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- 23 Nov 2009
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Property Slump Spells Good News for Opulent Interiors

As houses become homes once again, consumer spending on sumptuous textiles and luxury home goods is rising, even in a declining luxury market.

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LONDON – Long before wealthy consumers ever spoke the language of brands, society’s elites surrounded themselves with opulence. Stroll through any historic home still standing today and witness the splendour of bygone eras. These homes were intended as elaborate theatres to display wealth, status and taste. Materials imported at great cost from far-flung places included richly-hued silk brocades, rare carpets, exotic marbles and a seemingly endless supply of precious woods for inlaid floors. To the contemporary eye the overall effect is often staggering.

While all this magnificence may today appear extravagant, our ancestors understood something about the fundamental nature of luxury that we seem to have lost sight of along the way: before an expert craftsman even lifts a finger or a brand affixes its prestigious logo, luxury begins with the finest materials known to man. Self-evident though this may sound, in the wake of the financial crisis with so many brands struggling to remain relevant and the very notion of luxury apparently in flux, it might be useful to go back and re-examine the material basics.

Jean-François Lesage probably understands the essence of luxury better than most. Having grown up in the rarefied world of haute couture, he has an implicit grasp of those elements that make luxury truly luxurious. But while his family may be inextricably linked to the houses of Saint Laurent, Chanel and Dior — for whom the Lesage firm crafted so many embroidered fabrics — Jean-François is better known at the pinnacle of interior design. Jacques Grange, Alberto Pinto, Peter Marino and other internationally-acclaimed interior designers and architects have all used his sumptuous textiles to create exclusive interiors for a handful of the world’s most discerning clients.

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Jean-François Lesage embroidery and workshop in India

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Lesage’s business, however, is far removed from the hubbub of Paris’ elegant avenues or the stark American design studios. Based in Chennai — an Indian city that during colonial times was the centre of the Madras province’s unique textile industry — his workshop employs extraordinarily talented craftsmen who create richly embroidered fabrics for renowned interior designers and architects around the world. His textiles, which for their size and intricacy frequently require thousands of hours of work, incorporate a wide variety of precious materials including gold, silver, mother of pearl, silk, seed pearls and finely spun gold and silver gauze. The fabrics are used to upholster fine furniture, curtains, blinds, wall panels, borders, bed covers and whatever else his clients’ whims may dictate. The effect they produce on a room harks back to a time when many of these refinements were privileges strictly reserved for the highest echelons of society.

While the skill level is easily on par with that of the “petites mains” who form the backbone of France’s haute couture industry, the local sourcing of materials and labour in India enables Lesage to produce the same degree of intricate detail on a scale that would be nigh impossible to achieve anywhere else. And, yes, cost is a consideration when working on this scale. When one considers that the average price-tag of a finished haute couture confection can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, the quantity of fabric required to decorate a single room would be prohibitively expensive to produce in his native France.

As exceptional as they are, precious textiles such as Lesage’s may seem somewhat excessive in this day and age. For one, few of us still have that profound connection to our homes that our ancestors once did. The most recent real-estate boom, one of the longest in modern history, has prompted a further shift in the way we relate to bricks and mortar. As noted London interior designer David Carter observes: “Until the markets crashed a year ago, many had come to see their homes as little more than investments. The intent upon purchase was to move on in a few years and so little real effort was made to personalise the interiors. We’ve since lost the sense of deep personal attachment that previous generations had to their homes.” To many, it might therefore seem a pointless indulgence to adorn a home with textiles and other fine materials of this kind if the intention is merely to move on in a few years.

While this may very well be, if the boom prompted a substantial change in how we relate to our homes, it stands to reason that the downturn could just as easily reverse that mindset. In fact, surveys of spending habits amongst the wealthiest U.S. consumers suggest this reverse shift may indeed already be underway. According to the Home Luxury Report 2009 conducted by Unity Marketing, spending on luxury home goods including fine fabrics, window and wall coverings, art and antiques increased 16% in the first quarter of 2009 over the previous quarter and 17% over the same quarter last year.

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What is more, as the luxury industry struggles to regain its footing, many believe brands also need to work harder at differentiating themselves from competitors. Harrods managing director Michael Ward noted in a recent interview: “The worst thing the luxury sector could do is to go downmarket and become undifferentiated from the mid-market.” This view is supported by a 2009 study commissioned by Elite Traveller and conducted by wealth management firm Prince and Associates, which found that among the more than one hundred private jet owners interviewed, the terms most frequently used to define “true luxury” were “inaccessible”, “unique” and “restricted”. The findings led the authors of the study to conclude that the financial crisis is pushing the luxury sector back to its roots — highly exclusive, little-known products and services reserved for only the privileged few.

This is perhaps where rare or precious materials can in fact make the biggest impact and provide a much needed edge — especially in the interiors sector. They offer a means by which the industry can bring to the fore what it does best; that is, creating exceptional products or environments using unique, time and labour-intensive processes with the finest materials. The difference, in other words, between what is merely “very nice” and what is truly splendid. Even more to the point, if what the wealthiest want is indeed that which is “inaccessible”, “unique” and “restricted”, then where their homes are concerned, this may only be attained by turning to those exceptional materials that in the hands of skilled design professionals can be combined to achieve personalised and exclusive interiors consistent with their particular definition of luxury.

Carter, whose own interior design projects have included such extravagances as vellum-covered walls and mother of pearl flooring agrees: “The value is only partly embedded within the materials themselves. The rest is in the effect they allow us to achieve [but] on a subliminal level, clients are responding to the magic we’ve created with those materials.”

The financial crisis and consequent turmoil have obviously impacted profoundly not only our industry but society at large. As the wealthy begin to consider their houses less as investments and more like actual homes in the traditional sense, fine luxury materials such as Lesage’s textiles could once again become a compelling way of personalising and reconnecting to real estate – that is to say, as something worth preserving and passing on to the next generation, rather than just flipping.

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Helene Le Blanc writes a blog at " target=“_blank” title=“http://www.theluxechronicles.com__”>www.theluxechronicles.com

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Websites

Jean-Francois Lesage
www.jeanfrancoislesage.com

Alberto Pinto
www.albertopinto.com

Peter Marino
www.petermarinoarchitect.com

Unity Marketing
www.unitymarketingonline.com

Elite Traveler
www.elitetraveler.com

Prince & Associates
www.russalanprince.com

David Carter Interior Design
www.alacarter.com

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LS members

David Carter