Thursday, July 07, 2005

Fame vs. Fortune : An Interesting Take on Oprah's Hermes Experience

Suddenly, the French wimp out. They’re willing to stand up to George W. Bush on Iraq, and they don’t give a rat’s derriere about harboring internationally reviled scumbags, like Haiti’s “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who was last seen tooling around the Côte d’Azur in his Testarossa. But confronted with the power of Oprah Winfrey, they fold like a crepe. Last Wednesday the echt-French luxury goods purveyor Hermès issued a formal apology to Oprah for the now famous closed-door incident, stating their regret for “not having been able to accommodate Ms. Winfrey and her team and to provide her with the service and care that Hermès strives to provide to each and every one of its customers worldwide.” Clearly uncomfortable in the media maw, the 168-year-old clothier’s noblesse oblige came off as stiff as cheap leather to some watchers.

Reportedly, Oprah plans to devote an entire episode to the experience in the fall when her show returns—not exactly the kind of product placement Hermès is looking for. But was it a true Crash moment? It’s easy to assume it was, because, let’s face it, France is a racist place. The country’s huge African and Muslim underclass is ghettoized on the periphery of Paris, safe from the eyes of tourists, and the public’s support for politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen shows the lingering dark side of French nationalism. But most likely it wasn’t. In fact, it was probably the opposite, because it had nothing to do with the subtle strictures of race and everything to do with a different kind of smashup: celebrity entitlement colliding with traditional French arrogance.

Hermès apologized because Oprah is the last person on the planet you want to piss off—one gets the impression she tends her enemies list as carefully as she did her book club—but if the store was closed, it was closed. Why should they regret upholding their store policy? Their full-on groveling is a nauseating reminder of the codependency between celebrities and luxury goods marketers. A decade ago the makers of luxury wares could afford to behave like Louis XIV–era aristocrats, caring not at all about whom they alienated through their snobbishness. Remember that back then high-end goods were handmade in limited quantities, so demand honestly exceeded supply. But today the faux-shortages that place you on a waiting list for the latest Chanel bag are really just calculated manipulations of the demand curve.

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