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.
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.
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.
the Comite Colbert you can only have French manufacturers, of the
best quality products, with massive exports - these are the three
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
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.
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.
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.
Why is membership restricted? Why only a maximum of 70 members?
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
What do you see as the future of the Comite Colbert at this point
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.
What do you see as the future of the Comite Colbert at this point
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.
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.
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
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.
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
What are the difficulties in promoting the Comite Colbert in the
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
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.
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.
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.
What do you see as Christian Blanckaert's contribution to the Comite
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.