Walpole Worldwide

Talking French luxury with Comité Colbert's Bénédicte Epinay

As well as protecting and promoting British luxury here in the UK, Walpole is part of a Europe-wide network of organisations known as ECCIA – the European Cultural and Creative Industries Alliance – who all work together to represent the sector's shared values across the continent.In our latest interview series, we meet the CEOs of these organisations to learn more about the work they do and the luxury sector in their country, starting with Bénédicte Epinay, CEO of Comité Colbert in France
25th Jul 2023
Walpole Worldwide Talking French luxury with Comité Colbert's Bénédicte Epinay

As a founding member of ECCIA – the European Cultural and Creative Industries Alliance – Walpole’s work reaches far beyond British shores. Composed of seven European member organisations in Italy, France, Spain, Sweden, Portugal, Germany and, of course, the UK, ECCIA's members join forces to represent the luxury sector’s shared values in Brussels at the European Commission. Our latest interview series introduces you to the CEO of each ECCIA member and brings you the key details that every high-end brand should know about the luxury sector in the country they represent.
For our first instalment in the series, we head to Paris to speak with Bénédicte Epinay, CEO of Comité Colbert...

Bénédicte Epinay, CEO of Comité Colbert (Credit: David Atlan)

Walpole: Can you tell us about your association? How many members are there in your organisation, and what are the requirements of membership?

Bènèdicte Epinay: Founded in 1954 by Jean-Jacques Guerlain, Comité Colbert is a general interest non-profit association. It now brings together 93 French luxury houses, 17 cultural institutions and 6 European luxury houses on an equal footing. All our members share the same vision, expressed in our raison d'être: "to passionately promote, to sustainably develop and to patiently transmit French savoir-faire and creation in order to infuse a new sense of wonder". This raison d'être underpins everything we do on a daily basis.

To apply to Comité Colbert, you must be a French luxury brand of international renown. The rest of our criteria remain confidential. Each application must be sponsored by two members and is subject to a lengthy process to ensure that "the cream of the crop" is admitted. 

What are the qualities and characteristics of your country’s luxury sector that make it unique in the world?

The leadership of this industry in France and worldwide, which accounts for 38% of the CAC 40 – the flagship index of the Paris Stock Exchange (compared with 28% before the pandemic) – has been hundreds of years in the making. It began in the 14th century with gastronomy and the publication of the world's first recipe book by Guillaume Tirel, known as Taillevent and Head Chef to King Charles V. It continued in the 16th century under the reign of Francis I who established the Crown Jewels and sanctified the jewellery trade by making their creations unalienable.

This long history continued with Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's Minister of Finance to whom we owe our name. Jean-Baptiste Colbert created the Manufactures Royales, the forerunners of our industry, scattered across France and forming our backbone to this day. We share the same passion for craftsmanship and savoir-faire with our cultural institutions. Today, we need to maintain and pass on these traditions while infusing them with modernity and creativity to establish them within the long-term future of our industry.

What would you say the primary talking point is amongst the luxury sector in your country right now?

Our houses face a host of challenges: geopolitical, technological, human, ecological, and many more. We have decided to focus solely on areas of general interest, i.e. where our members are not competing. This applies to the issue of recruiting the next generation of artisans, sustainability, and defending our industry when it is threatened by French or European regulations. Collectively, we are reflecting on the future of this industry. We also organise events abroad to showcase our culture and crafts.

What is the biggest challenge to the growth of the luxury industry in your country, both domestically and internationally?

One of the major challenges facing our industry is recruiting the next generation of artisans. Our role is to raise the profile and desirability of these professions among the younger generation. Following the success of our event for young people – Les De(ux)mains du Luxe – organised in 2022 at Station F (Europe's largest start-up campus), we are launching the second edition in December 2023. For four days, young people aged 12 to 18, their parents and teachers can watch demonstrations of Comité Colbert house savoir-faire, try their hand at a wide range of trades and discover the training courses offered by the schools. This year, to boost our communications and reach even more young people, we're launching the first Métiers d'art challenge on Tik-Tok!

The second challenge is the ecological transition because the luxury industry has a duty to set an example. Our houses are highly involved at every stage in the product life cycle, from the sourcing of raw materials, packaging, new techniques and new materials to repair and upcycling. As proof of this, the Comité Colbert has already published two CSR reports, the latest of which was distributed with the business daily Les Echos. Last November, we also spoke collectively on these topics for the first time at the Earth University, in partnership with UNESCO. Chairs of our houses and directors of the RSE shared their actions and thoughts on stage to a large global audience. More recently, we partnered with Salon 1,618 where we led a round table discussion on the life cycle of luxury products alongside eight of our maisons.  

What are the calendar highlights of that your company organises throughout the year?

Comité Colbert is organised into working committees, each of which meets twice a year to outline the major issues for the year. Each is headed by the Chair of a house. We then decide on the project groups that will drive forward our key issues for the year. These vary from year to year depending on the wishes of our members and opportunities.

Alongside these major projects, we have a number of recurring themes, such as the Colbert Labo which, each year, has young talent from our maisons reflect on a given issue. Then there is the Chaire Colbert in partnership with ENSAAMA, the Ecole Nationale des Arts Décoratifs, which over the past 12 years has offered Master 2 students prospective design topics put forward by our maisons.

Finally, throughout the year, we lead networks of maison employees, based on their area of expertise: HR, ESG, Communications, Public Affairs, etc. As well as an opportunity to discuss best practice, they have led to joint initiatives and exceptional events, such as visits to the Yves Saint Laurent Museum and Cartier Jewellery Institute, and conferences on the heritage of Place Vendôme, organised by Boucheron and Breguet.

What has been the proudest moment for you in your tenure as CEO?

There have been many proud moments. There have been many 'firsts' over the last three years: a new website, an annual report doubling as a reflection and prospecting tool, the publication of two CSR reports and participation in Earth University with UNESCO. Most moving of all was undoubtedly our Les De(ux)mains du Luxe event at Station F in December 2022, which attracted 4,300 people over three days. Attended by three ministers, this very moving occasion gave the next generation a chance to see and experience our skilled trades. 

Why is an organisation like ECCIA important?

It is important to lobby Brussels given the rising number of regulations under implementation, which could affect our members' business models. It is essential that the collective voice of the entire European luxury and high-end sector is heard. This makes the ECCIA a crucial alliance of which the Comité Colbert is a founding member.

> Find out more about all the member organisations within ECCIA and its work here

> For more information on Walpole's international work and ECCIA, please contact Charlotte Keesing on [email protected]

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