The English rock band, The Kinks once sang, “He is a dedicated follower of fashion” and I can assure you, I am not that. However, there are people working in the fashion industry, be it as designers, manufacturers or models, who often do not know the history of the brands they represent. On the other hand, there are people, who will buy a fashion item, regardless of the amount on the price tag, because of the brand name—not realizing how that particular brand got where it is now. If people really knew or cared, they would buy other fashionable brands. Several fashion houses were in bed with the Nazi regime all over Europe, but specifically in France. During the war, fashion brands were boosted on the backs and lives of others. I will only focus on a few.
The picture on top is of Renee Puissant, daughter of Jewish parents Alfred van Cleef and Esther Arpels, who made her way to the Nazi-backed Vichy regime in the south of France to operate the Van Cleef & Arpels boutique there, only to commit suicide by throwing herself out of a third-floor window when she understood the law requiring all Jews to wear a yellow star would apply to her too. Her suicide was beneficial to the Louis Vuitton fashion house. The sad thing is that there is hardly any mention of her suicide.
During World War II, Louis Vuitton collaborated with the Nazis during the German occupation of France. The French book Louis Vuitton, A French Saga, authored by French journalist Stephanie Bonvicini and published by Paris-based Editions Fayard tells how members of the Vuitton family actively aided the Vichy government led by Marshal Philippe Pétain and increased their wealth from their business affairs with the Germans. The family set up a factory producing artefacts dedicated to glorifying Pétain. This included the most damaging allegation, that more than Pétain 2,500 busts had been produced, a fact not mentioned in any of its business records.
From historical archives, she discovered that Louis Vuitton had a store on the ground floor of a fabulous property, the Hotel du Parc in Vichy, where Pétain set up his puppet government. While the other shopkeepers, including the jewellers Van Cleef & Arpels, were shut down, Vuitton was the only one allowed to stay.
Bonvicini interviewed surviving family members and found Vuitton’s grandson, Gaston, the wartime head of the company, had instructed his eldest son, Henry, to forge links with the Pétain regime to keep the business going.
Henry, a regular at the local cafe frequented by the Gestapo, was one of the first Frenchmen to be decorated by the Nazi-backed government for his loyalty and efforts for the regime.
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was at the top of the league in haute couture, creating the fashion look for the modern woman. By the 1920s, she had amassed a fortune and continued growing her empire. But her life from 1941 to 1954 has long been shrouded in rumours and mystery, never clarified by Chanel or her many biographers. Historian Hal Vaughan exposed the truth of her wartime collaboration and her long affair with the playboy Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage—who ran a spy ring and reported directly to Goebbels. Vaughan pieced together how Chanel became a Nazi agent, how she escaped arrest after the war and joined her lover in exile in Switzerland, and how—despite suspicions about her past—she was able to return to Paris at age seventy and rebuild the iconic House of Chanel.
So next time, when you put that bottle of Chanel No 5, back in your Louis Vuitton handbag, think of the history of those two items.
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