History Lessons

By Roxanne Robinson


A bevy of luxury brands re-tell their past in clever videos meant to explain not only what, but why you want to buy their sumptuous goods.

Despite its critics, The Last Czars released on Netflix this past summer did a pretty good job of engaging the newbie history student who hasn’t quite reached that stage of studies, especially the ones that prefer Glee reruns. The part docu-drama, part melodrama and somewhat slanted re-enactment of the last days of Russian Romanov dynasty – helmed by Czar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra of Hesse, who was influenced by the mystical charlatan Rasputin – featured beautiful sets and costumes, actual photos and footage of the era and history scholars interjecting along the way, explaining what the mystery plot, steamy love scenes, and scandalous violence and cursing had to with it all.

As social media and pop culture influence – can you say YouTube? – overpowers many a young consumer’s mindset, plenty may recognize a brand name, but few have any idea of its rich past and significant heritage. What better medium than video to engage the next generation of a potential customer? Luxury brands, Cartier, Chanel, Hermès, Goyard, and Tiffany & Co., for example, have a deep culture to share and are taking to the medium to share these stories.

Cartier

Cartier has long loved a good narrative. In 2012 they released a fact-based fantasy film L’Odyssée de Cartier starring the iconic “Panthere,” directed by French director Bruno Aveilan, which premiered at the MET Museum’s screening theater in February 2012 and was presented in over 20 countries. Other shorts produced by the jeweler, often starring famous actors and depicting the relationship between romance and jewelry, spoke more to the mood of the house. But in September the brand, which was founded in 1847, released a new series of shorts also called L’Odyssée de Cartier, but this time focusing on its multiple design influences from Jeanne Toussaint, Russian royalty, Islamic art, Chinese symbolism and the quirky dandyism of England. Each film is between 2-3 minutes long, spot-on for social media channels and today’s attention spans. “The L’Odyssée de Cartier series dives into the heart of Cartier’s style and eloquently demonstrates what makes our iconic style more current than ever,” said Arnaud Carrez, Director of Marketing and Communication for Cartier International in a release. “This series will allow us, for the first time, to share the depth and the diversity of our culture with a wider public.”

The films, which are currently being teased on the channels, are clever collages of archival photos of the pieces and personalities behind the brand. First up, Jeanne Toussaint, the ground-breaking female creative director (and one-time lover and muse of Louis Cartier) who was promoted from leather goods in 1933 and designed for the brand until 1970, responsible for the legendary panther motif among other designs. Next, British society’s eccentricity produced among other things the famous “Tutti Frutti” design and is a clever way to promote its newly reopened New Bond Street boutique. The third focuses on Cartier being granted the royal warrant for the Russian Romanov dynasty, which introduced Garland styles and Ballet Russe collections. Louis Cartier’s fascination with Islamic art, which led son Jacques Cartier to the Persian Gulf in search of pearls, and Chinese influences such as lacquer and mother-of-pearl, not only explain but cleverly attract the audiences in these important sales markets to round out the five-part series.

Chanel

Chanel began telling their story in video as far back as 2012 as part of their Inside Chanel series. The first episode focuses on Chanel No. 5’s historical and innovative significance, potentially giving the almost 100-year-old dusty scent a new life for a new generation. Other topics have included cities that affected Coco Chanel – Deauville, Biarritz and Venice; the infamous camelia; the making of a Couture jacket; the creation of Chanel high jewelry, which originally was a one-off for Madame Chanel in 1932. The most recent chapter, Masculine as her Muse, counts a total of 26 in the series. 

The late Karl Lagerfeld also exercised his storytelling skills through video, making several short-form films that star Hollywood heavyweights such as Keira Knightley, Rupert Everett, Pharrell Williams, Cara Delevingne and Lady Amanda Harlech, which re-tell Coco Chanel’s beginnings as a hat maker in Deauville to her triumphant return in 1954, which introduced the Chanel jacket as we know it today. Lagerfeld’s other films dealt with fantasies that typically surrounded runway presentations.

Currently on exhibit in Tokyo in its fifth installment is “Mademoiselle Prive”, the traveling showcase since 2015 named for the sign on Coco Chanel’s private apartment at the top of the second floor at 31 Rue Cambon, where the designer did most of her thinking, designing and entertaining. The exhibit offers viewers a glimpse inside this sacred space, which is now a historic monument, by dissecting the aspects of the room which has become house codes – mirror white; beige from a sofa, black Coromandel screens; red leather-bound books and gold-baroque fireplace décor. This particular installment features yet another video, this time by fashion film director of choice, Sofia Coppola. (She has also directed films for Cartier and Dior, among others.) The director created a video montage of Chanel through its history to demonstrate these particular house motifs. A deeper understanding of the house codes can translate to deeper brand loyalty.

Luxury players such as Goyard and Tiffany have also gone to great and extensive lengths to explain their origins. In the case of Tiffany it doesn’t refer to Truman Capote’s novel and subsequent film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but rather a documentary released in 2016 by filmmaker Matthew Miele called Crazy About Tiffany’s. Here the viewer learns less commonly known tidbits such as the fact that founder Charles Lewis Tiffany once opened during the Great Blizzard of 1888 for a single 80-cent sale, or that the trophies for the Super Bowl, World Series and U.S. Open Cups are all designed by Tiffany, or that former chief executive officer Walter Hoving once told Tom Brokaw he wouldn’t open his store on a Sunday even to sell a $1.7 million emerald necklace.

Tiffany & Co.

In 2016, Goyard made a clever film At the origins of Goyard, the Story of the Timber Raftsmen which explains, among other things, the basis of their triangular monogram. FYI, the motif comes from the tool to push the logs up to the Seine that warmed Paris fireplaces and ovens for over 300 years. The video was produced in conjunction with a re-enactment of a “Flot”, as the log drives on the river were called, by a local association from Morvan, France whose forests supplied the logs for centuries. 

Founder of present-day Goyard, Francois Goyard, took over the fancy container maker with a royal warrant from his employer, who died suddenly in 1852. He embraced his family’s logging heritage when he founded the canvas-coated monogram fabric which loggers wore to keep dry. It is comprised of a triangle shape that recalled not only a tool to push logs, but the brand loggers marked their wood with to mark ownership. The dots represent stacks of wood logs. 

Goyard

This film can be viewed on YouTube and thus far has a niche viewership around 16K. It was also distributed to China’s Weibo platform. According to a company spokesperson: “The idea genuinely was to educate our customers and fans about the real roots of our Maison and show how the ‘compagnons de rivière’ legacy had a major and lasting impact on the maison’s savoir-faire and aesthetics. It is impossible to truly understand Goyard without being aware of this past.”

Hermès has a rich past connected deeply to horsemanship and saddlery, but their latest set of videos aims to be more than educational and informative. It aims to pull at heartstrings and infuse a sense of social responsibility that the brand possesses. The “Footsteps Across the World” series by filmmaker Frédéric Laffont explores aspects of Hermès heritage and impact globally – from a repair workshop in Hong Kong where a French artisan discovers a bag he made originally in France, to Kyoto Japan, where an ancient art of fabric marbling is being preserved for use on Hermès scarves, the poetry and geometry that goes into the making of a custom Hermès saddle, and the expertise of Hermès ‘blouse brothers’, André and Lionel Prudhomme, who oversee the Pantin, France workshop.

But Hermès and Laffont also use the series to highlight do-gooder acts and the emotional connection of Hermès. A workshop for French school kids where they make a cushion phone speaker; handicapped folks gainfully employed and engaged in making riding crops in Sorède, France; and a Japanese woman who remembers her mother through a hand-me-down Kelly and makes an annual pilgrimage to the store to purchase a journal. Another film highlights a reclaimed materials community-based furniture factory (complete with café slash retail shop) that is reviving lives and a community which Hermès supports.

Aside from the obvious entertainment value, both approaches complement today’s curious consumer looking for a deeper connection to exactly what and why they are making a luxury purchase. And it bolsters bragging rights beyond their Instagram feed.