Luxe in flux

Words by
Nick Foulkes

26th September 2017

In the past 10 years, fashion, art, luxury goods and social media have converged to create the perfect consumer storm, but has luxe lost its lustre or regained what makes it special?

the London boutique for luggage house Moynat, which has become a reference point for super high-end luxury leather goods
the London boutique for luggage house Moynat, which has become a reference point for super high-end luxury leather goods

the London boutique for luggage house Moynat, which has become a reference point for super high-end luxury leather goods

Ten years of Sphere is a momentous achievement. However, I am sure that its proprietress [editor Jemima Sissons] will forgive me for pointing out that the celebrations might be ever so slightly overshadowed by the knees-up on the other side of the world in Cupertino, where they are celebrating a decade of the iPhone. And if there is one thing that has changed luxury over the past 10 years, it is the iPhone. This little device, with all its attendant capabilities, has effectively put the whole of Bond Street in your pocket.

Nor is it just the way we acquire and consume luxury that has been changed by the iPhone; the explosion of social media (Twitter was a year old in 2007 and the culturally dominant visual format of Instagram was not to arrive until 2010) has altered things in a way that our 2007 selves would have been incapable of imagining. Fashion has never moved so rapidly and the ever-faster speed has led some major brands to take drastic action and experiment with a see-now, buy-now instant fashion model — after all, if the world has seen next year’s Autumn-Winter on someone’s Instagram account, it makes this year’s Autumn-Winter seem so… well… this year.

Louis Vuitton collaborating with Takashi Murakami
Louis Vuitton collaborating with Takashi Murakami

Louis Vuitton collaborating with Takashi Murakami

Instagram — the clue is in those first five letters — is about getting things now (if not sooner). Of course, the essence of luxury, as distinct from fashion dressed up as luxury, is traditionally about how slow rather than how fast things are: the time it takes to master the craft skills; the time it takes to source the rare materials; and the time it takes the consumer to acquire the taste to appreciate the subtleties of the rare materials and time-intensive skill acquisition. 

All of that takes… well… time and time is what investors do not have; they want quarterly results. As Tom Ford said: “Going public does force you to change the way you do business. It forces you to be aware of how you are spending and where it’s going, to make some short-term decisions because that’s what shareholders respond to, and to juggle the long-term benefits with the short-term.” 

Ford confided this observation to Dana Thomas, whose book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Lustre by happy coincidence also celebrates its 10th anniversary. Thomas’s thesis is that to make luxury accessible, “tycoons have stripped away all that has made it special”. A decade on, and an economic crisis later, a quick stroll down Bond Streets Old and New, Avenue Montaigne, Rodeo Drive or any other of the world’s glittery, sparkly shopping thoroughfares would suggest that for many the dream is still intact. The question is, what are they actually dreaming about? 

The ever-popular Hermès  A/W17 clutch bag
The ever-popular Hermès A/W17 clutch bag

The ever-popular Hermès A/W17 clutch bag

Richard Mille, CEO of Richard Mille by Richard Bord

Luxury has been overused with a race for volume. In the world of true luxury, everything has importance and nothing can be left to chance. A serious brand in the high-end segment has to accept the need for dedication in the creation of true high-end luxury products

RICHARD MILLE
CEO, Richard Mille

As things have sped up, luxury has become about shorthand. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, a logo was like a signature on a work of art, or the hallmark on a piece of gold or silver: a sign that the maker believed so strongly in the quality of his product that he was prepared to put his name to it. But as the brands have moved out of the control of the founding families and into corporate hands or shareholder ownership, the logo has become an increasingly abstract concept. No longer the signature of a “real” person, it becomes a cipher to be toyed with by designers — viz. the extraordinary and almost instant rebirth of Gucci thanks to Alessandro Michele’s knowing and joyous rediscovery of the double G motif.

One of Burberry’s bags for its DK88 range, inspired by the work of Henry Moore
One of Burberry’s bags for its DK88 range, inspired by the work of Henry Moore

One of Burberry’s bags for its DK88 range, inspired by the work of Henry Moore

Nick Keytes, MD of Gieves & Hawkes

We have seen meaningful and permanent shifts in how and where shoppers buy luxury goods. Empowered by connectivity, luxury shoppers enjoy a profusion of choice and are equipped with more knowledge and better access than ever before. Earning and maintaining customer loyalty is absolutely crucial and often stretches far beyond the retail environment.

NICK KEYTE
MD, Gieves & Hawkes

Yet mere logo recognition and a pre-conditioned Pavlovian purchase animated by the stimulus of some Instagram starlet feeding the appetite for instant gratification is not for everyone. For those who think that luxury should be more profound — or at least more enduring than a season — there is culture and the arts. Over the past decade art, fashion and the luxury goods business have come together to create the perfect consumer storm.

Those consumers who flatter themselves on being cultured and above manipulation by celebrity endorsement happily attend the dinners given by this brand at the Venice Biennale, or the parties given by that brand at Art Basel Miami, or enthuse about the latest show at the newest branded arts foundation. The message, never overtly stated but easily deciphered, is that the seasonal creations of the design studio, which in turn create those quarterly results, share the eternal values of art. 

Over the past 10 years, art has become a vital ingredient in the luxury recipe: whether in terms of sponsorship; inspiration (apparently a recent Burberry collection was inspired by Henry Moore!); or collaboration (Takashi Murakami’s involvement with Louis Vuitton was a stroke of inspired genius of which Andy Warhol would have been proud). The result is that works of art find themselves blended into the cocktail of prestige purchasing: these days a Lucio Fontana on a venture capitalist’s wall tells you what a Porsche in the garage used to say. 

Yet the purpose of luxury as a means of defining personal superiority is as much a part of our civilisation as literature, art, religion and architecture, and in the past it was enshrined by sumptuary law. Yesterday it was the Amber Road, the Incense Route, the Silk Road, the Spice Route; today it’s the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Orchard Road, Madison Avenue and Via Montenapoleone.

 

HELEN DAVID, Chief Merchant, Harrods

With products available through many sources and the modern luxury customer now cash rich and time poor, there is a need for a greater emphasis on experience over just selling beautiful products.

HELEN DAVID
Chief Merchant, Harrods

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It is because of a fundamental human need that these great arteries of branded luxury continue to pulse with life. On Bond Street, the Hermès store is bigger than ever, it faces a huge Louis Vuitton and is just down the road from the vast Dior, which opened last year: housing the entire world of Dior, from babywear to homewares, under one roof so that, as in that other great French institution, the Louvre, you can spend a day wandering the world named after Monsieur Dior.

Yet there is also a growing appetite for a sort of “off Broadway” experience. One of the most illustrative phenomena in shifting ways of luxury has been the transformation of Mayfair’s Mount Street over the past decade. I am fond of saying that there was a time when you could drop a pin at one end of Mount Street and hear it at the other. You haven’t been able to do that for a long time. These days, the number of big black S Class Mercedes stacked on either side of the street make it almost impossible for two-way traffic to navigate. It is in such places as Mount Street where one encounters a new type of elegant artisanality.

Mark Hearn MD, Patek Philippe UK

Over the past 10 years, we have seen customers develop a deeper understanding of true luxury, which is about what is behind the product, craftsmanship, heritage and integrity.

MARK HEARN
MD, Patek Philippe UK

The incomparable Mariano Rubinacci, eponym of the fabled Neapolitan tailoring establishment, was one of the first to see Mount Street as the place to ply a modern luxury trade in artisanal goods, which are naturally scarce because of the small number of craftsmen making them. Rubinacci arrived on Mount Street in 2005 and small chic brands are still opening spaces here: just around the corner on South Audley Street is LONB London, an innovative luxury luggage start-up that has taken the decision to sell only at its own exquisite shop, which has the feel of a 1950s yacht.

Rubinacci’s Mayfair establishment showcases its fine Neapolitan tailoring
Rubinacci’s Mayfair establishment showcases its fine Neapolitan tailoring

Rubinacci’s Mayfair establishment showcases its fine Neapolitan tailoring

The emergence of the area as a luxury shopping district has created a space for brands that are neither niche nor mega — it is the place that you will find the boutiques of such brands as Creed, Richard Mille, Valextra and Gina. It is also the London address of Moynat, a luggage house that went out of business in the mid-1970s, but which in the past five years under the creative direction of Ramesh Nair has become something of a reference in super high-end luxury leather goods. A man who works without compromise, Nair is also a provocateur in as much as he can be relied upon to challenge accepted notions of what is and is not luxury, making such observations as “Luxury should never be attached to value.”

Prima facie, Moynat sounds like the antidote to “big luxury”. The interesting thing is that for all its slow pace of production and the uncompromising genius of Nair, Moynat is part of LVMH. Could it be that the same tycoons accused a decade ago of having “stripped away all that has made it special” are now making luxury special again? Only time will tell...

Here’s to the next 10 years.

ISABEL ETTEDGUI Founder, Connolly 

“We have seen the rise of the collaboration — the mix of traditional high luxury houses with cooler brands and demographics. But I think what will happen in the next ten years is going to be even more interesting as there will emerge an underground luxury.”

ISABEL ETTEDGUI
Founder, Connolly 

Trevor Hardy

CEO of The Future Laboratory

In the next decade, luxury will enter a more thoughtful phase of inconspicuous consumption, where we’ll view ideas and culture as the most desirable currencies.

In The Future Laboratory’s recent Luxury Futures report, we outline how this shift in the language and manifestations of luxury will be driven by a younger, more conscientious luxury consumer. Wealth will no longer be solely defined by the bottles of wine in your cellar or the yachts you own at the marina. Instead, it will be increasingly transcendent. The mindset of experience over acquisition means that luxury consumers will be looking inward and focusing on personal improvement and wellbeing rather than material assets. The future of luxury is about transformation and the greater good rather than ostentatious displays of wealth.

Consumers will also become increasingly obsessed with personal longevity. In the next decade, we will go beyond focusing on our bodies and invest in treatments and experiences that improve brain performance. Cognitive power and intelligence will emerge as the new hallmarks of affluence.

As an early sign of this shift, London’s Corinthia Hotel has invested in a neuroscientist-in-residence who advises on how the hotel can better affect the mental state of its guests. “The Brain Power Package”, developed by neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart, helps travellers and guests take as much respite as possible, focusing on details in rooms such as a sleep-inducing lavender pillow spray, details in the spa such as a bamboo stick massage aid, and menus in the restaurant that are designed to boost brain power.

Additionally, luxury travel will become more focused on providing rare — and often extreme — experiences. Future luxurians will treat holiday trips as collector’s items; the less accessible, the more aspirational. Future-facing luxury operators are already offering consumers the chance to access these next-level experiences. For example, London-based travel agency Blue Marble is currently offering an opportunity to travel to the depths of the Atlantic to explore the wreckage of the Titanic

thefuturelaboratory.com