(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If the fire at Notre Dame cathedral had happened 20 or 50 years ago, France’s luxury fashion houses would surely have rushed to support its reconstruction as quickly as they did in 2019.
There is no doubting the sincerity of LVMH, Kering SA and their founding families, who led the way with donations after the devastation earlier this week. The city of Paris, its streets and landmarks, have held a special role as the artistic center of the industry since its earliest days, so to restore what has been lost is to preserve its own history.
But more than a century after Coco Chanel sold her first hat, the titans of luxury have even more reason to ensure Notre Dame recovers.
And it is not just that they are among the wealthiest in France — LVMH’s Bernard Arnault is France’s richest man and Francois Pinault, who created Kering SA, ranks third. L’Oreal SA and its principal shareholder, the Bettencourt Meyers family, are also key donors.
Fashion generates 2.7 percent of French gross domestic product. Luxury, including L’Oreal, represents 19.8 percent of the CAC 40 index. With such a sizable share of the nation’s business, it’s only natural that the leading producers of high-end goods would step up to preserve one of their country’s iconic locations.
It’s important that they do, because selling high-end goods has changed over the past decade. The lines are blurring between fashion, art, travel and culture, and developing a brand depends on so much more than offering the latest It bag. Success means blending all these elements together, so there’s a drive to branch out.
The big groups are already involved in art and restoration. LVMH opened the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a Frank Gehry-designed center for contemporary arts, on the western edge of Paris in 2016. Pinault, meanwhile, is building a museum to house his private art collection at the former Bourse de Commerce, in the center of Paris.
Notre Dame is associated with heritage and beauty, values that resonate within the luxury industry. Preserving the cathedral burnishes donors’ position as a guardian of those characteristics, which in turn highlights the broader lifestyle they seek to promote.
Landmark preservation fits well with this ethos.
Fendi, part of the LVMH empire, contributed $2 million to the repair of the Trevi fountain in Rome. Sister brand Bulgari donated $1.7 million to overhaul the city’s Spanish Steps. Outside of the Arnault stable, Italian leather goods group Tod’s SpA has underwritten the $28 million restoration of the Colosseum in Rome.
Their altruism works best on high-profile sites that appeal to tourists, as their donations also literally put their names on the map for the millions of visitors to key locations each year. Fendi even held a fashion show at the Trevi Fountain under the late Karl Lagerfeld. A restored Notre Dame will be no different (though fashion shows may not be allowed).
The real prize for the French houses is to assure their connection to the Chinese, who are the number one buyers of luxury goods globally. LVMH and Kering each generate about a third of their sales from Asia excluding Japan.
Paris is one of the main destinations for travelers from this region, and anything that affects visits can also impact sales of luxury goods. For example, the 2015 tourist attacks on the city, and the recent yellow vest protests, hurt demand. On the other hand, a weaker euro can lift sales. For these companies, there is a special urgency to ensure that Paris is preserved.
When Notre Dame is finally rebuilt, donors will rightly be credited with rescuing a symbol of the city.
They’ll also have created an even bigger draw for visitors. It makes good business sense for them to have taken part.
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Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.
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