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Founded in 1954 by the famous perfumer Jean-Jacques Gerlain, the Comite Colbert is a collective association of 70 members representing all the luxury arts of France, from the decorative arts to jewellery, couture, gastronomy, leather goods, perfume, wine and champagne amongst others. All the members are leaders in their fields, many of them with their roots in past centuries.

As part of the Comite Colbert's plans to develop permanent representations of the Comite in key markets throughout the world, an Australian chapter is being launched next year.Vive speaks with Christian Blanckaert, President of the Comite Colbert, about the philosophy and goals of the association and its members , its plans for the future and indeed the future of art de Vivre and French luxury goods.

VIVE: Monsieur Blackaert, please tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be involved in the Comite Colbert

Ch.B: When I was a young man I thought about becoming a doctor but decided to study economics at the polytechnic science school in Paris and gained my MBA. so I went on to become involved in a number of businesses. I was president of a commercial company selling Hi Fi's and televisions for many years and so I know something of the electronic market and have experience competition from the Japanese. I then joined a large multi-national company as Managing Director in the transportation and distribution field and later had the rare opportunity in France of having a short assignment in the public sector as the president of the French Government Tourist Office worldwide. then by pure coincidence, I was offered the opportunity in France of having a short assignment in the public sector as the President of the French Government Tourist Office worldwide. then by pure coincidence, I was offered the opportunity of joining the Comite Colbert two years ago. It is a very interesting job which requires an operational sense of business, even though I am not involved in any business which is a member of the Comite.

VIVE: What is the Comite Colbert? What does it mean and what are its objective?

Ch.B.: The Comite Colbert was created after the war by Jean-Jacques Guerlain and his friends and the objectives are still the same, and that is to promote the collective image of the French Art de Vivre all over the world, especially with the help of the French culture which is linked to all our products. That is why we are still a collective association - a club which adopts plan for key markets to promote the French Art de Vivre - in which you have 70 members - the 70 most important companies of France.

Therefore in the Comite Colbert you can only have French manufacturers, of the best quality products, with massive exports - these are the three criteria.

The Comite Colbert means a plan of actions: actions in the key market; actions which are very clear and precise in terms of budgets and objectives and in terms of business frontiers. it is cultural, economic and collective. That means the main aspect of my job involves the management of French economical projects, like the festival we had in New York which required the involvement of all the members, the large department stores as well as the university. That is why it is most important to have a management background in this position. In fact you could not fulfil the demands of this position with only a background in public relations.

VIVE: How did Mons. Guerlain establish the Comite Colbert?

Ch.B: He did it with his friends, like Dior, like Baccarat and many other manufacturers, because the extraordinary specificity of the Comite Colbert is that you have four various activities; it is not at all sectional. It does not represent one aspect of the French luxury field, it represents all aspects. You have the best hotels, you have the best jewellers, the best in decoration, the best in the Arts de la Table, in wine, in champagne, in craftsmanship. You have companies like Christofle, the best in glass like Lalique, Baccarat and Daum, you even have a graphic art printer, Bussiere, you have Gaston Lenotre in cooking - you really have 70 famous, notorious people. families or companies who act like ambassadors for the Art de Vivre in France.

Another thing is that it is not a Parisian association - you have people from every area in France: the Limoges people, Bernardaud, Coquet, Robert Haviland et C. Parlon; the Cognac people. Remy Martin, Courvoisier, the wine people in Bordeaux, Lafite Rothschild who is joining this year, Cheval Blanc, Chateau d'Yquiem; and you have the famous champagne people. all in the Comite Colbert.

VIVE: Prior to your joining the Comite Colbert, the members themselves ran the Comite, like Boucheron and Jean-Louis Dumas Hermes. Why is it that they have now appointed someone like yourself from outside the luxury industry.

CH.B: I had several predecessors, one of them, Jean Bergeron who has gone off to Chaumet. Jean did a marvellous job by giving a notoriety to the Comite Colbert through the exhibitions in Paris, Munich and Tokyo. Like in life you have stages and there is a time for everything and the time came, two or three years ago, to step up the pace of the Comite Colbert, first of all with the huge operation in the United States and secondly with a series of activities in the economic field to promote the economic opinion of its members who are in fact a very important lobbying group.

I can give you two examples; in the States we not only had a very important cultural action with a huge exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York, but we also had a very strong Colbert festival, grouping all the members in economic action, collective action with the objective of promoting every member together. The fact that they are together is a plus, even for very famous names. We do more and more of this sort of economic action, for example we wrote a very important document on selective distribution which means the criteria under which luxury products should be distributed worldwide. This is a very important technical report and it is one of our lobbying capacities, to express our position on technical problems which are important to everybody. So the Comite Colbert has a cultural aspect, an economical aspect, a lobbying aspect, and also has an aspect which promotes the young creator more and more.

I was asked to accept the position because the Comite believed that from my position as President of the French Government Tourist Office and the way in which I had promoted France, I had a good background to promote Colbert, and in fact there is a link. The fact that I was not connected with the luxury field and the fact that I knew no one from the Comite before joining, enables me to get things done in a very objective manner. I am not emotional towards any one member in particular, I allow each member the opportunity to be presented and associated in the same manner with the Comite Colbert.

VIVE: Why is membership restricted? Why only a maximum of 70 members?

CH.B: Because this is in the constitution created after the war. It is in the rules of Comite Colbert. I think the reason is that, first of all, it is a club and everyone knows each other and if there is not a limit on the numbers, it is not a club anymore, it is open. Secondly, like very good thing, to be in the Comite Colbert is not easy. it is a very select crowd. The waiting list today is very, very long and there are only one or two seats available this year.

There are two ways to lose a seat: one is to leave the Comite Colbert voluntarily which happens nearly never, but it has happened, and the second is to be ejected, because every member must be reelected each year by the members. If someone does not have 75% of favourable votes they are ejected and that happens quite frequently. The members do not have to give a reason for not giving a favourable vote, but there may be a number of reasons, for example a deterioration in the quality of the products or the fact that the member has not attended the meetings and functions of the group, because to be a member of the Comite Colbert is to be an active member, not a sleeping partner.

VIVE: What do you see as the future of the Comite Colbert at this point in time?

Ch.B: The only criterion is that a company must do most of its creation and manufacturing in France. It does not mean that you cannot be licensed all around the world. Basically you have to show that you are Frenchy.

VIVE: What do you see as the future of the Comite Colbert at this point in time?

Ch.B: I think that it is becoming more and more important and the idea is proving to be more and more intelligent. It's not my idea, as you know. I am employed as the President and they have a Chairman, Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermes who is elected. I am not elected, I am appointed by the board as President while Jean-Louis is the Chairman. The present constitution of the Comite Colbert with an elected Chairman is very, very important because the Chairman represents all his colleagues. The intelligence of the thing is that the President is not elected, so he can run the Comite like a company and even if he has no profit objective, he has to respect the budget and has to manage it as a company, so the constitution is well organised from the beginning.

Secondly, we are working on a market that is more and more difficult as there are more and more competitors, which means that Comite Colbert acts as a very powerful tool for all its members. It is unique in being collective, bringing together all parts of the various cultural aspects of France and no member has this strength alone. Thirdly, it is more and more important because we do not have so many living forces in Europe anymore and this one is a strong one. Each time we say something, we say something collectively for Paris together with the rest of France. We express the opinion of very different types of people who have in mind the necessity of promoting the top quality French products.

VIVE: What do you see as the future for the top quality French products?

Ch.B: This is a very complicated question. My answer, first of all, is that there is a future for managers who have a lot of talents. I am very surprised when I observe the market worldwide, that those people at the head of these types of companies must have a lot of creative talent and the future depends heavily on their capacity to create or to select the best creators and to give priority to talent and creation and not to management or marketing. that is number one.

You have asked a very important question because I would not say the same of people in the electronic field. In the luxury field, the talent of the top management is very important. Secondly, it is a market where the distribution has to be more and more selective and to have a selective distribution means that you are capable on your own of investing quite a lot of money, because otherwise you are eaten and beaten by distribution. The key of success in this field is to dominate distribution and not to be dominated by it. You need a lot of money to invest in markets like Australia, the United States and Asia where the distribution is keen, vital and that is number two.

Number three is that it is very rare that your own resources are sufficient, therefore this means that you have to find other resources, either from financial people or institutions or from other companies or by other means which you can invent. But in any case, no-one could possibly believe that the worldwide market is easy or cheap to have access to. As the market is international it is very expensive and you must have a lot of money to control your distribution. Last, but not least, the image of these products is very sophisticated and requires a lot of attention in terms of public relations, promotion and advertising and you have to advertise properly and you know better than anyone else that to advertise means a lot of money and means strategic plans.

VIVE: I understand that part of the significant of what you are saying is that the luxury business is a long-term commitment, perhaps more so than many other businesses.

Ch.B: Yes, indeed, it is a long term thing. Any company that wants to live long has to remember that it is very hard, even in the luxury field - you can die in the luxury goods field, you can disappear - many names have disappeared in the last 20 years. If you want to live long you have to create and to manage and this may give us a new lesson in management for those products.

The lesson is that the time for subcontractors in management in the luxury field is, in my mind, over. it is a field in which you cannot say that I will rely on my advertising agency for my ad. I will rely on the marketing company for my market study and I will rely for my creation on an outside designer or manufacturer. It is no longer possible to work in the way that was taught in the management business schools a couple of years ago. The management today is different and that is why you have to have very talented people internally, because management now revolves more closely around the product and the philosophy of the image than in any other field. It is a new management story.

VIVE: What are the difficulties in promoting the Comite Colbert in the different markets.

CH.B: First of all I do not try to promote the Comite Colbert - I search! The Comite Colbert is neither a label nor a marque - it is a club, a framework. So I do not try to promote it, I try to use the Comite as a framework in each key market within which the members can be at ease and can feel comfortable to promote themselves. For example in the United States we promoted the French Art de Vivre in an exhibition called 200 Years of French Art de Vivre at the Cooper Hewitt Museum. We didn't say 200 years of French Comite Colbert, for that would have been stupid. We don't want the people to remember the Comite Colbert when the purchase a product, we want the people to remember the French Art de Vivre, quality and culture, so the Comite Colbert creates cultural shocks, economic shocks, collective shocks, and in the Comite Colbert Festival in new York we organised all the Comite Colbert members in Madison Avenue with the same decoration with the same theme, and we invited 20,000 New Yorkers to have a trip with the Comite Colbert. so you see how we use the Comite Colbert; we never use it commercially, we use it economically, culturally as a collective tool.

We are giving the French members the opportunity to attract attention, due to the Comite Colbert initiative, to their collective force and, often, they do not realise their collective force, they play their game on their own. With the Comite Colbert they have the opportunity to play the game together and when they play the game together as we did in new York and then in Chicago, it gives them a strength which sometimes they are not aware of and the same will apply in Australia.

VIVE: Are all the members of the Comite Colbert represented in Australia?

Ch.B: Not all of them, but we have a significant number of them represented in Australia. I expect about 20 or 25 this time and that is pretty good. Australia is a growing market and that is favourable to French luxury products and whatever happens politically in Australia, it is a friendly market towards the French culture.

VIVE: Do you think that the Comite Colbert might inspire other countries to organise their own collective along the same lines? For example, Italy has many luxury products as does Germany.

Ch.B: Maybe the Germans or the Italians can try, but I can say there is no other Comite Colbert in the world. Ask yourself why and I will tell you the answer. There are two answers: the first is that the French have the best in Art de Vivre; and secondly only the Comite Colbert in France has, after 40 years of work, been able to include among the members so many areas - we say metier in French which you cannot translate into English - it means craftsmanship, knowhow . . . so many areas of expertise are found in the Comite Colbert.

VIVE: What do you see as Christian Blanckaert's contribution to the Comite Colbert.

Ch.B: I believe I bring to the Comite Colbert a strong and very reliable management because you can see that it is a management under which all the members can contribute and can be sure that what they do is well managed. The Comite Colbert has to be managed. it is not a cocktail party, it is not about having a drink in the restaurant - it is just the opposite. It is straight management, it is approved and respected budgets and a target on key markets, so it is a very defined activity. From the outside you can see that there are very rich people, there is luxury and frivolity, but from the inside it is a precise plan of action.

 

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