighing in on the business-ethics aspects of this, which veer towards legal technicalities that one would need one of those JD-MBAs to understand, but rather the cultural question of a big, mean conglomerate taking over a poor little expensive-leather handbag shop. Which is how the head of Hermès is describing this, as a "'cultural fight.'"

We have in one corner LVMH, the fancy-schmancy-stuff empire behind those bags that are emblazoned with LVLVLVLVLVLV, and behind some champagne, and behind a whole lot of other stuff mentioned in the article. In the other, there's a family business, a quaint and humble little workshop that makes aw-shucks products like... the Birkin bag and ridonkulously expensive logo'd scarves. The dude from Hermès "likened [LVMH dude's] incursion to the rape of a beautiful woman," which begins to get at why I'm not sympathetic to the leather-goods-company's cause.

But aside from objectionable word choice, there's the preposterous idea that the folks at Hermès are not in it - "it," remember, being the business of fancy handbags named after celebrities - for the money. That it's all artisanal and about Old Families and How Things Once Were:

One February morning in Pantin, Mr. Dumas pointed to a large Birkin bag that required four Australian marine crocodile skins, instead of the usual three, to obtain a perfectly symmetrical pattern. Such extravagances cost money, but no matter: Hermès artisans never skimp to achieve a lower price point, something they fear that LVMH would press them to do. 
“We never discuss price,” Mr. Dumas says. “We are never thinking that we can sell X number of bags if we lowered the cost.”
OK. I believe that more attention goes into one of these handbags than, for example, the various tote bags I keep accumulating only to find they're less durable than the plastic bags they ostensibly replace. But we're supposed to believe that an international luxury business does not give consideration to price point? That in the Hermès family, which runs Hermès, "money" is "a subject that is almost taboo"? And we're supposed to think the value of a perfectly symmetrical crocodile handbag is something it's noble to protect?

I mean, on the one hand, I get the whole fine-leather-goods appeal (this purchase changed my life, or at least made me 500% less dowdy, and for anyone in Paris or willing to order something off the Internet that they haven't seen in person, I highly recommend that store, where the gorgeous bags will set you back a whole lot less than the logo'd variety), and that even when the end results are identical, which they aren't always, but are sometimes, there's an aesthetic appeal to the off-the-beaten-path atelier that's lacking from something with a massive flagship on all upscale shopping drags worldwide. But Hermès is not a very good example of that kind of small-scale operation. It's relative small-scale-ness, to the extent it's holding out from conglomerates, is precisely about appealing to wealthy consumers' artisanal-leather-goods fantasies. In other words, about making money.

Hermès's leader, who's not part of The Family but nevertheless has rustic credentials on account of riding his bike "in rural Auvergne, in south-central France, whose rocky peaks form the backbone of the Massif Central," reacted to one of LVMH dude's incursions on his company as follows: "This was not the way business was done, he thought — not in France, and certainly not among gentlemen." Blech, blech, and blech. It's one thing if a company is violating the law. But the notion that because the schmattas you're selling are fancy and worn by fancy types, you're "gentlemen" is just... Are these two men going to duel?

Without going down the paranoid road, and mentioning that the artisanal vs large-scale battle once waged in France as a pretext for heaping piles of anti-Semitism, there's a whiff of something unpleasant about the fact that LVMH's head, though "born and raised in France, [...] is, to his detractors here, something of a brassy American in finely tailored Dior." Or maybe it's just my own aesthetic preference against hypocrisy, which is how I interpret a big-name luxury-goods manufacturer portraying what it does as honorable and disinterested.


Surprise surprise, Hermès now claims to represent "slow fashion." Which is, in principle, a reaction to the fast-paced world of Fashion Today, which as we may recall is what turned Galliano into a drunken anti-Semite, but which apparently also involves having models walk down the runway more slowly than usual.


kei said...

When I read that Times article, I imagined Arnault as Ursula, and the Hermes people as "poor unfortunate souls." This might go along with your suggestion that this is all going to end in a duel.

I agree that Hermes is denying the dollars and cents that makes their world go round, but I have to also admit that their 'slow-paced' spirit or whatever piques my curiosity (though I see why it would raise suspicion, too). There was a documentary I saw about Steinway pianos--they are remarkable because they are made as they used to be in the good old days, and no one else makes them by hand anymore--and it was pretty interesting. I liked to see the individuals who worked on certain tasks, and how they ranged from rather normal Queensians (is that what they're called? ...sorry!) who know a thing or two about music, and then there are those eccentrics who know a thing or two or infinity about music who are responsible for the supposed/apparent unparalleled acoustics of a Steinway concert grand piano. Likewise, I'd like to get some more insight into the Hermes operation of a Birkin bag. Who are these long time, elite leather craftsmen? But more specifically, I'd like to see how 13 hours of Hermes work is different from 13 hours of work at LV, or how a LV "Speedy" is made vs. a Birkin (I'm under the unresearched impression that the Speedy is more ubiquitous than the Birkin, though they are maybe equally famous?). This might give a sense of how "demeaning" it is for LVMH to suggest that Hermes make lower-end lines of bags. This would all be more illustrative than the descriptions of the symmetry of alligator skins and scenes of the mountains as the poor unfortunate soul gets a nasty call from Ursula.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


There are a couple issues here. One is that even if we're going to be pro-artisanal, sympathetic to the idea of craftsmanship, as opposed to dismissive of it as, 'who cares if rich people have stuff that's well-switched-together', even if we're pro-well-made-handbags, is that even what Hermès represents? How old-school can an operation be if its most revered product is a bag named after and created for (in 1984, according to WIkipedia) a pop star? It's not that there's no such thing as a beautiful, hand-stitched French leather handbag. It's that Hermès has already, to borrow an expression from another world, sold out. There are little workshop-places on side streets that might be able to claim, if not indifference to money, at least something closer to what Hermes is claiming.

Then there's the question of whether the beautiful French hand-stitched leather handbag is something so important that we must take a noble stand against all who would mess with its integrity. There's a moral case for this when it comes to something like French cuisine, or any other native cuisine prepared in the old way, if only because what's replaced that has led to diet-related health problems stemming in part from the industrialization of the food industry, or just from the fact that once the old ways fade, it becomes socially acceptable to eat flan on the street at all hours. (Ducks head.) But something like the hand-stitched handbag... In principle, there's an environmentalist and labor-rights argument for owning less but better-made stuff. But the way this inevitably plays out is, some ultra-luxury retailer claims to be offering the noble alternative to Zara, when what they're really providing is a bag virtually no one, however minimalist they were prepared to become, could afford. A piano, meanwhile, may not be as important health-wise as artisanal or farm-fresh food, but it's just a whole lot less likely (I would assume) that piano-makers are selling their goods as "it" items, and have turned "craftsmanship" into a marketing slogan.

kei said...

As much as I'd like to see one, I have no viable moral defense of Hermes bags. I guess I was trying to make room for the person who may come along with one someday, who might genuinely say, I think these things are important, even if they're too young to be called "heritage" or "tradition" and named after a popstar. But I do think that doesn't mean that it's OK for LVMH to try to take over them, which I guess is part of what I'm trying to figure out in your post & response. Would you say that the dishonesty of Hermes is disturbing, and that to be on LVMH's side is not to say, Go conglomerates! but some more like, At least LVMH is not being dishonest, or pretending to live a myth of never looking at what permits them to make luxurious, well-made bags?

As for Steinway, I believe they make an effort to point out that they handcraft their pianos whereas no one other piano company does that anymore. That may or may not me a marketing slogan. And they may or may not be "it" items among pianists, but I think this is where someone else takes over and analogizes.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"Would you say that the dishonesty of Hermes is disturbing, and that to be on LVMH's side is not to say, Go conglomerates! but some more like, At least LVMH is not being dishonest, or pretending to live a myth of never looking at what permits them to make luxurious, well-made bags?"

I think you've nailed it. It's not about being rah-rah conglomerates -I mention at the beginning of the post that I'm not going to get into the business ethics aspects of this, because to discuss it intelligently is beyond my capabilities - but about sorting through how much of the conflict as described in the piece is about not the shady ethics of conglomerates, but rather the smaller business's sketchy attempts at creating a moral distinction between what they do and what the bigger business does where there isn't one.