Joan DeJean discusses how France invented the luxury industry, helped a little by trade embargoes, notably on Chinese clothing.
France has unquestionably the monopoly on luxury goods, but how did it all begin? Joan DeJean has the answer in her fascinating new book.
Hermès scarves, Chanel suits, Vuitton bags, Baccarat and Lalique glass, Dom Pérignon champagne, Château Yquem wine — all exclusive products recognized worldwide as epitomizing French savoir faire. But how is it that France has luxury so deeply embedded in its culture? The answer lies in a unique forging of art and merchandising by two 17th-century visionaries determined to make their nation every bit as powerful as the Netherlands and England, the leading merchandising and shipping powers of the day.
In her fascinating book 'The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour', American author Jean DeJean shows how Louis XIV's insatiable cravings for the exquisite in all fields of artistic endeavor coupled with his finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert's shrewd sense of image building led to France creating the first economy driven by fashion, taste and design.
Whether it was through his passion for baby peas, diamonds, a heel of divine elegance, a fragrance, or the gilt on a mirror, the Sun King gathered around him French artisans who were already revolutionizing fields ranging from fashion and jewelry design to gastronomy and interior design. It was by drawing innovators to Paris and sharpened their entrepreneurial instincts through his hunger for exquisite things that Louis XIV created France's image as a tastemaker: every bit of luxury living was at last available in one city. In other words, he created shopping heaven.
Joan deJean argues that it was during Louis XIV's reign that fashion seasons and the fashion victim were born, thanks to the development of fashion plates, the 17th century equivalent of fashion magazines. "There was a subtle shift from the stiff formality of clothing; the plates showed women looking coquettishly over their shoulder, perched on a sofa with their legs crossed (considered highly daring at the time) showing off a pair of shoes."
The revelation for Joan deJean was that models for the plates were slim, yet in paintings of the time women were always plump: "the image was beginning to shaped reality," she says. And, just as glossy magazine editors depend on celebrities today, fashion engravers loved to use the nobility and prominent figures to give added allure to the new merchandise. Joan DeJean writes, "They instinctively knew something that Madison Avenue claims to be discovering only now: ads must create a lifestyle; consumers are looking for a brand that suggests the universe to which they aspire."
In fact, fashionistas' cravings today for the latest Fendi bag or Manolo Blahnik stilettos pale in comparison to the fashion frenzy at the court of Versailles: Louis XIV had pages and pages of poetry written about a pair of boots created specially for him. As for turning heads at a celebrity event, Joan deJean writes: "Two duchesses were even rumored to have kidnapped their favorite couturiers, in order to guarantee that they would get just the outfits they wanted for the festivities – and that no one else would be able to avail themselves of her services. (Can you imagine two scarlets bundling Donatella Versace off to a hideaway so that one could outshine them on the red carpet on Oscar night?) "
If Louis XIV's court were to see the lingerie-style clothing of today they would hardly be shocked: the déshabillé look introduced in the late 17th century elicited the following comment from the king's sister-in-law: "The ladies look as if they are about to go to bed."
As for accessories, Louis XIV was so obsessed with diamonds that it was thanks to him that, in 1660, all the factors responsible for the diamond's modern appeal came together, writes Joan deJean: "a diamond merchant willing to travel to India in search of the finest stones, stonecutters sophisticated enough to make those stones dazzle, joailliers who understood the stones potential and a public eager to use jewels in a new way." Hardly surprising then that Paris today has the largest concentration of jewelers in the world, united on the place Vendôme.
While artisans feverishly competed with each other to feed Louis XIV passion for the exquisite, the Sun King had what was possibly the most brilliant, literally, idea of his reign. He was the first to introduced street lighting to a city. One German guidebook of the day described arriving in Paris like "suddenly coming out of the shadows and into bright daylight". With the lights on until two or three in the morning commerce thrived. "For the first time ever, travel now included an activity today widely considered basic to any vacation: it had become possible to shop till one dropped," writes Joan DeJean.
However, without Louis XIV's finance minister, Colbert, all this artistic activity might have been disastrous for the French coffers. "Whenever Louis XIV got a stylistic impulse it cost a lot of money!" says Joan DeJean. "It was Colbert's job to make sure everything was made in France. There was the king's love of mirrors for example. Why make the Venetians rich? Make them in France and have French artisans take over mirror making. This way they could show off mirrors in Versailles as part of the French look, and dazzling people with your brilliance, so dignitaries would come from all over the world to admire French taste and to sign treaties, and order mirrors into the bargain. So they saved money and made money at the same time. "
Colbert made sure that every aspect of high-end merchandising, from trade regulations to import duties, was tailored to favor his nation's business community – and that included an embargo on clothing imports if necessary. In fact, researching the legal documents on these bans helped Joan deJean identify a new style with a foreign influence, because "they would have to ban it because it meant that it was being sold and having a success." China was among the victims even in that era. "I was amazed to read in 1670 of people going around in coats painted with Chinese scenes," she says.
How does she see relations between the French luxury industry and China developing today? "China is a huge new market and the Chinese may buy a lot of French luxury goods. The one concern I might have is if there is a loss of crafts in France if too many things are done with a country where the labor is much cheaper. A generation of French artisans could be lost. One of the great problems of the luxury world today is that it is a slow trade and to move it at the pace of things today is a problem. In such a country, with so many great traditions and craftsmanship, any loss will be monumental. The importance is to keep hands involved because luxury is a world of hands. You have got to have that memory in the hands, because if you lose this it's over."
What is your definition of luxury?
When I was reading the first guidebook for tourists produced at the end of the 17th century, it warned tourists about coming to Paris: "you will buy things you have never hear of before, and they are certainly things you don't need, but they will be so beautiful and so beautifully displayed you will feel that you can't live without them. I think that is one definition of luxury.
If luxury was an object.
A gorgeous piece of Thirties jewellery no question. Not the tradition kind. I don't like gold. I don't like any precious metals or precious stones. It is the design that counts.
If luxury were a moment?
1915 to 1925. Some people say I'd love to take a vacation to an exotic place, I would like to take a vacation in the Twenties.
If luxury was a person?
Cary Grant. He had total elegance, but that sort of casual elegance. I admire Fred Astaire for similar reasons – he knew how to move.
Your favorite restaurants in Paris?
I like simple places that have lovely interiors. I love Chez Omar on the rue de Bretagne. It's a beautiful old-style bistro. If I feel like Italian food I'll go to Osteria on rue de Sévigné, it's delicious. I also like the Auberge Pyrénées Cévennes on the rue de la Folie Méricourt as it is run by friends. It feels like a place out of the provinces.
Your favorite museums and art galleries?
I go often to the Musée Carnavalet, predictably, because I want to look at shop signs and boiserie – some of the most sublime things in Paris are there. All the things I want to see right now are at the Grand Palais: the Viennese show, as I love Klimt and Schiele. There are also the Louis XIV astronomical globes that I want to see.
Your favorite clothes shops?
Lilith and Robert Clergerie on the rue du Cherche Midi as they produce very simple, comfortable clothes. What I also like about them is that they are both French companies. Clergerie is the last remaining French shoe brand in Roman, the medieval shoe capital of France. They have a wonderful shoe museum there.
Who is your favorite French author?
The Marquise de Sévigné and Madame de Lafayette, the author of the Princess de Clèves. The Marquise wrote to Lafayette a lot so you get a nice picture of them both. Sévigné had a complex personality; she is someone I would have loved to have spent an evening with.