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Louis Vuitton And The Risk Of Slipping Into Granny Kitsch

Oh darling!
Oh darling!
Nicole Vulser

PARIS - Boosting sales and maintaining the allure. Such is the challenge today for arguably the world's most luxurious brand – Louis Vuitton.

And that task falls to Jordi Constans, the former Danone food company executive, who is the new head of the largest subsidiary of the prestigious French LVMH (Louis Vuitton - Moët Hennessy) luxury goods conglomerate.

First things first, Louis Vuitton needs to get rid of its current image – annoyingly ubiquitous to the point of slightly tacky. Millions of brown canvas bags adorned with the brand’s famous LV monogram have flooded markets all around the globe, becoming so commonplace that a Google search combining "Vuitton" and "ringard" French for "outdated" gives 390,000 results. One French Internet commentator declared utter repulsion of that "counterfeited" brand fit only for the "old bags of Paris’ posh neighborhoods."

A recent consumer survey in China – quoted over and over by Vuitton’s competitors, although it was carried out on a small sample of the population – depicts Vuitton as a brand "lost in mass production." In spite of the fortunes spent on advertising to attract consumers from ever more distant regions (the latest being Kazakhstan), a question merits asking: has the world had enough of Vuitton?

The decision, announced more than a year ago, to work in partnership with a specialist of big-box retailing – unfamiliar with the world of luxury – seemed at the time like a strange move, likely to reinforce the company’s obsession with marketing.

Luxury has its own laws, to which the former Danone executive is beginning to get accustomed. "Beautiful objects," it appears, must find a way of escaping the commercial realm, explains Bruno Remaury, PhD in Social Sciences and author of Luxury: An Essay On Manufacturing Ostentation. "As soon as the object – because of the way it is industrially produced – is treated like a mass-produced item, it must look elsewhere and find a form of prestige which will allow it to escape its industrial status. This is essential with luxury items."

Serge Carreira, a teacher at Paris’ Institute of Political Studies, says the challenge lies in "reconciling the company’s extremely fast development – less than 30 years – and the world of luxury, a world usually associated with the notion of authenticity, rarity, creativity and innovation."

Breathing new life into a traditional brand

Louis Vuitton did its best to gradually diversify into new markets – like jewelry and watch-manufacturing. But Carreira says the "true stroke of genius" of company chiefs Yves Carcelle and Bernard Arnault was "to introduce Louis Vuitton to fashion, where Marc Jacobs brought freshness, creativity, color, modernity."

This breathed new life into a "fundamentally traditional brand with old-school codes," explains Carreira, and Yves Carcelle managed "to counterbalance the widespread circulation of the signature monogram canvas," by finding "new areas of development, including a collection of premium leather goods (with rare leather bags sold for up to 7,000 euros) and a service allowing clients to customize their bags."

Like every luxury brand, Louis Vuitton has also started dabbling in "artistic redemption," by working with Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince or Yayoi Kusama for instance, in an effort to brighten up its collections and give the brand an iconic status.

Following the likes of Cartier, Prada and Hermes, LVMH’s most lucrative branch will also open its own contemporary art foundation in 2014.

Over the past 20 years, the motto of the company has been to go upmarket by controlling everything, from tanneries to shops. The number of store openings has recently seen a slowdown, as the group now prefers to renovate its already existing outlets (more than 460 over the world). In China, where Louis Vuitton has been present since 1992, the brand has chosen to take a break – as if the goal was not to reach more and more customers, but to make sure the wealthiest ones are taken care of.

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