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Arunansh B Goswami
An Indo-Israeli friendship ambassador.

Jews in Fashion: Louis Vuitton Saga

Wolf Bracka - Louis Vuitton. Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

“Antoine Bernheim was a mentor. He was a faithful companion, a sage, a friend,”
– Mr Bernard Arnault.

News has arrived that Elon Musk world’s richest man is not so anymore, he has lost world’s richest title to Bernard Arnault who made his fortune building the world’s largest luxury conglomerate LVMH, which includes brands like Louis Vuitton but also Tiffany, Tag Heuer, and Celine. Bernard Arnault considers a man his mentor who himself was a highly distinguished man in the history of European businesses, Antoine Bernheim, son of a proud Jewish Zionist father and one so himself. 

Bernard Arnault. Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

He is known to have been mentor of wealthy industrialists Bernard Arnault and Vincent Bolloré, as well as Nicolas Sarkozy in his early days. He was recruited by André Meyer his mentor and Pierre David-Weill to join the Lazard bank. Carrier of several popular titles given to him by people, titles such as “Dean of French finance”, maker of kings, “Talleyrand of business”, Antoine Bernheim had a tragic childhood, when the Nazis were looking out to wipe out the Jewish race from the face of the earth. But this Jew like countless others struggled and made it big in his life. In this article the readers shall get to know about the life and legacy of Antoine Bernheim and the history of Louis Vuitton.

Nazis and Louis Vuitton 

Here’s a photo of Philippe Pétain I colourised, but also restored, Pétain was appointed prime minister of France and made peace with Germany, moving to the town of Vichy in central France creating an authoritarian and collaborationist regime. Image Credits Cassowary Caolorizations via Wikimedia Commons.

In her book Louis Vuitton, A French Saga, Stephanie Bonvicini details the way members of the Vuitton family made money during dealings with Germans during wartime. It has been mentioned that while researching for the book, Bonvicini was told that company documents from the year 1930-1945 had been destroyed. Leader of the Vichy puppet government controlled by the Nazis in 1940’s occupied France was Marshal Philippe Pétain who was an authoritarian-supporting, German-state-collaborating person. According to Stephanie Bonvicini, Louis Vuitton had a store on the ground floor of the Hotel du Parc in Vichy, near where Petain had established his government. All other shopkeeper’s stores were shut down. The Louis Vuitton shop was permitted to stay. Bonvicini mentions that she discovered that Gaston Vuitton, the grandson of the eponymous creator, had instructed his son to forge links with the Petain government to keep the company in business. During the occupation, Henry Vuitton was awarded La Francisque, a decoration that denoted personal and ideological loyalty to Pétain. Once Henry had sworn that he was not a Jew, he received the award following a recommendation by the Marshal’s closest aide.

Arnault and Louis Vuitton

In 1989, Mr. Arnault became the majority shareholder of LVMH Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton, creating the world’s leading luxury products group. Mr. Arnault has been Chairman and CEO of the company since that date. But how did it happen, let us understand, in 1984, with the help of Antoine Bernheim, a senior partner of financier Lazard Frères et Cie, Arnault acquired Financière Agache, becoming chief executive and taking control of Boussac, a beleaguered textile company which owned, among other assets, Christian Dior and the department store Le Bon Marché. Arnault used this foothold in the luxury business to begin building what would become the world’s largest luxury conglomerate. “It was I who made them,” so said Antoine Bernheim about Bernard Arnault and Vincent Bolloré. While he mentored these stalwarts he was mentored by André Meyer as per Pierre de Gasquet.

Bernheim Family

The author in the Jewish section of Alsatian Museum Strasbourg, many French Jews lived in the Alsace-Lorraine area. Image Credits: Dr. Arkaja Goswami.

Born on September 4, 1924 in Paris, as per Pierre de Gasquet, Antoine Bernheim was the son of a Jewish Zionist lawyer, Léonce Bernheim, the son of a property dealer from an old Jewish family from Lorraine, with the heiress of textile industrialists from Franche-Comté, the Schwob d’Héricourt. Originally from Toul and Nancy, the Bernheims are an old family of Jews from Alsace-Lorraine in the same way as the Weills, the Schwobs, the Dreyfuss, the Blums or the Mandels, the author of this article was in Alsace in October, and got an opportunity to visit the Alsatian Museum in Strasbourg, which he availed, in the museum he saw the depiction of the history of Alsatian Jews.

Jewish Section, Alsatian Museum Strasbourg France. Image Credits: Arunansh B. Goswami.

Coming back to the Antoine Bernheim’s family, on his father’s side, Léonce descended from a long line of property developers. Antoine’s paternal grandfather, Emile, had created a real estate company, Maison Bernheim, which was one of the largest in France. In 1911, Emile Bernheim and his brother Edmond entrusted the architect Julien Flegenheimer with the construction of one of the most beautiful palaces on the Côte d’Azur: the Beauvallon hotel, on the Gulf of Saint-Tropez, between Port-Grimaud and Sainte-Maxime. A huge ocher building that stands in the middle of a park of mimosas and umbrella pines, the Beauvallon will count among its famous regulars Lady Churchill, Senator Edward Kennedy, Mohammed V and Colette. His mother’s grandfather, the industrialist James Schwob, had added d’Héricourt to his surname, the name of the canton in eastern France where he lived at the end of the 19th century. He was the uncle of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, whose children he took in when they were expelled from the boys’ high school in Belfort. The Schwob d’Héricourts had bought the textile factories of the Dreyfus family. After the Second World War, they sold the textile business to the Boussac group to reinvest part of their fortune in real estate.

Friend of Chaim Weizmann Léonce Bernheim

Chaim Weizmann First President of Israel. Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Antoine Bernheim’s father Léonce Bernheim as per Pierre de Gasquet was Engineer of Arts and Manufactures and lawyer registered with the Paris bar, he was also mayor of Pourcy-sur-Marne and general councilor of Châtillon-sur-Marne. “My father was a central engineer and a lawyer. He was a socialist and a great friend of Léon Blum. He also presided over a number of Jewish resistance organizations,” mentioned Antoine Bernheim effortlessly. To be honest, he doesn’t like to talk about his family. “He was linked to resistance networks, many Jews fled Germany to other European countries, in Poland, there were pogroms, in Russia too. There were persecutions everywhere. We had to find a refuge for the Jews. My father thought it was good that there was land to welcome them mentioned Antoine. He was a Zionist and was a close friends with Chaim Weizmann, the main founder and first president of the State of Israel. Incidentally, there is a street named after him in Dimona, the city in southern Israel where nuclear energy is being developed, in the desert of the Negev.

Jewish section, Alsatian Museum Strasbourg. Image Credits: Arunansh B. Goswami.

 Léonce Bernheim distinguished himself in the Resistance, engaged as a volunteer in 1914, he finished the war several times decorated. During the interwar period, he played an important role at the head of the Jewish organisation ORT (Organization Reconstruction Travail, society for the development of artisanal, industrial and agricultural work among the Jews). Called up again in 1939, he was assigned to a special factory in Laudun-l’Ardoise, in the Gard. Following the law of October 3, 1940 establishing the first “Vichyst statute of the Jews” and prohibiting them from exercising public functions, he lost his post as mayor, but remained a lawyer at the Paris bar. In August 1941, his art collection was looted by the Nazis, like so many others belonging to major Jewish collectors. In January 1942, he joined his family settled in Grenoble. He then became one of the main leaders of the Zionist resistance in France. In particular, he participated in setting up the steering committee of the Zionist Organization of France, of which he became secretary general. 

On May 10, 1942, it was under his patronage and that of Joseph Fischer that the founding meeting of the Zionist Youth Movement was held. In March 1943, his name was suggested for the presidency of the General Union of Israelites of France, but he declined the proposal. The following month, he will be one of the forty members of the Jewish resistance who participate in the creation of the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation in Grenoble, rue Bizanet. Alongside his secret resistance activities, he continued to plead in the Grenoble court. 

From September 1943, following the German occupation of the department, he entered the clan-destinity. On December 7 of the same year, back in Grenoble after a meeting of the Jewish resistance in Voiron, he went down, under a false identity, to the hotel Switchboard, rue du Docteur-Mazet. This is where, the next day, he will be arrested by German police, most likely on denunciation. The police report states that he was arrested under the assumed name of Leon Bemin. in room no. 6 of the Hotel Standard, in Gre-noble. On the police file, it is indicated that he dealt with “relief for foreign Jews”. A few moments later, his wife, who had come to join him at the hotel, was in turn “picked up” by the Gestapo, along with “a friend or relative who was accompanying him”. In fact, it is his sister who will be released thanks to false papers. “The fundamental error was to return to Grenoble where they were very well known”, considers Antoine’s cousin, Bertrand Zivy, who himself quickly left the city, knowing that he was “condemned to death by the Militia”. As Myrthil Weill, François de Tessan or Léo Glaeser, other active leaders of the ORT, one of the oldest Jewish “economic relief” organizations, Léonce Bernheim fell into the hands of the Gestapo. “This remarkable man, this ardent campaigner for the rebirth of his people, sacrificed his life to the Jewish cause and the liberation of France. He fell at his post during a perilous mission,” reads the report on the role of Jewish organizations under the Occupation published by the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation. Transferred to Drancy on December 13, 1943, the Bernheims were both deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland, on December 17, 1943, by convoy n° 63. They never returned.

Like Father Like Son

Antoine Bernheim became an orphan because he and his family were Jewish, he lost both his parents to the Nazi’s planned systematic extermination of Jews. Antoine Bernheim’s existence was that of a survivor, much of his disposition was due to the experience of the Occupation. He was resistant there in Grenoble and then in the Southeast and saviour of many co-religionists the Jews persecuted by the Nazis and several Europeans inspired by Nazism. Having rubbed shoulders with Italians who took on them to hide Jews, he kept an instinctive friendship for the Transalpines. So his destiny as the future boss of an insurance giant Generali based in Trieste was not only at random. The Fondation du Judaïsme Français was founded in 1974 by the Unified Jewish Social Fund, the work of social assistance for Jewish children, social action through housing and private and legal persons which included Antoine Bernheim, who lost his parents just because they were Jewish. The Fondation du Judaïsme Français is concerned with the place of Jews in France, recognition of their importance in the history of the country, their future and more globally, with the transmission of cultural / societal / historical values to younger generations. This ambitious aspiration, which is fully consistent with its object and purpose, is intended to be useful to the greatest number of entities, starting with the Jewish institutions themselves. This is the positioning that has led the Foundation to undertake various initiatives.

Marc Jacobs and Lois Vuitton

Marc Jacobs. Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

It is mentioned that it was an American Jew Marc Jacobs, the star designer who turned Louis Vuitton from a staid luggage-maker into a global fashion brand. At the age of 24, Jacobs was the youngest designer to receive the New Fashion Talent award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. After graduating from the Parsons New School of Design, Jacobs worked for Perry Ellis after the designer passed away and shortly thereafter created his own label in 1984 with partner Robert Duffy. Marc Jacobs was the Creative Director at Louis Vuitton for 16 years, from 1997 to 2014. Jacobs not only expanded the French brand globally but also designed its first ready-to-wear line in 1998. In 2003, Jacobs collaborated with Japanese visual artist Takashi Murakami to produce one of the most beloved LV collections: the Eye Love Monogram Collection.  In 2004 he launched the Louis Vuitton’s men’s line. In 2014, Marc Jacobs stepped down as creative director of Louis Vuitton in order to concentrate on his own line. 

Jews and Fashion

“Based in urban centers and pushed by history toward entrepreneurship, Jews found fashion one of the fields open to them,” said Valerie Steele, historian at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The 501 blue jean was the first Jewish success story of fashion. The Jewish fashion designers went on to attain great success in the fashion industry, Ralph Lauren to Marc Jacobs. The struggle of the Jews is not over still systemic anti-Semitism creates bulwarks in their way to achieve great things in life, but Bharuch Hashem many Jews do not give up and become inspiration for Jews and Zionists around the world to emulate and follow. 

About the Author
Mr. Arunansh B. Goswami is a lawyer by profession in New Delhi India, also a historian by training. He has studied history at the historical and prestigious St. Stephen’s College in Delhi India, he has also read law at prestigious, Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi ( India ) which has given one of the highest number of Judges to Indian Supreme Court. He has worked as a research consultant with Union Minister of Steel and Civil Aviation of India, Mr. J. M. Scindia and Mrs. Priyadarshini Raje. Scindia titular Queen of the erstwhile princely state of Gwalior in India. Mr. Goswami has studied Israeli and Jewish History deeply and travelled extensively in Israel, and Uzbekistan to explore and research about sites associated with Jewish Prophets.
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