If you lie down with dogs, you’ll wake up with fleas, the old saying goes. No doubt my dog would call it racist and tell me to check my privilege. Literal canines aside, I find myself in the unenviable position of arising after yet another assignation with a figurative dog, the new book Les savoir-faire du luxe: Portraits de maisons françaises (The Craftsmanship of Luxury: Portraits of French Makers), another set of profiles of purported craft brands. Like those in The Parisian Gentleman, these are all supposed to be French. Unlike that better, more beautiful, book, Les savoir-faire du luxe covers a broader range of industries than just #menswear, including caviar (Petrossian), porcelain (Raynaud), haute couture (Dior), cognac (Camus), Roederer (champagne); Guerlain (perfume); boats (Couach), cigars (Edito), watches (Bell & Ross) and cars (Bugatti). There’s a bit of overlap in both books’ coverage of shoemakers Corthay and the newly revived leathergoods brand Moynat.
As the reader may suspect from this litany, Les savoir-faire du luxe seems to take a liberal view of what is French, as well as what is craftsmanship. I confess I was intrigued to learn that there’s a cigar maker in Burgundy, and was tempted to fire up my battered old shagreen Unique for the first time in years just to see what a French cigar tastes like. Hopefully not too much like the terroir. I also admit to surprise at the inclusion of Bugatti, which I always thought was Italian. But no, it was founded in Alsace. And today, its cars are still manufactured just inside the French border, even if they are designed and developed in Germany, and the brand owned by Volkswagen. Les savoir-faire du luxe doesn’t mention the last part. It does admit that the watch brand Bell & Ross, founded a few decades ago as a sort of French version of Panerai, first used a German watchmaker and is now manufactured in Switzerland (although watch snobs, of which I am not one, may be scratching their heads as to Bell & Ross’ putative craftsmanship). The fawning coverage of Moynat, complete with highly selective timeline from its (first) founding in the 19th century, completely omits the fact that Moynat went out of business decades ago. Someone revived the name a few years ago (also omitted from the timeline), and the Arnault family, which owns luxury Unicron Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, acquired it and are now eagerly pushing the brand. No discussion of why the owners of Louis Vuitton would wish to own another brand of almost exactly the same age and heritage. Is it because they’ve run the Vuitton brand down with their ghastly logoing and merchandising? Alas, Les savoir-faire du luxe doesn’t explore these matters.
Nor does Les savoir-faire du luxe explain what sets certain of the brands it profiles apart from others in their field. Why choose Bell & Ross and not a historically French watch brand with better heritage and current product, like Bréguet? What makes Camus cognac different from other French brandy houses, and should we really be impressed that it is “a leader in the duty-free sector”? It’s easy to understand why the writers chose Corthay (no other French luxury men’s shoe brand makes both its ready-to-wear and bespoke in France). Or, for that matter, Guerlain, one of the last great perfume houses dedicated to the quality of its scents and their ingredients, unlike the vast majority of perfume labels. But if their reason for choosing Dior is because of its heritage and its support of traditional couture ateliers, why not choose Chanel, which actually has brought most of the specialist ateliers (from feather-trimmers to the growers of flowers used in making its perfumes) it uses under its ownership in order to ensure their survival and standards?
It appears that today craftsmanship in any form equates, in the popular mind, with luxury. It wasn’t always this way; a book like the 1970s gem Handmade in London showcased old craft makers of all kinds in the British capital, not just luxury shoemakers but drawers of wire and other painstaking, humble, already vestigial trades. Their fascinating juxtaposition against a changing, mechanizing urban center gave that book a sociological aspect. Instead, Les savoir-faire du luxe can only be called snobological. The reader encounters the same lullaby as in the recent and awful heritage brand hogwash Luxury Fashion, soothing and soporific tones to lull us into bed with this dog, and all of its pernicious fleas.