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Why is the luxury industry stuck in predictability?

Part 1 – FASHION & ACCESSORIES

From retail concepts, advertising campaigns to design, an increasingly number of major luxury fashion brands begin to look more alike. And examples are rife. Last week, two very different luxury brands, Belstaff and Longchamp inaugurated their new international flagship stores, both in London:  each attended by one ‘safe choice’ celebrity – Kate Moss for Longchamp and David Beckham for Belstaff. While in the case of Kate Moss, the brand has had a long time collaboration, Moss even designing some bags, Belstaff picked Beckham without ‘Britishness’ as probably the only connection.

In terms of store concepts, both stores look very similar, although their DNA is completely different – take away the motorbikes and the Belstaff store could easily convert into a Longchamp – sleek, elegant, luxurious and bright. As for brand positioning, considering that Longchamp is aiming for a more luxurious one, it would have been obvious for the brand to open on (New)Bond Street and not on more ‘democratic luxury’ Regent Street, and the same for Belstaff to open in a more unconventional area, given its biking, rock’n'roll and outdoors heritage.

When it comes to creative direction, especially in fashion, many would argue that each brand has to stand by its DNA, which, I could not agree more. However, in today’s astonishingly fast moving world, luxury is not only about craftsmanship, quality, materials but mostly about exclusivity and lifestyle – making consumers connect with the brand. Therefore, the ‘WOW factor’ or the ability for luxury brands to surprise consumers becomes a necessity from a differentiation point of view but mostly from ‘bonding’ with the consumers and keeping curious (‘what have they come up with this season?’).

The surprise factor can obviously be achieved through product – creativity and innovation but also through service. Luxury is no longer about couture / ready to wear / bespoke and made to measure/order! Consumers need to feel surprised – I would remember the years of famous French couturier Courreges or designer Elsa Schiaparelli, when they would very often ‘surprise’ their top clientele by the fact that from the catwalk product, they would add / take-away or even ‘assemble’ and teach clients how to assemble a certain attire. But probably most important in their undertaking was that they would often not take themselves too seriously and the brand was able to enjoy a flexibility ‘angle’ which would prove essential from season to season.

With New York, London and Milan fashion weeks for Spring 2014 recently drawn to a close, I realized, once again, the importance of this thinking ‘out of the box’ – I would even say ‘not take oneself too seriously’. And there were, sadly, only three such examples, one for each capital city – Alexander Wang (New York), Christopher Kane (London) and who else in Milan than Miuccia Prada for Prada. Although very young brands and both recently corporate ‘enrolled’ (Wang is the Creative Director of Balenciaga and Christopher Kane’s business was acquired by Kering).

Their approach, much like Miuccia Prada’s, was genuinely effortless, impressing both in simplicity and innovation, but one that doesn’t necessarily come as a result of a complicated creative procedure, some call ‘business protocols or rules’ in corporations. Much like Miuccia Prada, they would keep a close eye on trends, however, would not take themselves too seriously and this is vivid in their collections.

While all the major luxury powerhouses such as Vuitton, Dior, Ferragamo and Gucci have been hugely busy, almost obsessively, with conceiving and creating IT bags – each with its own dedicated ad campaign – online movie, prints and a famous ‘bag ambassador’, one more sophisticated than the other, using THE most exotic leathers and THE most unique finishes – Miuccia Prada rolled up a collection of bags for Spring 2014, with pop-art inspired motifs – at least this is what the press release read and many fashionistas interpreted. To me, like all of Miuccia Prada’s work, her success comes from the fact that she doesn’t take herself too seriously and despite her brand growing into a multi-billion dollar empire, she still maintains a hands-on for every single collection.

My perception of Prada’s Spring 2014 handbag collection as a ironic retort to what all the others were doing, but without being intended to be a retort – almost like a mockery. She would put up an ‘apparently’ elaborated stage set, this time with murals by three contemporary artists and would deliver, as with each and every occasion, a stunningly original collection, one that makes people question, wonder, interpret and most important ASPIRE.

Prada’s secret was shying away from predictability and this is how for so many decades, whether she had 30 stores or over 600 as she has now, she is the very same Miuccia Prada. I must also stress that she is probably the only fashion creator / designer who takes to art with the aim of initiating a dialogue, rather than her brand becoming the artist or vice-versa. And in the past years, many of Prada’s direct competitors have resorted to ‘artistic collaborations’, however, none have enjoyed the success that Prada did, for many reasons, one certainly being that the association did not come as natural, therefore, it would lack the arousal of curiosity and eventually the WOW factor.

With her new Spring 2014 accessories line she is taking yet another surprise move, again, going against the trend adopted by pier houses, which is less and less logo, or no logo on the bags. You may not be surprised that Miuccia Prada’s new collection has large logos, the actual wording and not the triangular logo which used to be emblematic. With this move she is even contradicting her husband – co-owner and CEO of Prada Group, who intensely debated in June the strategy of not using logos at a luxury business event he attended as a guest speaker.

During this season’s fashion week’s, I was unpleasantly surprised by designers with huge creative potential, yet, who have chosen to deliver ‘politically correct’ or better to say ‘safe’ collections, with a high degree of predictability: Zac Posen, Paul Smith, Christopher Bailey or Jil Sander.

And then, in London, there was the much awaited Tom Ford collection – first women’s collection to show on a runway under his own label and there was the discreet, yet very powerful (creatively) Thomas Maier for Bottega Veneta. I chose this comparison because of the many sensitivities Tom Ford has been sharing with the PPR, now Kering – owners of Gucci, YSL and Bottega Veneta.

Since his stormy and I would even say painful departure from the super-star Creative Guru of YSL and Gucci, Tom Ford launched (some say he had no other option) a men’s label which bears his name, which has since, grown to be a serious competitor for established iconic menswear houses such as Brioni or Zegna. However, when he launched his first women’s line under his own name, two years ago, during a very exclusive event and collection photos release only three months later, Tom Ford has been striving too much.

Tom Ford’s latest Spring 2014 collection shown in London this past week had all the defining elements of a luxurious couture collection of outstanding craftsmanship, from a creative point of view, it seemed as he put in too much. In one of tweets, I called it a mix and match of YSL and Gucci ‘memorabilia’. It felt like he put in too much, taking himself too seriously, and dangerously perpetuating an undefined brand – a Tom Ford women’s line which will fade away, avoiding commercial success, as it has been the case with the previous women’s collections.

My guess is that, while with men, he re-created a label close to perfection, unmatched by any other house or brand in luxury menswear in the past decades, when it comes to women’s wear, Ford would flourish once he would (if ever) be given the opportunity to run another major label (i.e. Chanel, Dior, Valentino - of which only one might present the ‘key opening’ towards the end of next year…

In Milan, probably too busy with the legal proceedings brought against them by the State for embezzlement, powerful duo Domenico Dolde & Stefano Gabbana presented an unusually predictable collection, almost like a repeat of the past two seasons which were based on heritage inspiration – Sicily and for the Spring 2014, the Roman Empire, with many similarities in terms of materials, prints, finishes, not to mention the ever more classic (and more expensive) handbags collection (some made of exotic leathers) – an ‘upgrade’ re-positioning strategy towards a more luxury level, which the house embarked on 2 years ago when the D&G line was terminated.

Photos of the collections at the three fashion weeks New York, London and Milan  are posted in dedicated galleries on our Facebook page.

Oliver Petcu

Part 2 – HOSPITALITY – to be published 3 October 2013