I originally wrote this piece as a submission to a luxury industry daily news site. It wasn’t picked for publishing, so it’s here instead. Enjoy!
Luxury brands need to reestablish ‘the magic’
The luxury business is built on simple principles: the products are uncommon, highly thoughtful, of superior quality, and constructed of fine materials. The delivery of the products is similarly meticulous and attentive. The entire package of goods and services is special, from start to finish. This justifies the premium consumers pay, and represents ‘the magic’ so many enjoy, desire, and crave. In recent years, though, luxury has become less magical.
In the past, there were consistent, accepted truths about luxury brands and their products â€“ they were made by hand, carefully dyed, or engineered to a standard. And the proof was not just a marketing campaign…it was tangible. Shoes lasted twenty years, and clothes could remain in rotation for a lifetime. The purchase experience and service matched. Alterations were made, special requests fulfilled, and extra care taken. From fragrance to bespoke, the care and consideration during the transaction was always impeccable.
Today, the breadth and definition of luxury is broader and less consistent. Classic brandsÂ and designer labels have given way to countless offspring nameplates, joining myriad contemporary brands, all sold under the guise of luxury. Whereas nearly all luxury goods were produced to a standard in a handful of European countries before, very few produce in those same, high-wage countries today, as production volumes have increased.
Similarly, luxury products are marketed and available throughout the industrialized world today, as well as online, accessible to anyone with a computer and credit card. Every major U.S. city has a Louis Vuitton boutique. Every department store carries Prada sunglasses. With distribution at its height, standardization and production expediency are a necessity. Not exactly traits one associates with luxury, at its definition. And, service standards simply cannot be maintained across multiple channels of purchase. The resulting correlation between modern ‘luxury’ and ‘magic’ is scattered, at a minimum.
In February, I browsed Bloomingdaleâ€™s San Francisco store, and my heart skipped a little beat as I hit the designer floor. Billy Reid, Burberry Prorsum, and Dsquared â€“ revered names of luxury Made-in-Italy menswear â€“ were present, but arranged on racks haphazardly. Some tops had one shoulder off their hangers, and sizes were out of order. On a couple of shirts, threads were loose…on pants, zippers sticky. $200 Marc by Marc Jacobs jeans were multiplied on a low shelf, all made in China. This might have well been H&M, from the untrained eye.
I also discovered a new spawn of the Ralph Lauren-Polo-Rugby clan â€“ called Black Label. Less expensive than Purple Label, but more exclusive than Polo and about level with Burberry Brit. Oh okay. Wait â€“ Burberry Brit? When didâ€¦? Nevermind.
During my brief stay, no sales associates approached me, although a few looked up from their posts as I browsed. This was the bigger surprise. Department stores like Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s have ultimate control and trump ability with their superior service. The goods are mostly the same. Why more aren’t emphasizing, touting, and perfecting their service is unclear to me.
I ended up spending most of my budgeted cash on a preowned Dior Homme sweatshirt I found at a consignment shop in the Castro District of San Francisco. It was a small shop, with friendly, quirky, fashionable staff, and the straight-from-Milan feel of black lacquer and gold trim. Everything in the store was hand-picked, organized by color and then size, and most of it was made in Japan, Italy, or France. The sales associate started a fitting room for me, checked in, and helped me choose a sleek blazer out of the seemingly identical rack. It was a curated, special experience, one I did not forget, and that I later relayed to a friend headed to the city.
To their credit, some brands and retailers have greatly increased access, while making significant efforts to maintain ‘magic’ practices, in product and service. MR PORTER, the online men’s store, carries a wide range of products, all carefully chosen each season. Orders arrive in signature sturdy white boxes, accompanied by personalized greetings, all free of any additional charge (FedEx shipping is free too). And, the boutique publishes a quarterly ‘MR PORTER POST’ newsletter, detailing trends, editor’s picks, and tips for effortless chic dressing.
Still, when analyzing the luxury market at large, it’s clear much of the magic has been lost somewhere between global market expansion, increased exposure and demand, and privately-held brands merging into publicly-traded luxury conglomerates.
Luxury brands need to reestablish the magic that their industry is built on, and redefine what it means to provide a luxury product.Â Many consumers already fed up with ubiquity of labels and the feeling of supporting wealthy CEOs rather than artisans, have taken their cash elsewhere â€“ to boutique brands, primarily backed by knowledge and care. The very assumption that all luxury brands must and will expand and grow belies the intent of selling and representing luxury.
Eventually, there will no longer be a frontier of new middle class wealth to chase, as seen now in China and India, a demographic looking to display wealth rather than enjoy it for its intrinsic qualities. If luxury brands do not reestablish their reputations as authorities in making consumers feel special, they will not capture the minds and imaginations of those who loved them before, the true long-term growth consumers. That business model may not support regular dividends or impressive valuations, but it will build true loyalty in an increasingly discerning world.