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New Values

19 january 2009

The global financial crisis, provoked by the U.S. economy, sparked off a discussion, which may imply a new vision of moral values able to have an impact on the luxury industry. The tone of this discussion was set ten days ago in France by President Nicolas Sarkozy at a conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the future of capitalism.

According to Associated Press, Nicolas Sarkozy said the crisis has shown that no country can go it alone on economic policy. "In the 21st century, there it is no longer a single nation who can say what we should do or what we should think," he said. Leaders should look beyond financial markets, Angela Merkel said, singling out the American budget deficit and China's current account surplus — or trade balance — as problems upsetting the global economy. Sarkozy blamed financial speculators for encouraging a system fueled on debt. "It's a system where wealth goes to the wealthy, where work is devalued, where production is devalued, where entrepreneurial spirit is devalued," he said. Tony Blair called for a new financial order based on "values other than the maximum short-term profit." "The greatest entrepreneur I had the chance to meet was passionate about what he had created, not what he had accumulated," he said.

In the wake of this conference, The International Herald Tribune published an article by Elaine Sciolino reflecting a new approach to the future of the luxury industry.

France is the birthplace of luxury fashion, and here the recession biting the world has the feel of a morality play. As high-end consumers everywhere have suddenly suppressed their appetite for luxury goods, what was once considered a recession-proof industry has been hit hard. High-end stores in the United States watched in horror as holiday sales tanked, while in Tokyo, Louis Vuitton canceled plans for what would have been its largest and most glittery store anywhere. For the French, each wave of bad news has brought high anxiety here. When Chanel recently announced the layoff of 200 temporary employees - only slightly more than 1 percent of its 16,000-member work force - the daily newspaper Le Parisien called the news a bombshell. The television channel LCI described the move as the most serious setback to the company since Coco Chanel fired her entire staff and closed shop when war broke out in 1939.

But there is also, paradoxically, an underlying satisfaction here that an era of sometimes vulgar high living is over and that a more bedrock French way of life will emerge. Only in France is the recession lauded for posing a crisis in values. A recent issue of Le Figaro Magazine featured a 12-page guide to scaled-down living in 2009, with predictions that people will work less and put family (even in-laws) first. A French trend expert quoted in the magazine dramatically described the changes as nothing less than "a revolution in values." Alain Némarq, the chairman of Mauboussin, the prestige jewelry firm, noted in an interview that saving the luxury industry should be an important national priority because it employs 200,000 people in France, is part of French heritage, brings prestige to the country and seduces not just the "happy few" but a large swath of the public. Rather than trying to keep the machine running by pumping out high-price hand bags, watches and other goods, he proposed the unthinkable: the entire luxury industry should slash prices. "We need a return to reason, decency, discretion, beauty and creativity - in other words, to true values," Némarq said. (Mauboussin has lead by example. It has sold its one-carat diamond solitaire "Chance of Love" ring for about $14,500, roughly a third less than its normal price, and its lower-end 0.15-carat diamond ring was priced at $895, Némarq said.)

Some French intellectuals want to go much further, calling for the death of the entire luxury industry as a sort of national ritual of purification. "Since the ancient Greeks, luxury goods have always been stamped with the seal of immorality," said Gilles Lipovetsky, a sociologist who has written several books about consumerism. "They represent waste, the superficial, the inequality of wealth. They have no need to exist." The political champion for the new economic morality is a recent convert: President Nicolas Sarkozy, formerly known as "President Bling-Bling." He entered office pledging to inject more Anglo-Saxon-style capitalism by getting the French to "work more to earn more." But last week in Paris, Sarkozy and the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair hosted a conference of political leaders and Nobel Prize-winning economists to find ways to instill moral values into the global economy. The old financial order had been "perverted" by "amoral" and uncontrolled capitalism, Sarkozy said, deploring the fact that, "the signs of wealth count more than wealth itself." He praised the "return of the state" as a regulator of capitalist excess. Paradoxically, that sentiment may not be all that difficult for the French to accept. France's national identity may seem wrapped up tight in the aura of luxury - elegant dress, sophisticated perfume, good food and wine, and no shortage of Champagne for the flimsiest of celebrations. But even though the French more than most Europeans appreciate the finest quality they can afford, they pride themselves on balance. France remains a deeply conservative country, one in which it traditionally has been unacceptable to show off material possessions. Most French use debit cards, not credit cards, which means they tend not to spend more than they have in their bank accounts. Getting a mortgage is a torturous process. And so, many see in the closing of an era of free and easy spending on luxury goods - when luxury became associated with flash and ostentation around the world - the potential for a restoration of the classic French virtues of restraint and modesty. Even a bit of suffering and sacrifice might be in order.

"This whole crisis is like a big spring housecleaning - both moral and physical," Karl Lagerfeld, the designer for Chanel, said in an interview. "There is no creative evolution if you don't have dramatic moments like this. Bling is over. Red carpety covered with rhinestones is out. I call it 'the new modesty.' " Still, Lagerfeld is quick to point out that his house is doing just fine, that the layoffs this month were blown out of proportion and that Chanel's Paris-Moscow collection last month brought in 17 percent more in sales than his Paris-London show in 2007. In keeping with the new national mood - and in deference to hard economic realities - the designer Nathalie Rykiel said she will show the new Sonia Rykiel collection in March not with a grand theatrical spectacle for 1,500 people in a vast rented space, but with two small 200-guest mini-shows in her boutique on the Boulevard St.-Germain. "In the end it probably is not going to cost much less so this is not about the money," she said over lunch at the Café de Flore. "It's a desire for intimacy, to go back to values. We need to return to a smaller scale, one that touches people. We will be saying, 'Come to my house. Look at and feel the clothes.' "

Certainly, retrenchment was felt over the holiday season in Paris, where caterers were hurt by cancellations of year-end cocktail parties. If there were parties at all, there was more duck mousse and a lot less foie gras. Champagne, the global wholesale sales of which dropped in October by 16.5 percent compared with the previous year, was served less at French tables; fizzy French wine without the official Champagne appellation was served more. At La Grande Épicerie, the vast food hall in Le Bon Marché department store, French and Italian caviar sold as well as the much more pricey Russian variety; the pastry chefs resisted the temptation to bake 100 euro designer Bûche de Noël cakes. "Luxury products that have savoir faire — rather than bling-bling — offered a sense of refuge," said Frédéric Verbrugghe, the food hall's director general. "Sales of Dom Pérignon didn't suffer, but ostentatious packaging didn't move. In the past, customers would buy an entire block of foie gras; this year it was just five slices."

According to the daily, many French executives take the long view that the economy will eventually rebound. Dominique Hériard Dubreuil, chairman of the Rémy Cointreau Group, which produces Rémy Martin cognac and Piper-Heidsieck Champagne said, “I see the crisis as a challenging but constructive event.” And for Lagerfeld, cutting back his own spending at Chanel is not part of his "new modesty" strategy. He said he is not being forced by the private company's owners to bend or adapt because of financial constraints. "The bottom line is that I don't deal with the bottom line. The luxury in my life is I never have to think about it."