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- 8 Jul 2009
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Investment Aesthetics: How Will Luxury Look?

Luxury’s visual codes are transforming into aesthetic values more appropriate to and desirable for the times.


LONDON — It’s a pretty giant leap of faith, actually. But that hasn’t stopped some luxury pundits from concluding, yet again, that “austere times” will lead to austere aesthetic trends. The logic being that, as our shopping habits become more restrained by perceived financial pressures, our tastes tend to go the same way – subdued, sensible and sober. Naysayers argue that a consumer backlash awaits those brands determined to feed us a diet of mild, modest and meek design. Beware, they say, for the duty of luxury is to indulge our senses, come recession or come what may.

Depending on what you want to discover from it, history reveals patterns that support both arguments – so the truth, as is often the case, probably lies somewhere between the two. Yet whatever precedents or contemporary surveys may suggest, one thing is certain: hallmarks of a “safer investment” – think durability, timelessness and intrinsic value – have made their way back into the luxury lexicon and, consequently, will affect aesthetic trends in one way or another. The question on everyone’s mind, of course, is how?



“Certainly when you walk up and down Bond Street, you already sense something different is going on. If I look at what’s being bought at wholesale and retail, there really is a more traditional and conservative buying pattern,” says Chris Sanderson, a director of the trend forecasting firm The Future Laboratory.

“Newer ranges have become slightly safer and without a doubt we’ll see this continue, whether it be an even more muted colour palette or an increased use of black. The interest in gold is a constant and will still be very relevant; but remember that something made of gold can still be austere. As a metal and a colour, it’s being toned down so that it no longer insinuates ‘bling’.”

It’s precisely this sort of tweaking that will transform luxury’s vintage visual codes into aesthetic values more appropriate to and desirable for the times – namely, those with more inconspicuous undertones.


Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle, the epitome of the brand’s Champagne cuvée


Laurent-Perrier’s recent rebranding of its prestige cuvee, Grand Siècle, is a good example of an understated approach to updating a product category which has traditionally been about “shout”, Sanderson remarks. “Even if it was always a refined shout, Laurent-Perrier has anticipated a shift in consumer attitudes from its packaging to its communication to its strategic placement.” The Grand Siècle limited edition coffret launched over the holiday period was testament to the new direction – sumptuous yet minimal – with streamlined Baccarat champagne flutes in a sleek black box.

Champagne brands, like most other luxury goods outside the fashion category, would face disaster if they were given a make-over with each fleeting trend on the horizon. So the temptation is to conclude that this, like so many other recently rebranded products, is not a mere blip but a harbinger of a more sustained and profound shift in aesthetic trends to come – especially as consumers’ moods become increasingly discreet and pragmatic along with it. But is this really what is going on?

“It’s certainly not all about being demure. It’s a very complex shift we’re going through particularly at the luxury end,” explains Sanderson. As far as generalisations can be made across what is a very diverse industry, it does appear that the lines are being redrawn and that design will have to accommodate both functionality and more enduring aesthetics for some time to come. But by no means does it imply a ‘decoration deficit’.

“I don’t believe that austere times [necessarily] mean we’ll have austere design; but there will be a significant swing away from the ‘emperor’s clothes’ brands where form was not matched by function,” says Kate Ancketill, founder of GDR Creative Intelligence. “We’ll see this reflected in the bottom falling out of fashion-based installation art, and I predict renewed interest in skill-based art, craft and conceptually innovative design.”

Ancketill does foresee a general trend away from decadence. Most observers agree that the writing was already on the wall long before the downturn struck, the recession having simply speeded along the inevitable.



“What we also have to remember is that recessions are boom times for some consumers; so while some people take a hit, there is a whole new generation making their fortunes from or during the recession,” says Sanderson. “They want to go through the demonstration of their status by using luxury goods – meaning their tastes are a factor too.”

Luxury brands, the behemoths so many have become, now find themselves catering to the highly discerning, the aspiring and the newly inducted all at once, in any given market. What’s more, this vertical spectrum of taste has been compounded by a lateral one that grows as geographical spread extends into new territories.

“Bling and logos are still going strong in Asian territories like China. They are out in the West and the US. So in responding to this, fashion houses are working on two fronts: one that demands more special or subtle dressing, and one that still embraces the more showy side,” comments Vanessa Friedman, fashion editor for the Financial Times.



As if the fragmented and disparate tastes that luxury brands have to serve were not confusing enough, there are the counterintuitive theories on how taste is influenced by economics to contend with.

Last November when the economy really started to look grim, Alice Rawsthorn, the highly acclaimed design critic for the International Herald Tribune, penned a piece called “Recessionary design: A boom time for creative energy.” Design would not merely benefit, but thrive, she wrote, and reading between the lines, one might gather that experimental and bold designs are as natural an outcome of the recession as unfussy and quiet ones.

Then there is the popular idea that “pleasure revenge”, the term coined by renowned futurist Faith Popcorn, could make its way into the design palette once designers and consumers alike tire of investing in a cautious, conservative aesthetic. What are brands to make of all these conflicting messages which amount to a market as intelligible as white noise?

Ruth Marshall-Johnson, editor of WGSN’s Think Tank, believes that luxury brands are already doing a lot more research into what consumers really require from these fast-paced and sometimes contradictory trends. Most importantly, they are beginning to realise that “they need not effect solely knee-jerk reaction product design”.



Across the luxury industry, from cosmetics to packaging to furniture, designers have been revisiting their archives. “Interestingly though,” Marshall-Johnson explains, “they’re not just reproducing archival products; they’re updating them for our needs today and using the emotional connection of their nostalgia to hook consumers into the idea of investment pieces with heritage and value.”

Even in today’s climate, re-releasing a vintage model, a classic motif or a signature pattern is not enough for luxury consumers who demand innovation at every corner. While they may seek more subtle, low-key designs, they also desire new layers, combinations and context.

“We believe that true luxury consumers are more discerning now and will continue to buy the enduring classics from a luxury brand’s collection; but at the same time, some will want luxury with a bit of a twist of colour and a bit of flair,” says Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute, who highlighted the two approaches, contrasting Hermès’ current focus on the Kelly and Birkin bags with Louis Vuitton’s readaptation of the “in your face” Stephen Sprouse-inspired graffiti collection earlier this year.



Although on the surface it doesn’t bode well for the thrill-seeking design junkies among us, the rise of prudent investment values hardly means that luxury consumers are about to surrender their love of the rococo and avant-garde to the faltering economy. However, it does suggest that luxury brands will now have to even better distinguish between what constitutes “ornament” and what’s simply “overboard” – and better pinpoint when “edgy” becomes “esoteric”. For the aesthetic fault lines, they are moving.


Robb Young is Managing Editor


The Future Laboratory

GDR Creative Intelligence


Luxury Institute