FAME VS. FORTUNE

Oprah feels she was discriminated against, but the Hermès incident may have more to do with pride than prejudice.

Suddenly, the French wimp out. They’re willing to stand up to George W. Bush on Iraq, and they don’t give a rat’s derriere about harboring internationally reviled scumbags, like Haiti’s “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who was last seen tooling around the Côte d’Azur in his Testarossa. But confronted with the power of Oprah Winfrey, they fold like a crepe. Last Wednesday the echt-French luxury goods purveyor Hermès issued a formal apology to Oprah for the now famous closed-door incident, stating their regret for “not having been able to accommodate Ms. Winfrey and her team and to provide her with the service and care that Hermès strives to provide to each and every one of its customers worldwide.” Clearly uncomfortable in the media maw, the 168-year-old clothier’s noblesse oblige came off as stiff as cheap leather to some watchers.

For those unapprised of Oprahgate—or Oprahdoor, if you prefer—the offending incident took place on June 14, when the talk show host and her posse showed up at the Hermès store on tony Rue du Faubourg St. Honore in Paris to do a little last-minute shopping. (Oprah apparently needed to buy a watch for Tina Turner.) It was a few minutes after closing time, and she was denied access. Though initial reports said that Oprah went unrecognized and was refused admission because the store had been having trouble with “North Africans,” both Hermès and Oprah’s camps have since stated that Oprah was in fact positively identified. Nonetheless, the store’s employees refused to let Winfrey inside after closing time.

A week after the incident Gayle King, Oprah’s traveling companion, told Entertainment Tonight that Oprah was barred from the store even though people could still be seen inside shopping, and that the snub was “one of the most humiliating moments” of Oprah’s life. According to King, Oprah’s friends are calling this her “Crash moment”—a reference to writer-director Paul Haggis’s recent movie, which deals with the subtle and insidious ways racism creeps into our daily lives.

Reportedly, Oprah plans to devote an entire episode to the experience in the fall when her show returns—not exactly the kind of product placement Hermès is looking for. But was it a true Crash moment? It’s easy to assume it was, because, let’s face it, France is a racist place. The country’s huge African and Muslim underclass is ghettoized on the periphery of Paris, safe from the eyes of tourists, and the public’s support for politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen shows the lingering dark side of French nationalism. But most likely it wasn’t. In fact, it was probably the opposite, because it had nothing to do with the subtle strictures of race and everything to do with a different kind of smashup: celebrity entitlement colliding with traditional French arrogance.

Both sides in this tempest-in-a-Birkin are inadvertently showing us our celebrity and luxury culture at its worst. Oprah thinks…well, she thinks she’s Oprah. A “Fermé” sign should be as meaningless to her as any other obstacle that stands in the way of mere mortals. If not the color of her skin, what reason could possibly keep the doors of Hermès from springing open Ali Baba–style to greet the woman dubbed by Forbes America’s “most powerful celebrity”?

Hermès apologized because Oprah is the last person on the planet you want to piss off—one gets the impression she tends her enemies list as carefully as she did her book club—but if the store was closed, it was closed. Why should they regret upholding their store policy? Their full-on groveling is a nauseating reminder of the codependency between celebrities and luxury goods marketers. A decade ago the makers of luxury wares could afford to behave like Louis XIV–era aristocrats, caring not at all about whom they alienated through their snobbishness. Remember that back then high-end goods were handmade in limited quantities, so demand honestly exceeded supply. But today the faux-shortages that place you on a waiting list for the latest Chanel bag are really just calculated manipulations of the demand curve.

From the early ’90s on we have witnessed the “democratization” of luxury, which would be meaningless marketing jargon if it didn’t happen to be true. Access to credit and the insatiable hunger for market share have combined to turn luxury into a mass phenomenon. When luxury goods were all produced by family-owned companies, like Hermès, the pressures for growth were minimal. In fact, keeping one’s rarefied client roster free of bourgeois wannabes provided an incentive to remain small. The ascension of luxury conglomerates like LVMH, however, has changed the game. Investors want growth, and growth comes from skittering downmarket.

Therein lies the axis of evil, to borrow a phrase from a man who knows about downmarket skittering. Celebrities achieve a heightened air of status through their association with brands like Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Bentley, and Rolex. Consumers exposed to a steady diet of “lifestyle porn”—whether on VH1 or Oprah or in the pages of In Style—want to save up to get a piece for themselves. If Hermès snubs Oprah, and she snubs Hermès, that cycle is broken. Rather than the closed-door incident separating them, it has shown just how joined they’ve become: two equally despicable worlds—celebrity entitlement and luxury elitism—crashing together.