PARIS — Paging Silicon Valley: French luxury brands are pulling out the stops to woo the tech set with an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris designed to showcase their expertise in fields ranging from fragrance and leather goods to wines and automobiles.Following a research trip to Palo Alto last year, luxury association Comité Colbert extended the invitation to 50 start-up founders and venture capitalists in a bid to convince these workaholic high-net-worth individuals, known for their early morning workouts and extreme diets, to splash out on symbols of French excellence.The trip, scheduled for Dec. 3-4, will involve one-of-a-kind workshops jointly organized by several different high-end brands, in addition to a gala dinner at the Château de Versailles.Elisabeth Ponsolle des Portes, president and chief executive officer of Comité Colbert, said she met with officials including entrepreneur Kevin Systrom, the cofounder of Instagram, to find out more about the target clientele that she playfully dubbed Homo Siliconicus.“Kevin told me: ‘You know, I’m not special, I’m unique.’ And I answered, that’s fortunate, because we are the best equipped to propose things that are unique. That’s what we're doing with this program,” she said. “We are proposing surprising experiences that money can’t buy and that you can only have in France.”As if to prove her point, Ponsolle des Portes made the announcement during a lunch jointly hosted by Michelin-starred chef Guy Savoy and his San Francisco-based counterpart Dominique Crenn at Savoy’s restaurant at the Paris Mint, voted the best in the world for the second consecutive year in the annual La Liste ranking.For the Colbert Festival in December, Ponsolle des Portes cited plans by pastry chef Pierre Hermé to join forces with perfume house Caron for a workshop on taste, while chef Alain Ducasse is expected to link with jeweler Lorenz Bäumer to explore the origins of cocoa beans and precious stones.This follows a similar initiative two years ago, when Comité Colbert hosted 100 big spenders from around the globe in a bid to counter a sharp drop in tourism following a spate of terrorist attacks and the robbery of several high-profile victims, including Kim Kardashian.In addition, the organization is teaming up with Stanford University, whose alumni include the founders or cofounders of companies including Instagram, Netflix, Paypal and Google, to organize a practical workshop on silversmithing from Sept. 6 to 12 with the help of French specialist firms Christofle, Ercuis and Puiforcat.Having focused in recent years on developing the potential of emerging markets such as China, India, Turkey and Brazil, Comité Colbert has decided the time is ripe to revisit two mature markets, the United States and Japan, for its biggest initiatives in 2018.“[The United States] is the top market for French luxury goods and we believe it still has strong potential, with demand for the entire gamut of France’s offer,” Ponsolle des Portes said.Hermès executive Guillaume de Seynes, chairman of Comité Colbert, was just back from Palo Alto, where the maker of Birkin bags and silk scarves opened its first new U.S. store in seven years at the Stanford Shopping Center. Until that point, the only other French luxury brands at the mall were Cartier and Louis Vuitton.Whipping out his iPhone, de Seynes showed guests at the lunch his souvenir photos of Facebook’s sprawling rooftop park."I read that Mark Zuckerberg gets his T-shirt from Brunello Cucinelli, so they must be a little more expensive than The Gap,” he said. “But there is a feeling that some of [these executives] are still not very familiar with our houses, either because they don’t have the time, or because it’s not their priority.”De Seynes, who is executive vice president of the manufacturing division and equity investments at Hermès, said French luxury brands are keeping a wary eye on U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent moves on trade. Comité Colbert’s 81 members generate annual sales of 42 billion euros, with exports representing 85 percent.“Any move that tends toward restricting the free movement of goods can be worrying for our sector, since it is reliant on the international market, and the United States is a very large market for many of us,” he said.While some luxury brands like Louis Vuitton appear to be pre-empting the impact of potential tariffs by expanding their manufacturing facilities in the United States, de Seynes declined to comment on whether other French brands may be tempted to follow suit. “Each company is obviously totally free to define their strategy,” he said.In the meantime, the thriving French luxury sector hopes to win a little mindspace with leading U.S. entrepreneurs.“We were struck by the fact that they include a lot of engineers with a real thirst for knowledge. We hope to change the image they have of some of our houses by giving them access to knowledge,” Ponsolle des Portes said.
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