To understand French luxury maisons is to understand the most luxurious brands in the world, from LVMH, to Hermès to Cartier. Benedicte Epinay, CEO of Comité Colbert, the French body that unites over 90 luxury maisons, speaks about artisanal strategies, commitment to sustainability, and a possible rapprochement between Indian and French craftspersons. Edited excerpts.

It’s raining tie-ups in the world of luxury. French luxury maisons are celebrating craftsmanship and ‘handmade’ like never before. For example, Louis Vuitton has created the LV Dream on the ground floor of their flagship in Paris. The site includes a café, an LV chocolate pop-up, and a bookstore. At its Champs Elysees location, there will be a space for a museum and even a hotel.

Some brands, like the venerable saddle-maker to erstwhile French kings and Indian maharajas, Hermès, are getting inventive. With its ‘Le Monde d’Hermès’ touring mini-fête and an orange kiosk that has popped up in various cities — last seen in New Delhi — this Parisian luxury maison is celebrating 2024 with a nod to its flagship 24, Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré boutique, with a fun and ‘madcap’ (in the words of artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas) way to capture the ‘enchantery’ of the maison — where all of Hermès’ creative dreams come to life — from optical illusions to prints, to puzzles of its store-front, to gardens, flowers, and fun games.

As for Chanel, this year will see the transformation of a vacant lot between Aubervilliers and Paris, into La Parcelle, a garden, a special project conceived by its new seven-storey, 9,000 sq m Métiers d’Art building in Paris, Le19M, that houses all 600 of its artisans, and devoted to handmade craftsmanship in fashion. The La Parcelle garden will become an area of cultural exchange, pop-ups, and artistic activities.

You say things have visibly changed since you were last in India in 2019. What has changed?

My first impression was that people are well dressed, huge malls have opened, even DLF Emporio that is already open, it’s so well located with Western brands inside. Plus the level of restaurants inside is great. It’s a huge step forward since 2019.

Why do you plan to focus on India?

What we observe, when we look at the market, is the behaviour of the middle class. (By 2030, India will be third in GDP ranking worldwide. There will be 17 million elite and affluent in India — with a gross income of $55-70k). In India, the middle class is ready to purchase luxury goods, it’s their dream. The figures show you have many rich people in India purchasing luxury goods in London, Paris, Dubai, and Singapore. These are signals that maybe the planets are going to be aligned.

With the Indian luxury market set to increase to 3.5 times its current size in 2030 (Bain & Company) to $200 billion, what can the world pick from the French savoir-faire?

The first thing we in France have done is to protect our savoir-faire. I often get asked, how do you manage brands that are competitors? The preservation of savoir-faire is a topic of general interest. We just held an event in Paris — ‘Les deux mains du luxe’ (The two hands of luxury). We were able to bring all brands, including LVMH, Kering, Chanel, Hermès and Baccarat, to make demos of savoir-faire, to attract young artisans. We have many professional schools in France, the legacy of Colbert, and we’re able to build them everywhere.

Don’t you see parallels with India — with millennia of handcrafted goods — the links of the wealthy and patronage of arts with maharajas?

If we can do something together, maybe — it’s interesting to come and see the preservation of savoir-faire, inside India, but also the creativity. To preserve savoir-faire is one thing, to bring creativity in it, is another. What we were able to do in France, the best way to preserve savoir-faire, is to bring creativity inside the savoir faire — it’s our main subject today.

What are your impressions of Indian craftsmanship?

The obstacles to major developments in the Indian market are still the same. But in India, you have a better understanding of refinement and savoir-faire... We have a mutual cooperation of what is refinement, what is luxury, as many of our companies used to work for maharajas, so you have a strong advantage.

Given that France has so many regional clusters of savoir-faire, what are the perfect incubators that the French have mastered to create the best brands?

The legacy is real. We have 188 territories of savoir-faire. We have the perfect virtuous cycle to build strong brands — we have factories with artisans, schools, and people for packaging, and transportation, in many regions of France. In the north of France, we have a glass region, where we have companies specialised in making glass and bottles of glass. We produce 75% of the world’s perfume bottles.

India has more loose clusters, for example, Banarasi sarees, but we lack the formal training. Could the Comité Colbert help with JVs with schools globally?

We work with schools in France. I am part of the Campus of Excellence in Paris, dedicated to fashion, art and design. We have had a partnership for three years in Japan, with Beaux Arts University of Tokyogeidai (Tokyo University of the Arts), and maybe we can work on something with India. We would like to bring Indian students to our schools. It’s the best way to train people. They have to come to France to study, so we can create this bridge with schools.

Comité Colbert’s approach to sustainability is important. Is it the company’s goal to be carbon-neutral by 2050?

At the beginning of the year, we asked the two main issues/topics for companies this year. The first reply was human resources, and the second, was sustainability. Today the consumer is searching for a sustainable product, and so are employees, politicians and lawmakers. Our third report on sustainability is out, and 96% of our luxury maisons (including Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga, Cartier, and Chanel) today are committed to improving their carbon footprint.

How are maisons gearing up for AI?

We did a study last September with Bain & Company. In the past it was so-so, but now they work a lot together. The luxury industry is using AI as a tool for creativity. A month ago, I visited the atelier of Cartier in Paris. They explained to us how AI changes the way they produce jewels today. Everything starts with a drawing. Creative heads imagine a ring or necklace with diamonds, and precious stones, and make a drawing. Two to three years ago, it took months to create that prototype drawing. Now with AI, the drawing will take a couple of hours instead of months, with 3D printing.

Not to replace people who create — just help them, right?

AI can’t take over handcraft. Nobody can replace human hands or the brain. When you work with your hands, there is that little imperfection.

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