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French cultural institutions lean into an American phenomenon: Merch

March 27, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC

When Beyoncé and Jay-Z filmed the music video for their hit song “APES**T” inside the Louvre Museum’s permanent collections in the summer of 2018, it introduced the world to a more youthful side of the Paris institution it had never seen before, one in greater alignment with popular culture. The power of the partnership translated to a 25% increase in foot traffic by year’s end and the first record-breaking year since the museum drew 9.7 million visitors back in 2012. Capitalizing on the extra attention—particularly from a wider art public—the museum began offering a thematic tour of the iconic works that made appearances in the video, from the Winged Victory of Samothrace to the Portrait of a Black Woman by Marie-Guillemine Benoist, up until shuttering during the pandemic. 

This marked the beginning of a new frontier in creative collaborations for the Louvre. Taking a cue from American institutions such as the Guggenheim and MoMa in New York City, well-versed in corporate partnerships, it launched an online shop at the end of January for its broadening collection of co-branded goods.

Tourists still may not be able to visit the museum, but they can take home a piece of it: a Uniqlo T-shirt (UT) designed for men by British graphic designer Peter Saville; an Officine Universelle Buly specially created fragrance or candle inspired by one of eight works featured in the museum; one of five limited-edition timepieces from Swatch drawn from Louvre masterpieces; or a velvet cushion or candle holder created by Maison Sarah Lavoine for a collection that nods to the museum’s leafy neighbor, the Tuileries Gardens. 

Throw pillows by Maison Sarah Lavoine, photographed in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris.
Courtesy of Maison Sarah Lavoine

The museum’s new exclusive products go well beyond a Mona Lisa pencil or art book, both standard to museum gift shops. Those simple souvenirs are produced and managed by La Réunion des Musées Nationaux—Grand Palais (Rmn-GP), a public cultural entity attached to the Culture and Communication ministry that oversees exhibitions, events, and boutiques not only for the Louvre but also the Grand Palais, the Luxembourg Museum, and 20 other museums and cultural institutions across France.

The Louvre’s newest collaborations, both higher-end and wider-reaching—as in the case of the museum’s four-year partnership with Uniqlo, which includes sponsoring its Free Saturday Nights program and new tours—are negotiated independently and meant to nurture the development of the museum as a veritable brand. 

“The Louvre is committed to making art accessible to all in everyday life,” Yann Le Touher, the head of sponsorships, branding and commercial partnerships for the museum, tells Fortune. “One way for us to do that is through carefully conceived products that tell the story of the museum’s works and its history. It also means we can reach a broader audience through our brand partner’s channels.”

Casetify phone cases embossed with replicas of some of the most famous artworks housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Courtesy of The Louvre Museum

Each product carries a QR code that directs the consumer to in-depth information on the work featured. In the case of the exclusive Louvre edition of the DS 7 Crossback, 182 emblematic works from the museum can be explored directly on the vehicle’s central screen, in addition to a series of pre-loaded podcasts available in five languages. 

Reflected in this shift to more strategic creative partnerships, in the works long before COVID-19, is an ever-growing need to finance the museum’s operations beyond government support. Up until about 2010, the museum’s operating budget was supported largely by state subsidies and ticket sales. As that became insufficient, the calculus expanded to include philanthropic donations, corporate events, concessions, and the 6 to 8 million euro annual allocation from the Louvre Abu Dhabi. With a 72% drop in museum visits and loss in revenue of 90 million euros ($107 million) for 2020, diverse revenue streams—including online merch—are all the more important to its future.

A model poses in attire from the ‘Louvre Museum x Off-White’ capsule collection by Virgil Abloh.
Courtesy of Off-White

It’s a similar story for the Elysée Palace (the official residence of the French president), which launched a robust selection of Made-in-France goods for its online boutique in 2018 as a means of financing renovation works at the 300-year-old residence. From tricolor Saint James Breton shirts and Lip watches to pétanque sets and Papier Tigre notebooks, all profits are reinvested in the estate while also promoting local production and artisanal know-how. As hard as it may be to believe that locals would want to wear gold cufflinks with the Elysée emblem, the offering has drawn appeal. According to the Elysée, international sales in particular are growing from clients in the U.S., Germany, and the United Kingdom. 

Outside of Paris, another royal icon has doubled down on co-branding opportunities to drive revenue and finance restoration projects. As part of a program to safeguard the Château de Versailles’s heritage through design with brands known for their expertise and French quality, the estate unveiled a limited edition collection of crystal-footed glassware last year, produced by Saint-Louis, the crystal manufacturer with historic ties to Louis XV, and inspired by four iconic queens. This was preceded by other exceptional goods, such as an oak stable bench revisited by Tectona and a Marie-Antoinette series of Gien earthenware plates, painted by hand. 

Regardless of the institution, what matters is the careful selection of partners. “The important thing is that these products remain exceptional and of flawless quality,” says Sarah Andelman, cofounder of Colette (shuttered permanently in December 2017) and Just an Idea brand consultancy. “They must be as irreprochable as the museum itself.” 

A model posing for the ‘Uniqlo X Louvre’ collaboration in front of the ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’ in the Louvre Museum, Paris, France.
Courtesy of Uniqlo

But there’s a cautionary tale that provided additional motivation for the Louvre to move into commercializing the museum. “We had to be on the offensive. If we didn’t build out the brand someone else would,” explains Le Touher. “The works in the museum are public domain—anyone could stick a photo of the Mona Lisa on a t-shirt.” 

A t-shirt would be the least of the risks facing an institution such as the Louvre. The most well-known trademark battle in recent years has seen the American spirits giant Brown-Forman go against the 16th century Château de Chambord in the Loire Valley. Brown-Forman, owner of Jack Daniel’s and the black raspberry cordial called Chambord, produced from a recipe inspired by a 17th century raspberry cordial popular among royals, contests the use of the name “Chambord” by the estate for their locally-made wine. There has yet to be a resolution that would allow the estate to leverage its own name.  

Unwilling to risk losing control of its image, the Louvre has trademarked its name in a number of categories with the obligation to develop them within five years to maintain exclusivity rights. Andelman, who has previously consulted for the museum, perceives the question of risk differently. “The biggest risk for the Louvre would be to do nothing at all, to restrict itself in an anti-business approach,” she explains. “These collaborations are an opening to the world.”