VENDOME, France — Louis Vuitton has reinforced its commitment to using exotic skins in its handbags, with the official inauguration on Tuesday of its two most recent leather goods workshops in France.
Against the backdrop of the French presidential election campaign and the deepening crisis over Russia’s troop movements in Ukraine, a sizable media contingent turned out for the ceremony, attended by Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Louis Vuitton chairman and CEO Michael Burke and French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire.
Illustrating the strong links between Arnault, the world’s third richest man, and the government of French President Emmanuel Macron, who is preparing to announce his bid for reelection, Le Maire spent four hours touring the workshops in Azé and Vendôme, in the Loir-et-Cher region in central France that is home to a number of historic castles.
The minister donned white cotton gloves to pick up a crocodile leather Capucines handbag in a dégradé of silver and gold, as he listened attentively to an employee explain part of the production process, which requires 350 steps.
“I salute the worldwide success of LVMH, which is good for France,” Le Maire said, noting that the group has recruited 1,800 artisans over the last five years. “You can see here that each employee takes real pride in making these Vuitton bags, in defending this French excellence which is more about craftsmanship than industry.”
LVMH spent between 15 million euros and 20 million euros to buy and restore the historic Abbaye building in Vendôme, which dates back to the 11th century and variously housed a Benedictine monastery and a cavalry regiment. The four-story structure has been open since September 2020, but its inauguration was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Oratoire workshop in neighboring Azé, meanwhile, is being touted as the first industrial building of its type in France, with an eco-design that cuts energy consumption by half compared with a classic Vuitton leather goods workshop.
The two sites, which employ 150 people but will eventually house 500, specialize in bags made from exotic skins such as crocodile, ostrich and python leather, joining three other Vuitton workshops in France with similar skills. The Oratoire site, operational since October, also produces prototypes and other types of bags, such as the Onthego tote in monogram canvas.
Arnault, who was flanked by his son Frédéric, CEO of watchmaker Tag Heuer, touted the remarkable growth of Vuitton, noting that when he took over the company in 1987, it had just three leather goods workshops. By the end of 2022, it will have 19.
“Since then, the sales volume at Louis Vuitton has multiplied by 30,” he said in a speech to staff at the Abbaye Vendôme site, crediting the highly skilled workers for the success of the company. “LVMH is a family-run group and when you join LVMH, when you join Vuitton, you don’t join an anonymous company, you join a family,” he told them.
The inauguration comes 10 days after 240 workers at three Vuitton workshops staged a walkout over pay and working conditions. Although they represented just 5 percent of staff within the leather goods division, the protest revived public debate about whether entry-level employees at luxury goods firms, which are thriving despite the pandemic, are receiving their fair share of benefits.
While rival Hermès revealed last week it would pay out a bonus of 3,000 euros to its nearly 18,000 employees following a year of “exceptional” growth, LVMH capped off six months of negotiations with its leather goods workers with a deal last week that raises their salary by 7 percent and reduces their average work week to 33 hours from 35 hours.
Arnault noted that employees who qualify for a share of benefits earn on average the equivalent of 18 months of salary. “Louis Vuitton employees are among the happiest and best-paid, which makes them loyal. That’s our contribution to purchasing power and job security,” he told reporters. “When you join Vuitton, you want to stay.”
Vuitton’s arrival in Vendôme has helped to attract other luxury manufacturers, such as porcelain maker Marie Daâge, local officials reported. The town was formerly home to tanneries and supplied gloves to the French royal court during the rule of Renaissance King Francis I, but in recent years it has specialized in the production of metal parts for industries such as cars and aeronautics.
Burke said LVMH has increased its investments in exotic leathers, in contrast to rival French luxury firm Chanel, which said in 2018 it was halting the use of leathers including crocodile, lizard, snake and stingray. Animal rights activist group PETA has regularly called on LVMH and Hermès to follow suit.
“We believe that done in a sustainable fashion, this is an extremely important trade to maintain, because if we don’t maintain this trade, the making of objects in this exotic skin, these animals will disappear,” Burke argued.
“If you do not buy these hides, their habitat becomes much more valuable as real estate development,” he continued.
“The only way for that land to remain in its natural state is to have that land have value, and the highest value that this land can have is producing crocodile or alligator eggs, which we then buy for about $50 apiece. And for every 100 we buy, a year later, we have to release 10 one-year-old alligators and crocodiles back into nature, which is what has brought the species back from near extinction,” he said.
By the end of 2022, 100 percent of crocodile skins used to make Louis Vuitton bags will come from farms certified according to the standard introduced by LVMH in 2019, which strengthened the traceability requirements for tanneries. This compares with 93 percent currently. The group’s Heng Long tannery in Singapore sources its skins from farms in Australia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya and the U.S.
In addition to setting up shop at the historic site, Vuitton — which has a flagship and high jewelry atelier on Place Vendôme in Paris — struck a deal with local authorities to use the Vendôme name for its jewelry collections.
LVMH said it will continue to expand its production capacities, with plans to recruit 1,000 people by the end of 2024. Touting the group as an example to follow, Le Maire said the government was committed to raising industry’s share of national wealth to 20 percent in the next few years, from 12 to 13 percent currently, by making France more competitive.
He noted that Macron had already lowered production and corporate taxes, and pledged to cut business taxes by a further 10 billion euros to 15 billion euros. “The real battle for industrial recovery is not just a question of taxes,” Le Maire said. “We will achieve the reindustrialization of France only by recognizing the value of training, manual work and apprenticeship.”