Paris, Hemingway’s moving feast, the city of lovers and light, the home to well-regarded luxury brands, faced brutal terrorism on November the 13th, 2015. The world went into mourning. Facebook, which is now the world’s village well, responded by offering its users a chance to change their profiles temporarily to the French trois couleurs.
While some took exception to Facebook ignoring the Beirut attacks just the day before Paris was brutalised, few commented on the silence from the Parisian luxury brands. While the brands observed the national emergency in France, some of us were pondering: What, if anything, should a luxury brand do when a terrorist attack happens?
When the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Bombay became the epicentre of a three-day terrorist siege in 2008, there was nothing for the luxury brand to say. Several wings of the building were on fire and it was live on TV for three days. Brands such as Louis Vuitton had their stores in the hotel’s famous shopping arcade, and were not spared destruction either. The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was perhaps chosen as a target for its symbolic value as the gateway to India as well as its location in the wealthy district of South Bombay.
But Paris was different. The chosen targets were places where ordinary Parisians live their life. As Simon Kuper wrote in the FT:
“The whole point of Paris is to use the city. Everyone here lives in a cramped apartment. There are almost no back gardens where you can barbecue or play catch with the kids and shut yourself off from the world.
You live in Paris to go out, to meet friends in cafés like the Bataclan, to have conversations with intelligent people from everywhere, to go to football matches or to the Louvre, near which there was a shooting tonight too. Paris is all about its public spaces — the cafés, the cultural venues and the squares. No city has better ones. And when those public spaces become dangerous — and the Parisian authorities have told people not to leave home unless “absolutely necessary” — the city crumbles.”
This Paris-ness and Frenchness is what the French luxury brands borrow from, and root their mystique and their heritage in.
So why the silence? And was it wise?
To address the silence, we must remind ourselves that brands communicate mainly to show their relevance and mark their presence in a conversation, in their category, in front of their publics. Terrorism is tricky on these counts.
Brands rarely make event-driven political statements. For global brands, it is harder still to navigate the complex and muddied waters of the political economy of a given event. Especially terrorist events. Luxury brands are no exception. Over the course of a brand’s life, things are, of course, different. If politics is at the root of a brand, that politics shapes the brand’s strategy over the course of its life. For instance, Stella McCartney and her vegetarian way of life are at the core of her eponymous brand, and she eschews the use of fur and leather.
Luxury and fashion can however choose to take a political stance. Cecil Beaton’s famous Fashion Is Indestructible photograph (see below), shot at the ruined Middle Temple in London in 1941, was a portrayal of craft and finer things in life standing in defiance in the face of German bombs. This precedent alas was not something the French luxury brands could draw upon.
(Cecil Beaton’s Fashion Is Indestructible, London 1941)
The luxury brands muted celebrations, they cancelled high profile events. They did what luxury brands with their mystique and allure do best. They chose dignified silence.
Nothing the terrorists do can take away the Frenchness of the French luxury brands. Nothing the brands say — or do not say – can enhance the brands’ prominence in a terrorist event, which, many say, may threaten the industry.
The purposive silence, in this instance, was truly golden.