Magazine article Newsweek International

Characters Make the Brand

Magazine article Newsweek International

Characters Make the Brand

Article excerpt

Byline: Nick Foulkes

Without character to animate them, the objects for which so many people long would be just that: objects.

I have just spent a pleasurable half hour flicking through a large, lavishly illustrated book called "Jacque Helleu & Chanel." Helleu joined Chanel in 1956 and, at the time of his death last year, was in charge of the bits that Karl Lagerfeld doesn't run: fragrance, advertising, watches, etc. He was undeniably good at his job. I can vouch for that personally. Long before I even knew of Helleu I was seduced by his work: the first expensive bottle of cologne I bought was Chanel Pour Monsieur, which I recall making last for a considerable period of my midteens.

I dealt with Helleu a couple of times and found him aloof and a little difficult, so this monumental book should really have grated--except for the fact that Helleu had something that is, if not endangered, then certainly in shorter supply than it used to be: character.

He was a good-looking guy and he knew it. I lost count of the number of pictures there are of him in this book; he was also understandably proud of his family's artistic lineage, which brought them into the orbit of Proust and Robert de Montesquieu. A bald statement of facts recounts that Helleu supervised the production of some commercials, some bottles of eau de parfum and some wristwatches. Yet he was obviously more than the sum of his achievements.

Emerson put it rather well in an essay about character, in which he described such luminaries as George Washington and Friedrich Schiller. "The largest part of their power was latent," he wrote. "This is that which we call Character,--a reserved force which acts directly by presence, and without means. It is conceived of as a certain undemonstrable force, a Familiar or Genius, by whose impulses the man is guided, but whose counsels he cannot impart."

Character is what separates the best luxury goods from the horde of other brands claiming those laurels. Of course there are many other characteristics that define luxury: quality, craftsmanship, attention to detail and so on, but the importance of character cannot be overstated. Just look at the example of Davidoff: with the slogan "The Good Life" and a phenomenal reputation for quality control, Davidoff, most famous for its cigars but also prominent in the fragrance business, is internationally known.

Before the brand, however, there was Davidoff the man. I was fortunate enough to meet the late Zino Davidoff, and was entranced by this elegant character with his stories of how Lenin had been a regular at Zino's father's tobacco shop in Geneva. If you look at Zino's CV, it, like Helleu's, is deceptively simple: Zino was the proprietor of a small cigar shop. …

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