Friday, 28 May 2010

The Louis Vuitton Ban

Here’s some news that you will not read about in any fashion publications, or on their websites: two days ago the British Advertising Standards Authority banned the latest Louis Vuitton advertising campaign in Britain, on the grounds that it falsely suggested that Louis Vuitton’s products are handmade. The two adverts, entitled ‘The Young Woman with the Tiny Folds’ and ‘The Seamstress with Linen Thread and Beeswax’ featured photographs of serene looking models (stylised almost to look like figures from a Vermeer painting) pretending to make Louis Vuitton products. The accompanying blurb asked such rhetorical questions as “What secret little gestures do our craftsmen discreetly pass on?” before concluding “Let’s allow these mysteries to hang in their air. Time will provide the answer.” Please excuse me while I gag.

Granted, the job of marketing at Louis Vuitton must not be an easy one. Here we have a luxury brand which charges high prices and places a premium on quality (even if their products are not hand stitched), but which offers little in the way of scarcity: for a luxury brand, Louis Vuitton products are manufactured and sold on large scale, and of course there are countless more imitation products in circulation. Across the world the Louis Vuitton monogram is recognised as an aspirational status symbol (and let’s be quite frank, a lot of the customers who buy Louis Vuitton – even genuine products – could not exactly be termed ‘high end’), but at the same time the brand also caters for a much smaller wealthy elite, who purchase the ready-to-wear clothing, the shoes, and the large travel cases and trunks. Keeping both these distinct groups of customers happy, while upholding the image of exclusivity (in the face of mass consumption and imitation) which supports the whole operation, and thus justifies the high prices, is surely no simple task. Ogilvy Paris, which produces some of Louis Vuitton’s advertising, has come up with inventive campaigns, like this one, and the ‘journey’ campaign (which featured Catherine Deneueve, Sean Connery and, bizarrely, Mikhail Gorbachev), in an attempt to lend the brand an otherworldly, sophisticated air.

What I really want to discuss, though, is the stranglehold (intentional or otherwise) which Louis Vuitton has over the fashion media. I’m not so interested in whether or not the adverts were misleading (for what it’s worth, my main gripe with them is that they are utterly saccharine and sentimental), but more that not a single British fashion magazine’s website reported the news of the ban, while most national newspapers and many blogs did. Despite being a big fashion story, there is absolutely nothing about it on the websites of Vogue, Elle, Dazed and Confused, Harper’s Bazaar, Love, or 10 Magazine. Only Grazia mentioned the ban, but choose safely to side with Louis Vuitton by branding it “ludicrous.” Instead, all of the aforementioned websites have been preoccupied – obsessed, even – with the news of the recent opening of the new Louis Vuitton store (sorry, “maison”) on Bond Street in London. The amount of coverage which has been dedicated to the shop opening is unbelievable: you would be forgiven for thinking that the Second Messiah had just popped up on Bond Street, not just somewhere new to buy handbags.

Louis Vuitton is the flagship brand of the vast LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey) Group, which turned in a profit of €1.755 billion in 2009. Dior owns about 40% of the group, and Bernard Arnault (the seventh richest person in the world) is the Chairman of both companies and the CEO of LVMH. Other brands owned by LVMH include Céline, Givenchy, Kenzo, Marc Jacobs, Fendi, Emilio Pucci, and Donna Karan. LVMH also owns Acqua di Parma, the perfume operations of Dior, Givenchy and Kenzo, Tag Heuer and Dior watches, the jewellery operations of DeBeers, Fred and Chaumet, and the Moët, Krug, Dom Pérignon and Veuve Clicquot champagne brands, to name just a few of their operations. As you can imagine, the Dior-LVMH group provides fashion publications with a significant proportion of their advertising revenue, by taking out ads in their glossy pages (and also online). For this reason, fashion publications will go to great lengths to say the right things about, and include the right pictures of, Dior-LVMH products, not just as a favour, but for fear of getting less advertising money from Dior-LVMH, or in the hope of getting more. If a publication is deemed to have given a brand insubstantial or unfavourable coverage, it is not uncommon in fashion for that brand to impose ‘sanctions’ on the publication, be they the withdrawal of advertising pages or the relegation of editors to less favourable seats at the shows. LVMH has, in theory, a huge amount of leverage in this area because of the number of brands they control, so for anybody who works for a fashion publication there is a strong incentive to portray their bands in a favourable way.

This creates a raw deal for us, the consumers and readers. Except in pieces by a few newspaper journalists, whose publications do not rely heavily on LVMH advertising money, you are never going to find anything in the fashion media other than the most mild, guarded criticism of LVMH brands, most of all of Louis Vuitton itself. The critics on Vogue’s Style.com, for instance, depressingly reserve their wrath exclusively for young designers and brands which control minimal advertising budgets. You will find that magazines often give pride of place to LVMH-Dior products (again, especially to Louis Vuitton ones), and shoot editorial images with head-to-toe LVMH brand outfits. This is partly why I am so bored of, and disillusioned with, fashion magazines and hardly buy them any more. LVMH-Dior are big enough to send expensive freebies to magazine editors and to entertain them at lavish parties and events too, all of which helps to ensure that the coverage they receive remains glowing. I don’t have many magazines to hand here, but the latest edition of 10 Men contains a 14 page spread exclusively of (boring) Louis Vuitton clothes. I wonder why they didn’t choose another brand – perhaps one more in keeping with the vibe of the magazine? It is a story which is repeated with other big brands, like the PPR group ones (Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Stella McCartney…), and large independents like Dolce & Gabbana, Ralph Lauren, and Prada/Miu Miu. Magazines are conspicuously not bound by the same ethical codes as newspapers are when it comes to how their coverage is ‘influenced.’

This is not a criticism of LVMH (good for them for being so large and successful, and for still turning in a profit in this tough economic climate, even if their products and advertising are sometimes not to my personal taste), or of any other big fashion company, but rather of the system itself, which has evolved in fashion. It seems to me that there is something deeply wrong with it, and the biggest losers are us, the consumers of both fashion media and luxury goods.

7 comments:

  1. i enjoy reading this...a very good discussion.

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  2. wow this is very insightful, i wasn't aware of the situation to be honest. and now i am aware i will sure look at the whole advertising thing differently.

    14 pager in 10, geez, that's not cool

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  3. Sir, you make me smile.

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  4. A very important discussion to have! Independence of media is really important, but really till very recently the media has hardly been independent. For the reasons you have given for the LV group having such sway in fashion, this example can be given over and over for different sectors.

    This is where independent blogging online becomes so important. You and I and other bloggers aren't commenting with the fear of having out lucrative advertising contracts canceled. We can truly say what we feel. Though I think we are still rather small compared to large fashion websites, overtime the scales will tip to the other direction. It is tipping very much right now. The LV ad mention wouldn't go around for very long without people slating it on blogs, facebook and twitter even if it had not been banned. Sipmly put, companies are going to have to be more and more transparent in the future, or people will begin to turn away from their products.

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  5. I really enjoyed reading this, thanks. That'll teach me not to read the real papers more often - I hadn't heard about the ad ban. I had seen the ads though; I liked the photos (agree about the vermeer-ish quality) and found the words v cringe-inducing!

    It is so tricky... and circular. The mags can't exist without the ads but the ads and the advertising money effectively corrupt the content of the mag. I don't see a way out of it - even national newspapers survive on advertising rather than circulation. I guess magazines could more transparent about advertising revenues but that still wouldn't affect content... Anyone got any ideas?

    That said, I'm not sure I agree with the Fake Sartorialist. I don't think we are sliding towards a future where mass media will die out and independent blogs will dominate. And I don't think that would necessarily be a good thing either since most bloggers are interested observers rather than experts in their field. Maybe I'm just speaking for myself... Also I'd miss editorials! That is bad luck about the 10 Man LV shoot but I still think there are lots of beautiful editorials being created. Even if the clothes may be repetitive great stylists and photographers can bring interesting and different things to them.

    Oops, this got a bit long. Anyhoo - great article.

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  6. I guess I am running a little late in here, but worth the reading.
    I read an article a month ago on The Independent website talking about the bags being made at sewing machines...
    http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/news/the-handcrafted-louis-vuitton-bags-made-on-sewing-machines-1982968.html

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  7. A quality food for thought!

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