Historikeren 2/2019: Véronique Pouillard
Consumption- and fashion historian Véronique Pouillard (UiO) is from September 2019 engaging a five year comprehensive project on intellectual property rights (IPR) in the creative industries, namely the fashion- and music industries in the 19th and 20th century. Fortid is curious to know how and why historical artists like the iconic Gabrielle “Coco” Bonheur Chanel have had various attitudes towards protecting their intellectual property. This thorough researcher welcomed us into her office one sunny Thursday to enlighten us on this void, tell us about her experiences using and working with different archives – from her student days in Brussels to more recent archival visits, and to give us deeper insight into the consumer society which has been under debate for quite some time. Véronique gave us some very helpful anecdotes on how useful it can be to stepping out of one´s expectations – as she did when writing her master’s thesis on a Belgian fashion firm. Additionally, Fortid was fortunate enough to gain new insight into unexpected developments in the globalization of luxury, current discussions on huge tech giants like Google and Facebook and more themes from contemporary discourse from this experienced professor of history.
Foto: Madeleine Ensrud
How did you become interested in history, specifically fashion history and material cultures?
It was actually by chance because I was initially interested in political history during my studies, and I assumed that I would be writing a master thesis in political history — maybe history of party politics. I had previously done a seminar paper on the architecture of department stores for a great course taught by an economic historian. This teacher came to talk to me later and mentioned the large archive of a fashion firm. The descendent of the fashion firm’s owner had contacted the University and the archives, wondering if there was a master student who would like to write something using this archive. I still had my dream of writing about political history, but I said I would have a look at the archive. So, I had a look at the archives, and I was completely fascinated.
Later I worked in these archives for two years for my master thesis. It allowed me to look at nearly a hundred years of the history of this fashion firm, Hirsch & Co, which was based in Brussels with branches in Amsterdam, Cologne, and Dresden. Since then I have not seen such complete archives of a fashion firm again. It had been exceptionally well preserved, including complete accounting records, superb records on its labour history (it was a firm with paternalistic policies) and private philanthropy. It was a Jewish firm, and there were also records on the aryanization the firm went through during WW2. In the 1960s I could clearly see that the image of the firm was changing. It had to close in the 1960s because there were no clients left for luxury fashion.
Tell us more about your experiences at this archive. Was this the first archive you had ever worked in?
I studied at Université Libre de Bruxelles where we used the German seminar-model. From the first year we were sent to the archives. The first work we had to do was to visit the archives of city of Brussels, and look at the population census for one street, and then later write a seminar paper using the information from these censuses. The first census was from 1846, and that was the very first assignment I had using archives. It was fantastic to be sent to the archives from the first year, and I think all the students were really hooked on that.
Have you followed up your interest in political history since your student years?
Yes, to some extent in the sense that I am interested in the relation between business and politics.
Your current project focuses on intellectual property rights (IPR) in the creative industries, namely the fashion and music industries. Why do you think this is a void that needs to be filled?
I arrived very progressively to the history of intellectual property and like many historians I started by looking at piracy. I had encountered it several times before without really working more in depth on IPR. The Belgian fashion firm on which I wrote my master thesis on was making a lot of fake French fashion. Then, for my PhD I worked on advertising. The beginnings of modern advertising were anchored in the press, and I realized that in the 19th century, if you were a great reader and wanted to access the last book by Balzac or Zola or other well-liked French novelists, it was easy to buy a copy pirated in Belgium. It was cheaper and it was just across the border from France. In Belgium the presses were really running doing mostly cheaper, pirated copies without paying any intellectual property rights. Then when I started working in-depth on global fashion, the counterfeit business — which today is important — opened new research questions. For my new project, CREATIVE IPR, The history of intellectual property rights in the creative industries, I started looking at conceptual problems. What I often had heard in conferences was «but you work on piracy in fashion, it is not relevant! Fashion is derivative, so it is normal that there are going to be counterfeits. Why does IPR matter in the fashion industry?». So I started questioning that part of my research and in a sense, what I was finding in the archives. There was such a presence of counterfeit and judiciary records. I could see that entrepreneurs were going to court very often for IPR matters, and still I was hearing that IPR does not matter in those fields of business, right? So I was trying to understand that if IPR does not matter in the fashion industries, why am I encountering it repeatedly in the archives?
From this dissonance I started looking at IPR in design some years ago and at the conceptual problems we have with IPRs. It is a conflicted field.
Right now this same scope of problems has come back, especially in politics where the EU is trying to pass a new law on IPR which is in its last stages right now. This law is much discussed because IPR can be used as a way of getting a grip on the tech giants. What is going now is that these tech giants are under scrutiny for becoming uncontrollable enterprises. There is a lot of discussion in the US about the need for a new anti-trust law. The Democrats, notably Senator Elizabeth Warren are now making it a campaign topic saying we need an anti-trust law to break these giant enterprises including Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft (sometimes labelled GAFAM) in several entities. What the EU is trying to do is to implement regulation on private data. Another equally important question is to try to control intellectual property rights revenue. The question is, how do we do that? How do we approach intellectual property rights as a revenue and how to redistribute that revenue? Notably one question is the interface between actors like Facebook or Google and traditional press organs. The latter are losing revenue from their content to these big tech firms. Should we use strict IPR systems to constraint huge firms or is it better to have a political solution? So the idea was to look at IPR concepts in history and try to understand where these problems originate, and look at the stream of revenue from IPR in history. By looking at IPRs from a firm’s perspective, which is a specificity of this project, one can find revenues in unexpected places. On typical case in the fashion business is Nike. It is the biggest fashion firm in the world and they make a large revenue from IPR. It is that revenue that Nike uses to evade taxes. So their tax scheme is based on moving around intellectual property rights revenue. This came out with the Paradise Papers. This is one example on the questions that this project is going to approach. The most powerful IPR system used to be French. German and Belgian IPR come quite close. So, I have decided to focus on France, starting from the hypothesis that a too rigid IPR law generates problems.
This is undeniably of strong current actuality. It reminds me of Amazon in the EU where they have had some judiciary issues trying to establish the same business-model that they use in the US, which carries some tendencies of monopoly. Is European culture on IPR unique in that sense?
It is not entirely unique, but it has a long history there. IPRs are historically very grounded in Europe. European countries have been early movers in using IPR to protect their innovations.
What we see repeatedly is that once a country becomes an innovator, it also tries to protect its innovations. It is not necessarily effective though.
More active than American firms?
It depends on fields of activity. IPR are used as a type of protectionism. They are one of the tools in the legal arsenal of protectionism. So Europeans have been quite strong about it, but then they get caught up. They got caught up because once America started becoming protecting innovations too, naturally. And now, China too has entered the game of IPR. So, it has become a battlefield in that sense. What we see repeatedly is that once a country becomes an innovator, it also tries to protect its innovations. It is not necessarily effective though. In some fields of activity, nobody cares about IPR. It is quite case by case. But there is an early tendency in Europe, yes.
I am also going to work on a new anthology on global fashion in the next years. This is going to force me to go out of the West, and I really look forward to that.
Most of the biggest fashion houses today like Chanel, Gucci or Dior are all European. How would you explain this tendency, and how has this influenced your geographical research scope?
I kept working on fashion and looked at fashion as a case of reverse Americanization. So,
when I started my postdoc project I asked Victoria De Grazia to be an advisor, as she has written a great book on americanization, Irresistible Empire. America’s Advance Through Twenty Century Europe. The book discusses American power over Europe, and notably she looked at the advertising industry. At that point I had started working on transatlantic advertising moving to Belgium, especially seeing how agency J. Walter Thompson followed General Motors in Antwerp. Fashion seemed to transfer the other way, as European designs were adopted in the US. But the picture is quite different if we look at numbers. This is important today because fashion has globalized completely. There is this very striking imbalance in European firms engaging in creating image value, brand value, design value. But production has moved to the periphery, or distant locations: the Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Caribbean and of course Asia. Another important question is whether Africa is going to become an important player. This could be in manufacturing, and in creativity. The latter is fascinating if you look at the history of wax fabrics for example, which is commonly used in a number of African countries for clothing and has been globalized too. It is not made in Africa, but for African markets and is part of African culture and even politics to some extent. I am also going to work on a new anthology on global fashion in the next years. This is going to force me to go out of the West, and I really look forward to that.
You mentioned Americanization and it is no big secret that Europe in the post-war years was imitating the booming American consumer societies in many aspects. Is it plausible to state that this tendency is reversed when talking about the fashion industries, meaning that America has commercialized European fashion culture in the later decades?
This is a case going back and forth. I have colleagues who did very interesting work looking at early 20th century American fashion nationalism. When collecting archival material in the US, I was looking at the trade press and was surprised to see Native American themes alongside artefacts branded as Americana to the 1930s fashion buyers. Historians are paying more attention to such designs now. Today for example, this book on Claire McCardell arrived (by Kohle Yohannan and Nancy Nolf). She was a great avant-garde American designer. She made extraordinary things because they were so simple, modern and timeless. She made things that were beautiful, that could be kept and worn, that were comfortable and for all types of bodies. A question is why we don’t remember this. Why do we only remember the European brands, and how did they build their reputation?
The Americans were buying an enormous amount of French fashion in the Prohibition era, for example. Which is quite striking — were they going to Paris solely for fashion, or to party also?
Are the European brands romanticized in the US?
Yes, absolutely! The Americans were buying an enormous amount of French fashion in the Prohibition era, for example. Which is quite striking — were they going to Paris solely for fashion, or to party also? The Americans buyers also loved to go to Italy to buy fashion. The Italians firms were great at showing them Florence, Rome, and taking them to parties. So the sociability of buying fashion was important in the economics of fashion. Now buyers travel to Paris, London, Milan and New York for Fashion Week, and increasingly to major Asian cities. One question is why Hollywood never took off as a fashion capital. Similarly, why not Africa? Why not Australia? There are important cities and creativity everywhere, but some manage to put their branding up front better than others.
We are really fascinated by your experiences in collecting and working with archival material. Could you elaborate some more on how you work with primary sources in studying fashion industries?
With the first archive and the firm I was writing my master thesis on, I had a strike of luck. Probably because this was a firm in the periphery of Paris and London. One problem with fashion firms is that they are often a bit hesitant in opening their documentation. Large groups publish annual reports, and may open additional, private documentation. But this too varies. The Dior group, for example, has been wonderful. They have opened everything one could wish for that still existed. Conversely, Chanel which is a private firm has been completely closed. So what I do is to look at companies` foundation records, which I have done systematically for France. I mostly use judiciary records where I cannot access more documentation from the firm itself. Especially labour courts and litigations records have been very useful. Small crime courts have also been useful for counterfeit business and economic competition cases. For WW2, I used the Illicit Profit Records, which holds documentation from the firms that had their taxes investigated postwar.
Are these kinds of judiciary documents public?
Yes, these are public. One only has to do some research. Sometimes it just consists of long lists of names, so then it is a bit hit or miss. I have been less lucky with the failure records of fashion firms, for example. Initially there were too many files for failures in Paris. They have kept maybe just one out of five as a sample and just threw away the rest. All the fashion firms that I found are falling in these cracks, so I have been left with just small record cards with the year of failure and maybe the amount of money that they had in debt, but no complete records. In the US, I used a lot of the archives of the Fashion Institute of Technology, and educational institution founded in 1944. They hold archives by firms, but these are mostly design archives, therefore it is more difficult to find economic records here. I also used the archives of the Fashion Group, an association of women entrepreneurs. This takes patience and sometimes luck.
You mentioned Chanel earlier, and luxury consumption is also among your fields of study. The luxury industry is among the fastest growing industries today; could you elaborate on this statement?
Yes, you are right, it is one of the fastest growing, and it is also one of the most globalized industries, too. I started working on the globalization of luxury with colleague Pierre-Yves Donzé who is based in Osaka, Japan. He works on the watch business and I work on the fashion business. When combining the two and looking at waves of globalization, we saw that luxury is behaving a bit differently. The first wave of globalization happened before WW1. With the war and the great depression economies contracted. The second wave of globalization took place from the 1970s pushed by neoliberalism. Now it seems as if this current wave of globalization might be declining since the financial crisis of 2008, but we need more time for this to confirm. With luxury, interestingly, we saw that there is another wave of globalization that happened in the postwar period. The French economist Jean Fourastié called this time the thirty glorious years. From the post-war reconstruction, to the post-war boom and also towards a post-war globalization. So in terms of luxury, we are actually in the third wave of globalization. Luxury has been resisting, but also growing faster than other industries. One thing that has interested my colleagues is that luxury is profitable when it democratizes. There is wonderful work on the 17th and 18th century and the first popularization of luxury. Luxury initially came from Asia to Europe, until it started seeming to be more European. The US had a harder time producing luxury and caught up late. Now, luxury grows very fast in the Asian markets and in the BRICS— Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa. So when examining globalization, luxury is of great interest. Since the Ancien Régime, some theorists saw it as a provider of employment, while others considered it as a mark of inequality, or thought that we should be more restrained in our attitudes to luxury. This tension shapes research, too.
In terms of inequality, has conspicuous consumption changed parallel to the globalization and democratization of luxury? Is conspicuous consumption dynamic in the same way as luxury has been for the past centuries?
It is always more difficult to consume conspicuously in times of crisis. Inequality in France is a major reason for the Gilets Jaunes to burn the luxury shops and restaurants like Fouquet’s, where former right-wing president Sarkozy partied for his electoral victory. So the Gilets Jaunes went burning these symbols of luxury that absorb the anger of populations subject to inequality. What we see is a trend of what is called pauper chic, luxurious without expressing it, or showing it off. This was true for Chanel who sold her products expensively, but they still looked rather simple and modest from the outside during the Great Depression. This is a question of the moralization of consumption.
On the other hand, conspicuous consumption, as the great 19th century Norwegian-American sociologist Thorstein Veblen called it, had to do with women wearing luxury, as a way to show off the fortune of their husbands. These women were not supposed to work, they were supposed to be beautiful objects. Ostentatious consumption sometimes can have positive consequences, which is the possibility for class transgression. Luxury can be a tool for climbing the social ladder. In the Ancien Régime, the sumptuary laws became obsolete quickly and were not reapplied, but they forbade men and women of the people to wear certain fabrics, like brocade, or colours or jewellery that were reserved only to people of higher class. Today, there is a possibility for leasing such luxury products. One consequence can be that people of all classes can access these products, show them off, and experience using them.
There seems to be a pattern of lower classes imitating the upper classes. This imitation seems is somewhat more difficult to identify today.
From that perspective it is probably a good sign, because this means that we live in a more egalitarian society. It becomes more difficult to single out people for exterior signs of wealth.
Why do you think luxury had a wave of globalization just after the war?
This is a development we see from a lot of empirical work. One question is the early formation of luxury groups. These groups are formed by entrepreneurs that started acquiring and merging firms, and investing internationally. These luxury groups started forming in a period of prosperity in Europe. In addition they were in the forefront of exports. The French Ministry of Economy reports aimed to foster luxury trade because it was possible to create a lot of value with little material. The idea was that the skills of people could contribute to create luxury objects with materials that were not necessarily huge. They were not talking about jewellery for example, but more of craftsmanship. That is, using older knowledge to make sophisticated, complex objects. The idea, especially in France, was to send these firms at the forefront of the international growth.
Wearing something that has been worn on another body before is an important change in our consumption pattern. In the Ancient Regime, this was done by poor people and servants.
The consumer society is, and has been, under hot debate for a long time now. How do you feel that your research adds to this debate?
That is not an easy question. There are multiple actors involved, and it is fundamental to look at the consumers. Historians have tried to understand whether the consumers have power or not. This is also the case right now. Political consumption is now regaining momentum. In my work, I have looked a lot on the business side of the consumer societies. What makes these advertising and fashion firms function? How do they grow? What is their business model, and why is it evolving? Fashion is a strong drive for the economy, and it really works with the idea of renewal of aesthetics. Political consumption is something historians have tended to label as a generational move, but now it seems to be there to last. In 2017 consultancy McKinsey published its first report on the state of the fashion industry, because it is slowing down. This was not due to the long-distance solidarity with workers, but to the environmental argument, with fashion being the second most polluting industry in the world. The ecological argument seems to have a stronger impact on the fashion industry. Renting clothes and buying second hand is a deep change, because fashion is related to emotional consumption. Wearing something that has been worn on another body before is an important change in our consumption pattern. In the Ancient Regime, this was done by poor people and servants. Firms have had to respond quickly, and in this industry, firms may not last long. That is something I see especially when looking at the American economy of fashion.
Has this impacted your archival work? That businesses have been opening and closing so rapidly?
Yes, because it is difficult to track. Fortunately there were a lot of governmental reports on this. A challenge is to document the smaller firms. Milestones in business history have been on the large multinationals. This is a problem when writing business history of such actors, because it is easier to have a few big actors in your narrative, than a lot of micro-actors. This is also a problem when looking at mid-century American fashion industry, which was very formative at this time. There were a lot of small actors and subcontractors there. Fortunately, the last generations of economic and business historians have been very interested in these smaller firms and businesses. So, there is a strong basis of historiography on which to build.
We quickly wish to get back to your project. In the case of IPR in your temporal research scope, is it possible to track a case of dichotomy between artistic elitism on one side, and economic incentives on the other? Is there a disagreement between the two?
It is likely that everyone is accusing the other of being the elite, besides the consumer.
On the one hand, the artist maybe wishes to expand revenue, not all of them though. Some artists actually work aside of IPR because they think it is useless. One really needs to go beyond the discourses because there have been multiple rhetorics. French singer Serge Gainsbourg said that he did not care for IPR and famously burned a dollar banknote on a TV show. In managing his accounts I am not so certain that he did not care for IPRs. Chanel was another famous case. She stated that she did not care for IPRs, but when I looked at legal archives, I saw her suing counterfeiters repeatedly, which she denied in public.
On the other hand, elites can also be the big tech firms. Their discourse is that to liberalize everything is good for the consumer. But does the consumer really want to be left alone in front of Google or Facebook? This, in addition to creating monopolies entails some important difficulties. One among the half dozen or more projects funded by the European Research Council on IPR is on commons, because we face the problem of enclosing the commons. Some entrepreneurs or other players can act very smart by appropriating parts of the commons for their own exploitation. Therefore it is legitimate to question who the elite is.
Depends on who you are asking.
One thing is for sure and that is that artists get very little revenue from intellectual property.
We simply cannot label everything intellectual property. We cannot treat pharmaceutics the same way we treat fiction, or songs, or designs, or paintings.
Your next project really adds to this debate.
The idea is also to refine our conceptual tool box. I took a very important decision in the beginning of the project which was to only look at the so-called creative industries, and not at science. I believe it is problematic to treat those two in the same manner. Several lawyers agree on that. We simply cannot label everything intellectual property. We cannot treat pharmaceutics the same way we treat fiction, or songs, or designs, or paintings. We might end up not calling all of these laws IPR anymore, and that would probably be a helpful change.
Av Madeleine Ensrud og Minja Mitrovic (masterstudenter i henholdsvis MITRA og historie ved UiO).