Is the French Fashion World Racist?

Is racism really a blot on the copybook of the French fashion world? This is certainly the view of some 2,573 supporters of a Boycott Guerlain Facebook page, who are professing themselves to be fragrantly “angry and offended” at an unpleasant odeur created by the perfumer.

Guerlain, everyone's Mum's favourite perfume, finds its reputation being hurt by a racial slur.

This Facebook page, set up by “toutes les organisations qui se battent pour une société post raciale”, urges a global boycott of Guerlain toiletries and has whipped up support for noisy street demonstrations outside the chic Champs Elysees boutique in Paris two Saturdays in a row, with promises of more to come.

Facebook group has more than 2500 members

What has one of France’s most prestigious perfume houses — founded by Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain in Paris in 1828 — done to deserve this outpouring of opprobrium?

How has the formerly family-owned “perfumeur vinaigrier“, the master creator of Eau de Cologne Impériale for the Empress Eugénie in the 19th Century, managed to drive 21st century digerati to such distraction?

The Paris home of 19th century Eau de Cologne Impériale faces angry 21st century digital activists.

What do present owners, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton (2009 revenues of €17.1 billion) think about the tsunami of Twitter, Blog, Facebook and YouTube outrage now hurting its reputation in the online world? Taking the answer to that one first, Guerlain SA Company has publically expressed its: “consternation” and “forceful condemnation” over the televised views behind the outrage.

But why this uproar at such a well-loved brand?

Blame it all on 73-year-old Jean-Paul Guerlain (last heir of the family dynasty) who stands accused of making “racial slurs” during a recent TV interview on Journal Télévisé de France 2 where he spoke about the sweat, hard work and long hours that went into developing Samsara, a fragrance the perfumeur’s now retired “nose”, helped launch in 1989.

Claire the author of this blog on the Fashion Bomb website takes up the story:

“Today I received a message from one of my Parisian homegirls inviting friends to a boycott of beauty and perfume brand Guerlain: Why? Apparently master perfumer Jean Paul Guerlain used a racial slur while being interviewed on television station France 2. When talking about working on a fragrance, he said “I put myself to work like a [n-word]. I don’t know if the [n-word] have always worked hard, but…” [“Je me suis mis à travailler comme un nègre. Je ne sais pas si les nègres ont toujours tellement travaillé mais enfin…”] The actual word he used was nègre, which, translated, could mean anything from negro to c*on to the n-word. The Facebook invite says (and I paraphrase), ‘Call to all. Boycott products by Guerlain. I would encourage you to no longer buy their products in view of this racism. It’s very serious. He’s denying the value of the work of the black man! We’re fighting for a post racial society! We will have a silent protest in front of Guerlain on Saturday October 23rd at 3pm, if you have Guerlain products, bring them. We’ll all be dressed in black.’

Jaime Richards writes on the blog: “The perfume house is distancing itself from Jean-Paul as a result, noting that the 73-year-old hasn’t been a shareholder since 1996 and actually retired back in 2002. Jean-Paul apologised in a statement, saying, “My words do not reflect in any way my profound thoughts but are due to an inopportune misspeaking which I vividly regret.” Guerlain (the brand), however, said his racist remarks “do not correspond with the values of the company”.

Indeed on Guerlain SA’s own Facebook page there is a company statement in French and English which reads in part: “Jean-Paul Guerlain is no longer an employee or stakeholder in the company…While we recognise his historical contribution on one hand, on the other we forcefully condemn his views…Those who know the company know the extent to which these views are antithetical to its diverse, tolerant and mutually beneficial nature… We want to leave you with this simple message: the Guerlain SA Company has nothing in common with the views of Jean-Paul Guerlain.”

According to Agence France Presse reporting hours after the controversial remarks were broadcast: “Users of the micro-blog Twitter were quick to condemn the views of M. Jean-Paul Guerlain making references to: “Mr. Guerlain and his whiff of colonial racism”, “the perfumer Guerlain … stinks,” or “the foul smell of Mr Guerlain”.

In Paris SOS Racisme and Cran (the Representative Council of Black Associations) said they intended to file a formal complaint against the perfumer. In a statement CRAN also called on the LVMH group, which acquired Guerlain in 1994: “to distance itself from the nauseating remarks of Jean-Paul Guerlain”. On the streets outside the Paris perfume house, supporters from both groups joined Facebook campaigners in a demonstration.
See the video below:

At the risk of drawing even more vitriol, this writer does wonder however, whether the remarks of a 73-year-old pensioner may just have been blown out of all proportion by the axe grinders on the Avenue des Champs Elysees?

Story: Ken Pottinger

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