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Bags of problems for Vuitton & Pétain

As anyone who has ever read a glossy magazine while waiting for the doctor well knows, Louis Vuitton sells a wide range of top-end travel goods. The company also retails high fashion clothing, fragrances, shoes, watches, sunglasses and handbags.

The company was founded in 1854 by French trunk maker, Louis Vuitton. His chests and cases with flat tops were very popular because this made stacking and shipping much easier.

By the First World War Louis Vuitton was one of France’s biggest companies and the LV monogram logo had become widely recognised on all their quality products.

By 2012, the multi-national was named the world’s most valuable luxury brand for six consecutive years. Louis Vuitton advertising campaigns have included high profile sports and movie stars like Maria Sharapova, Brad Pitt, Tiger Woods, and Uma Thurman.

But the organisation had been through troubled times. During the occupation in World War Two, the then head of the company, Gaston Vuitton was determined to keep the business going.

He instructed his eldest son, Henry, to curry favour with the head of the collaborationist Vichy government, Philippe Pétain. Various prominent Nazis were also cultivated.

The prestigious Paris Hotel du Parc was the seat of Pétain’s puppet government. It was also the location of Maréchal Pétain’s private apartment suite. Louis Vuitton had a shop in the centre on the ground floor. It was soon the only retail store to remain open. All the others were shut down.

Henry Vuitton’s obsequious behaviour soon resulted in his being decorated by the Nazi-backed government. He was decorated with a medal for his loyalty, support and provision of materiel and supplies for the Petain regime.

The Louis Vuitton company made over two and a half thousand statues of Philippe Pétain himself. These busts of the Lion of Verdun, Marshal of France, illegal Head of State, collaborator and traitor, were displayed in schools and public buildings throughout Vichy France.

The French motto “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” was changed to “Travail, famille, patrie”.

After the liberation, no record of the casting or sale of these statues could be found in the Louis Vuitton records and archives. All details had been expunged.

In these situations, however, the very difficult question to answer is this: was there any option?

During the occupation, deciding between collaboration and resistance was the choice that had to be made by everyone in France. But it was a no-win option.

Individuals and organisations deliberately choosing not to collaborate with the Nazis, or any criticism or anti-occupation propaganda was considered active resistance. This was a very serious crime and the equivalent of sabotage and subversion. Arrest and punishment were swift. The business would be seized or closed down. Then a kangaroo court led invariably to hefty fines, imprisonment, or deportation.

The alternative course of action was to continue the business, as if nothing had changed. This would have protected whatever French civilian jobs were at stake at all levels in the organisation or company. But friend and foe alike would have seen this as outright collaboration. Contributing to the economy of occupied France would definitely have been viewed as treachery by those resisting the invaders.

During the occupation, Henry Vuitton was awarded La Francisque, a decoration that denoted personal and ideological loyalty to Pétain. Once Henry had sworn that he was not a Jew, he received the award following a recommendation by the Marshal’s closest aide.

After the war neither Gaston nor Henry Vuitton were charged with collaboration. This was because of the grey area surrounding the wartime administration’s instructions to manufacturers and suppliers. They were ordered to satisfy the country’s needs and to provide the government with the products it needed.

After the liberation, father and son continued to build and develop the enterprise. In 1987 it amalgamated to become the huge LVMH Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton SE conglomerate. The company has its headquarters in Paris with glamorous shops and outlets around the world.

Following his 1945 trial designed to be deliberately humiliating, Pétain was convicted of collaboration and treason at the age of 89. The jury sentenced him to death. He was stripped of all his titles, medals, honours, and awards. Because of his advanced age, De Gaulle commuted the sentence to life imprisonment in solitary confinement. But he also ordered that Petain, because of his service to France in the Battle of Verdun, could retain just one of his former titles.

Petain was completely senile when he died at 96. He is buried on Île d’Yeu, an island off western France. The grave is simply inscribed,

PHILIPPE PÉTAIN

MARÉCHAL DE FRANCE


Were you aware of the history of Louis Vuitton? Leave your comments below


Image credits
1. Louis Vuitton monogram logo
2. Louis Vuitton delivery 1906
3. Louis Vuitton 1821—1893
4. 2900 Euro Louis Vuitton handbag
5. Louis Vuitton advertisement 1923
6. Louis Vuitton Store Paris



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1 Comment




  1. Susanne
    3 months ago

    I had no idea about this particular part of the history of LV! Thanks for sharing it.