The paid mentions from Louis Vuitton began popping up on social media, urging people to "disclose love in LV style" with gifts from a new series of "tribal mask" bags. The Mask Collection features clasp designs inspired by African masks owned by Gaston Vuitton, grandson of the company's founder, and exhibited "at the legendary 1931 Colonial Exposition in Paris."
The bags, which cost between $1,340 and $4,700 (U.S.), have a playful look, with their bright overflaps and trunk-like corner protectors. The real attention-getters are the clasps: stylized sunbursts of colour that evoke a child's take on African masks.
My first thought on seeing these items was that they were the French equivalent of the "squaw doll" key rings that got a Quebec clothing designer's "Inukt" collection booted from the gift shop of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2013. Why would you go there, LV, at a time when the Washington Redskins are fighting a losing battle to keep their name and logo, and when a faux-native headdress will get you barred from some concert venues?
But this surprising misstep goes even further, into a most unsavoury period in the company's history. It turns out that while Gaston was building his collection of African masks in the 1930s, he was also disclosing his very public love for old-school colonialism and French fascism.
The "legendary" 1931 Expo at which Gaston set up his own little pavillon nègre is now more usually seen as a notorious attempt to justify France's rule over 60 million increasingly restive people in West Africa and Indochina. The fair included a replica of Angkor Wat and a troupe of 1,500 "indigènes," imported to entertain visitors while wearing native costumes, even when that meant dancing outside in grass skirts in November. A Musée des Colonies featured bas-reliefs of sexy colonials picking cotton and tea for an allegorical France, enthroned amid banners advertising La Liberté and La Paix.
That hardly seems an ideal association for a modern luxury retailer, especially one increasingly dependent on exports to the Pacific Rim. But there's more: When war began and the seat of empire was overcome by the Germans, Gaston and his son Henry got very intimate with the collaborationist Vichy regime, and even lobbied successfully to open a factory to make busts of Vichy leader Marshal Pétain.
The tale is told in journalist Stéphanie Bonvicini's book Louis Vuitton: Une saga française, published in France in 2004. Bonvicini also found that Henry put himself up for la Francisque, a decoration that denoted personal and ideological fealty to Pétain. Henry had to swear that he was not a Jew, and received the then-rare award after a recommendation by the Marshal's closest aide.
The tight Vichy connection helped the Vuittons get around state controls on labour supply, and kept them in their boutique at Vichy's Hotel du Parc, where Pétain's government was based. All other merchants were evicted from the hotel, including the Jewish owners of Van Cleef & Arpels, whose assets were seized and auctioned to non-Jews.
Gaston and Henry were not charged as collaborators after the war, perhaps because of the grey area created when the wartime administration began commanding manufacturers to satisfy its needs. Father and son continued to build the enterprise that merged in 1987 into the LVMH luxury-goods conglomerate, whose other holdings include Hennessy, Dior and Bulgari.
When Bonvicini's book appeared, LVMH said that the Vichy story related only to a period when the company was still a family-run operation. And yet it is that period that the company now wishes us to remember, through its fond references to Gaston's collection, and its use of African iconography to help sell a $4,700 handbag.
It's doubly surprising that LV would go there, in that it had escaped from Bonvicini's revelations with minimal damage. French media outlets, which almost all benefit from the firm's enormous advertising account, shunned the book, which was never published in English. It was mentioned in France only by the satirical magazine Le Canard enchaîné, which also reported LVMH's remarkably frank assessment of the media chill. "If the journalists want to censor themselves," a company spokesman said, "that suits us fine."
Designer Nicolas Ghesquière, who joined LV in 2013, may have been unaware of this history when he revealed his Mask Collection at his spring 2015 show. That no one else at the company remembered, or thought twice about appropriating African cultural symbols, says a lot about how period style can blind people to what wasn't so great about the good old days. When you look at history simply as a reservoir of glamorous images, you tend to filter out everything else. Nostalgia has no teeth, but it can come back to bite you.