The Paris Brand

Art, cinema but most of all fashion, gastronomy and even the odd branded product: Paris sells. The added value of the city in terms of creation is so powerful that a simple mention is worth a thousand ads. But what powers the unextinguishable desirability of the City of Lights?
Tattoo created and made by Franck Pellegrino.

Be it Ernest Hemingway, Amélie Poulain or Gossip Girl, Paris is where destinies collide and legends are built. But beyond a powerful cultural mirage, the city is also an indisputable cash machine for whoever blends their name with that of the City of Light. And it’s such a powerful aura that few things can tarnish it: even in the face of a less-than-stellar global economic context, and the 2015 and 2016 anni horribles with their terror attacks, Paris is undiminished. Better yet, it appears to be growing, as the Grand Paris urban expansion project echoes a return for visitors from around the world. If in 2015, Paris grabbed back its crown of world fashion capital (according to the Global Language Monitor, a big data company based in Texas), 2017 brought it the one for “soft power,” a term coined by American analyst Joseph Nye, an international relations theorist, to qualify the aptitude to leverage international alliances and the influence of a country thanks to its attractivity and allure. 

“I feel that the new French president [centrist Emmanuel Macron], a man who is met with almost unanimous appeal, has brought a spark and a more positive vision, particularly abroad,” says hairdresser to the stars John Nollet. An opinion shared by British illustrator David Downton for whom France was “smart enough to turn its sight towards the future.” Beyond the 89 million visitors expected by the ministry of Foreign Affairs on French soil, the capital has seen an increase of nearly 20 percent in visits – a decennial record. “It’s not just something in the air, there was a lot of work,” notes Pascal Morand, executive president of the recently rebranded French Haute Couture and Fashion Federation who notes that Paris’ recent successes “are a collective effort, due to a context of renewal, both structural and situational, thanks to a politic of long term efforts and today’s optimistic outlook.” Hardly a surprise, then, that Paris attracts visitors in droves, including foreign brands who have been invited on the Haute Couture’s official calendar in July 2017. What has cemented the French capital and its cultural assets into a brand that can withstand the vicissitudes of History and time? 

Point of Origin 

Paris is much more than the starting point of the country’s highway network or even its capital. It has become a brand in its own right that symbolises highly attractive, strong values for French and foreign audiences. Talents from all industries flock to train, test their mettle in their art and many end up settling there for good – Picasso and Cristobal Balenciaga, to name but two famous émigrés. Why? Because Paris been a capital city since the Middle Ages, give or take a few episodes of displacement – the Carolingian empire, the Hundred Years war, Louis the XIVth, the First and Second World Wars. It also has been a centre for strong cultural influence. It is the City of Lights, a centre from which art, culture but also science, technology and economy have radiated outwards. “Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable,” wrote French poet Charles Baudelaire. From literature to pop culture and cinema, Paris is first among the few towns that come alive so vividly in the imagination, even for people who have never visited. The City of Light offers a vision of beauty, creativity and a certain idea of luxury, as well as an unparalleled lifestyle. Take Soir de Paris, the perfume launched by Bourgeois in 1929, and which invoked opulence and hedonism even in the midst of the Wall Street Crash. If other cities have become beacons for modernity in their time, Paris supersedes them thanks to its almost undisputed cultural domination, and roots that are shrouded in more than material wealth. To wit, according to the Anholt-GMI City Brand Hexagon matrix, the city comes out on top on a global scale as it is the only which rates highly on all criteria: international presence, architectural attributes, public amenities, and cultural events. “Paris has always evoked a form of elegance, nonchalance and erudition, which have given the city its personality. Art and Creation have been motors of the much-fantasized French capital. It has long attracted creatives from all walks of life and around the world, and has a particular place in the heart of all creatives,” says David Giroire, founder of the eponymous press agency and whose client roster now includes Rodarte for their show in Paris. “You don’t have to be French to be Parisian,” remarked British actress Tilda Swinton during this summer’s Haute Couture week. “Maybe it’s a good thing for people to think of a city having a spirit, rather than getting involved in ideas of nationalism. Paris really involves people in that idea, it really invites people to consider us. We are all Parisians in our dreams.” Or in the cold light of reality. “The Parisians who work for us [through the Action Emploi Réfugiés NGO] are Syrian, Afghan, Pakistani, Mexican,” explains journalist Alexandra Senes, founder of the Kilometre Paris brand and who has transformed her own adolescent fantasy of Paris into an opportunity to open her arms to displaced newcomers seeking a future. For each new generation, Paris is the promise of the intersection between history and their future, in creative fields in particular. “Our foreign students come as much for the quality of our courses as they do for Paris, as they see the city as the birthplace of much of art and design history and want to explore that history,” says Sara Krauskopf, executive director of admissions and communications at the Paris College of Art, an arts and fashion school established in Paris since 1981. Creation is no longer restricted to a single locum, so it no longer has a capital per se. Journalist and multi-hyphenate fashion entrepreneur Thomas Erber considers that “Paris remains the capital of luxury, because it is linked to history to a past. What defines it is the idea of taking time, an equity you find on a human level but also in urban and architectural terms.” 

See Paris and create 

If there is a field in which the City of Light’s dominion is absolute, it is fashion. “Paris is as much an apposition as an ordinance of creativity,” says Pascal Morand. “The course of creativity, of a desire for fashion has always been stayed. It’s a brand referenced in other contexts – in our field, it’s a reflection of the power of the city.” Well before Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman, ever had the inclination to invent haute couture, fashion’s most elevated and most French way of life, Paris was already a reference for clothing. To wit, Joséphine de Beauharnais’s whim for a pleated grecian dress transformed an entire epoch into the “Style Empire.” But the 20th century was the stage of key moments that would lock Paris’s position as the pulsing heart of fashion and creation – while not being its manufacturing hub. Fashion also contributed strongly and visibly to rejuvenating Paris after dark times. Gabrielle Chanel put women in trousers during the First World War. Christian Dior (currently the topic of a phenomenal retrospective at the Arts Décoratifs) invented the New Look and symbolised a post-WWII return to growth and prosperity. In the Sixties and Seventies, if French fashion was represented by Hubert de Givenchy, Paco Rabanne, Pierre Cardin or Yves Saint Laurent, Parisian fashion became the playground of designer ready-to-wear (Saint Laurent Rive Gauche was a prime example) and opened to the world with the arrival of Japanese designers such as Issey Miyake (invited in 1973) and soon enough, everyone else. For contemporary designers, Paris is still a place where “the exceptional, experimentation, creation in its purest state [happen], where fashion remains close to art and is an opportunity to find new ways” offers Christine Phung, artistic director of Leonard. The city brings “a casual, more relaxed way, with less rules: it can be heavily classical at times but it is less conventional” for fashion curator Olivier Saillard, the soon-to-be artistic director of footwear brand Weston. It is also very serious in its frivolous ways, and isn’t ashamed of this adds jewellery designer Elie Top for whom “that was precisely the idea of couture as done by Lacroix, Saint Laurent.” “Every designer is on a quest for a tribe, and Paris is the place where we speak the same language, that of creation. That’s what is precious to fashion and couture,” says couturier Didit Hediprasetyo, a Parsons alum who splits his time between Paris and Indonesia. “The Paris brand is definitely a source of envy elsewhere,” says politician Lyne Cohen-Solal. One need only look at the records at the Institut National de la Propriété Intellectuelle (or INPI), the French governing body holding trademarks and patents, where some 13850 brands – big and small – include the name of the town in their trademark. Many brands use Paris to jumpstart their launch or reinforce their reputation. “For any designer, Paris is a creative dream but it’s also the only place where buyers all meet, where business is made,” says Daria Shapovalova, founder of the More Dash showroom promoting young Ukrainian designers. To be even just moderately successful in Paris is considered a coronation. As shared and multiple as the Parisian identity is, it is not an easy mantle to take on. Showing in Paris almost amounts to having a show-down in Paris, and requires temerity, because there is a before and an after. “There is also a notion of maturity in showing here,” adds Donald Potard, fashion design chair at the Paris College of Art and a longstanding figure in the industry. This idea of a public and industry-wide accolade is certainly seductive, as hinted by Harry Wang, CEO of Shiatzy Chen – an Asian fashion house, often nicknamed the “Chanel of Taiwan,” founded by his parents in 1978 – and showing in Paris since 2008 for whom “Paris is the most critical stage of fashion. To be part of the official calendar is an opportunity to reflect on our identity as a brand but also face international media and buyers. It is a challenge.” Few brands with Parisian roots have the possibility to have their products actually produced in Paris, due to the rareness of craftsmanship but also of available ateliers, typically requiring space – a premium in any metropolis. “Conservation of know how is paramount, but conservation in the city itself has little sense” says Jason Briggs, a branding consultant and leather goods specialist located in the Marais. “That would turn the city into a museum. Living, but in the past.” 

To brand and to hold 

But is the city a brand, strictly speaking? “Paris is more a label that people desire. A brand belongs to someone in particular, but several entities can claim a label,” clarified Donald Potard. The city is then rather a “lovemark,” the marketing term invented in 2004 by Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts to extend the concept of a brand to include affective connotations.Like the “designed in California” seen on Apple products, Paris has become an immaterial notion, that regroups lifestyle and not just savoir-faire localised in the French capital. A Parisian address becomes a gateway to the world, a way of contextualising qualities and knowledge accumulated in the city. Luxury conglomerate LVMH’s new e-commerce site, 24 Sevres, is an example: by encapsulating the experience of Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche department store, it gives a Parisian reading of fashion to its selections, rather than just a global retail approach. The most striking symbol is the top level domain .paris, made available at the end of 2014 by the ICANN. “The beauty of a .paris domain is that it forces the imagination. It is an asset when speaking to a foreign client,” analyses Jason Briggs. “It’s also an opportunity for new players who want to play the local card (in the face of rampant globalisation) to show their attachment to the community and underscore their difference.” And one can’t just make up an affiliation to Paris, as the City of Paris watches over this intangible patrimony with a hawk eye. Conditions to add the name Paris to a brand are getting stricter by the day. Nowadays, one has to prove that the products or services originate in France or Paris. This is also true to register the new top level domain .paris. Those who would abuse the privilege: a brand that does meet the criteria can see its trademark cancelled. Worse: in 2007, a smart alec who attempted to capitalise on the city’s olympic bids by registering the matching URLs was condemned in a court of justice. The idea of Paris then becomes a sort of double-entendre between the brand and its point of origin. Innovation, creation, experimentation or craftsmanship, herein are captured the values, the history and the imagination of the city. By remaining a territory fit for discovery, Paris has fed its own attractiveness by being a laboratory for experimentation as much as a source of historical crafts. Beyond a physical address, Parisian roots then morph into an intrinsic quality that anyone who manages to own it can take with them. To quote Hemingway, “wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” And a smorgasbord of fashion.