The factory at the Rochambeau Ranch, once called the Rockin’ Z Ranch but renamed after Marshal Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau — the French nobleman and general who helped the 13 Colonies win their independence — is set on a hilly, 260-acre site. There, workers in nifty khaki work smocks will breathe in the Louis Vuitton mythology as they learn to assemble the brand’s signature handbags and backpacks. Those bags will all be labeled Made in the USA.
This isn’t the first Louis Vuitton factory in the United States, but this one was aligned with the Trump administration’s Pledge to America’s Workers — a fuzzy-math political initiative aimed at showcasing how much the federal government is doing to improve job opportunities for the average worker. So, after a fundraising luncheon in Fort Worth and before a campaign rally in Dallas, the president attended the factory’s ribbon-cutting, along with his daughter Ivanka, who is a presidential adviser and co-chair of the National Council for the American Worker. He also brought along the U.S. ambassador to France, son-in-law Jared Kushner, former Texas governor and outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Labor secretary Gene Scalia and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, which is quite a crowd for a factory that isn’t boasting any new technology and has a workforce smaller than some neighborhood supermarkets.
The presidential entourage toured the airy factory, and Trump received a tutorial from one of the workers on the wonders of Louis Vuitton bags. There was a lot of smiling and joking — at least from the president, who made several references to “Bernard’s” business savvy and called him “an artist and a visionary.”
The late afternoon grip-and-grin was a tightly choreographed double back slap at the highest corporate level. It was business as usual … which is what made it such a curious occurrence.
The ribbon-cutting was jarring in its utter nonchalance, in its unflinching fealty to corporate normalcy during these most abnormal times. Can there be neutral ground when the players are a president who has made women in general, along with immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community, feel as though they are under siege, and a billionaire mogul who reaps tremendous profits from those very people?
Is a public shrug permissible anymore when all around there is chaos?
Louis Vuitton is one of the crown jewels of the Paris-based LVMH, which is the world’s largest luxury conglomerate and includes such iconic brands as Dior, Givenchy and Marc Jacobs, as well as Fenty Beauty and Fenty, which are in collaboration with the entertainer Rihanna. Arnault is worth nearly $100 billion. In 2017, he was one in a steady stream of visitors who met with the then-president-elect in his office in New York’s Trump Tower. These visits, for whatever substance they entailed, were supremely performative as the powerful and the power-hungry lobbed hollow compliments at Trump in front of the pool of journalists that assembled daily in the high-rise’s lobby. Arnault dutifully complied with the ritual, smiling and shaking hands with Trump in front of the whirring cameras and gamely briefing reporters on his interest in expanding Louis Vuitton manufacturing facilities in the United States. (LVMH has 33,000 employees in the country, which makes for an annual investment of more than $1 billion, according to Arnault.)
Normalcy seemed possible.
Since that meeting, Trump has revealed himself to be, at various turns, racist, petty, vulgar and dishonest. And now he is the subject of an impeachment inquiry. Nothing about his administration has been in keeping with tradition. Every ceremonial gesture comes with an asterisk. The most anodyne events are freighted with the possibility of, well, anything.
Members of the fashion community, including those within the LVMH family, have made their displeasure with the administration plain. Early on, Jacobs said he had no interest in dressing first lady Melania Trump. Dior creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri has imbued her collections with feminist ideology that runs counter to Trump’s degrading commentary about women. And Rihanna has used social media to lambaste the president on the subject of gun violence.
Alarm bells are all around Arnault. Businesspeople are picking their way through a minefield of moral questions. When the real estate mogul Stephen Ross hosted an August fundraiser in his Hamptons home for Trump’s reelection, the backlash against fitness companies in his portfolio such as Equinox and SoulCycle was swift, with workout fanatics canceling memberships and threatening boycotts. Both companies quickly issued statements disavowing any support of the fundraiser. In 2017, when Trump equated those who were protesting racism with the white nationalists marching in Charlottesville, the president’s business councils disbanded in protest. Apple CEO Tim Cook was among the business leaders who spoke out against the administration’s immigration policies. And, of course, there are business folks who support the president’s agenda.
The Louis Vuitton ribbon-cutting wasn’t a fundraiser, but it was a vivid backdrop for Trump’s reelection chest-beating. His walk-on music included his campaign favorites: “God Bless the USA” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The factory is situated in a state on the front lines of the immigration crisis. The afternoon was in celebration of a factory that will manufacture products aimed at women, and its workers — neatly lined up like a tableau vivant behind the president — were a diverse lot. What did Arnault make of these contradictions and misdirections?
The businessman noted “the commitment of President Trump to the American workers.”
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