Japan is famous for its fondness of luxury brands, particularly those from France. In fact, when the money spent shopping on vacation is included, Japanese consumers may buy as much as 45 percent of all luxury goods sold worldwide, analysts at the HSBC Group in Paris recently estimated.

A 2003 study by the Tokyo-based Saison Research Institute purported that more than 94 percent of Tokyo women in their 20s owned something from Louis Vuitton and more than 51 percent had goods made by Chanel. Such research is borne out by observation if you visit any of the major labels in Paris. The stores of the above brands, as well as those of Dior, Cartier and Hermes, are packed with Japanese customers, and Japanese native-speaking staff are on hand to ensure smooth sales.

To keep an eye on the land that is its largest source of revenue, the French luxury industry lobby retains a public relations agent in Tokyo, and officials from the Comite Colbert, a trade organization representing 68 French luxury brands, pay regular visits to Japan. The committee represents a diverse range of crafts, from fashion design to glass, crystal, leather, porcelain, champagne, hotels, restaurants, perfume and interior design, and seeks to extol the virtues of the French art of fine living across the globe.

President and CEO of the organization since 2003, Elizabeth Ponsolle des Portes began her career as an academic before joining the French Culture Ministry and later UNESCO. The Japan Times caught up with her at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo during a recent trip to Tokyo.

What do you think is behind Japanese people’s fixation with French luxury brands?

The French luxury sector is really a cultural industry; although we are manufacturing products, they rely very heavily on French culture. As Japan is also a country where culture is very important, our products resound very strongly for Japanese consumers. We are not only speaking about products, but we are also speaking about culture and they are very sensitive to that.

What does Japan’s fondness for French luxury goods say about this nation?

Like [Marcel] Proust said, reality exists only as a part of your memories, and in a way the reality of French luxury products lies in the depth of the imagination of the consumer. For example, a Baccarat glass is not just a glass, it is a Baccarat, so behind the glass you have the image of Baccarat, you have the knowhow of the craftsmen and you have French culture. It exists not only in its physical reality but also as part of the imagination, in the context of the imagery that surrounds it. I think that’s the reason why our objects speak to Japanese consumers.

A large proportion of young Japanese consumers buy luxury brand goods. Do you see that as distasteful?

Not at all. It reflects a recognition of the excellence of our products and is typically a good sign of taste. In a recent survey in France, we found that more than 80 percent of the population has access to our goods. Almost all of our member brands have low-priced lines, so a very large portion of the population can afford to buy those products and experience the magic of the brand. Some luxury goods, like accessories or cosmetics, can be less expensive than a CD or an iPod; it’s just a matter of consumer choice. Luxury is not a matter of price: It’s about experience, quality and the imagination.

How are French luxury brands giving back to Japan?

The recognition of the talents of Japanese artists like Jun Aoki [architect of Louis Vuitton stores in Japan] and [artist Takashi] Murakami is one important aspect. But I also think a lot of things are given back to Japan in terms of investment, real estate and in terms of added value. For example, all the flagship stores you see in Ginza, Omotesando and elsewhere; those buildings are really putting Japan on the international scene. Those areas are up there with New York’s Fifth Avenue or Avenue Montaigne in Paris. Then there is also a lot of training which our brands do, and they are a source of a lot of employment. There are more than 10,000 people employed by the 68 brands belonging to the Comite Colbert. So I think it’s a win-win situation.

What are you doing to promote Made in France brands in Japan?

There is huge investment in opening flagship stores, so the physical presence is stronger than ever. It’s also about innovation: Our industry is more creative, more innovative here than anywhere else in the world. Here, the Hermes building has an art gallery, the Chanel flagship in Ginza has a restaurant, Baccarat has three special bars — we don’t have these things even in Paris. The Japanese market is so sophisticated that it demands the most creative and innovative initiatives.


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