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- 5 May 2010
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Welcome to Paradise...

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Brands are reining in rapid development as they adapt to the consumer’s new expectations, says Prada’s Serge Carreira, a Maître de conférences at Sciences Po.

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After years of – often too rapid – development, brands today aim to regain substance by focusing on their roots, to maintain their aura and meet consumers’ new expectations. The promise of a better world…

Just like Baudelaire did in his time, brands are trying to match “luxury, calm and voluptuousness”. Karl Lagerfeld labels this new movement new modesty. At Hermes, Véronique Nichanian, in charge of men’s collections, speaks of “sophisticated simplicity”. A far cry from Tinseltown and its stars, this form of luxury is a discreet one, intimate, even “authentic”.

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From darkness to light…

In ELLE’s March 3, 1980 issue, at the dawn of a new decade, Yves Saint-Laurent declared: "This is not couture, it is show business. The 80s were a period of excess, exuberance, provocation and breaking with the past. The underground crawled out from where it was hiding and became a fashion. The street became wise again, and found its way onto the catwalk. Designers fed off the punks and other youth culture movements. Gone were the romanticism, frailty and idealism of the 70’s. The world took an enduring swing towards a quest for individual well-being.

1994. American designer Tom Ford took over as Artistic director for an almost forgotten brand of leather items: Gucci. He was to make Gucci one of the most desirable brands of the 90s and turn the dying company into one of the most profitable in the field, and injecting it with some spice from the fashion world. A man of marketing and communication, he created a Gucci universe with a clearly identifiable style – pure and ostentatious, subversive and sexy. Tom Ford embodies the figure of a designer! artistic director, whose mission is to grasp the needs of the market and interpret them through small, easy to sell products that incarnate the company’s spirit.

The offer-based approach gradually slipped into a demand-based one. The “monk soldiers” driven by yesterday’s passion and talent will be replaced by style “mercenaries” whose responsibility is to calibrate products for the globalised market. Radicalism is left on the wayside. Following the crisis in the early 90s, the sector was devastated, giving way to a new fashion. The 80s were marked by a triumphant, ostentatious iconography. The “cash years”. For fashion designers, the 90s were minimalistic, experimental, discreet, elegant and severe, while porno-chic invaded the visual field.

Glamour, Champagne, crackling flashes, red carpets, glitter and opulence… That is the “bling-bling” imagery associated today with the luxury sector and its design companies. All luxury brands, even the most exclusive, have entered the fashion sphere, even though fashion goes beyond the field of luxury. Its definition states that a luxury product is an object that corresponds to a personalised approach that is technically perfect and aesthetically beautiful.

Luxury has been influenced by the frivolous, light-hearted, keen side of fashion. It has become “hip”, a sector of excellence that has swapped its plush decorated boutiques and slightly outdated discreet charm for aggressive communication strategies and retail cathedrals sprinkled around the globe. It has slummed in, drifting into the cool and the trendy.

The broadening of the field of expression of brands has significantly enhanced their visibility. As they become known around the globe, they become “hyperbrands”, omnipresent and omnipotent. Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Dior, Hermes or Gucci today are among the most famous brands in the world, on par with IBM, Coca-Cola, Apple or McDonalds. Through a perfume, a wallet or a tie, millions of new consumers have stepped into the inaccessible, the world of dreams…

With their global influence, brands have essentially followed consumer evolutions. The latter, both hedonistic and individualistic, are on a quest for pleasure and happiness. Design companies then proceed to develop subtle background stories to make their heritage, their know-how and their myths shine more than ever. Luxury has moved from darkness into the light. What used to be an art of living with values entrenched in tradition has become an outward sign of wealth. By plunging into the ephemeral, luxury has blurred the lines between possession and distinction. Brands have knitted fragile emotional ties with their clients, by playing mainly on their appetite for consumption.

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Regaining meaning…

Several years ago, Georges Pérec said: "The key phrase in fashion is not “do you like it”, it is “you must”. Since then, consumers have freed themselves of such diktats. Marc Jacobs, artistic director at Louis Vuitton, gave a clear account of this revisited idea of luxury at the end of the 90s: “My definition of luxury has nothing to do with fabric, fibre, or even the amount of gold attached to it. This is a definition of the past. Luxury for me consists in pleasing yourself, not dressing for others”. Consumers in the 2000s cultivate the paradoxical. While belonging to the system, clients develop a genuine critical eye. Objects of desire are ephemeral, but offer emotions to consumers, as well as the feeling of being “with it”. However, clients are highly autonomous, whatever the efforts put forth by the brands. They know the brands and are perfectly able to decipher the images. Classical imitation and distinction patterns in play in the world of fashion have been blurred by the notions of pleasure and immediacy.

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Luxury has lost its bearings. Companies have developed sophisticated discourses in order to increase their aura in the eyes of the masses. They have promised dreams and ecstasy. Consumers have experienced the weightless joy of buying a product with a famous brand on it. After years of excess and euphoria, however, the clients choices tend to evolve: authenticity, aesthetics or quality seem to have greater appeal than ostentation. Happiness is no longer achieved exclusively through showing off. Clients are on a quest for meaning. They feel endowed with a responsibility towards their peers, the planet, themselves. Brands should strive above all to maintain their ability to share a community of values with their clients.

Design companies have grasped the dangers of the strategy whereby brands are made more easily accessible. Thus, Dior has led an exemplary policy over the past few seasons. Rather than making the brand accessible, Dior has returned to its original, eminently Parisian, codes. Sydney Toledano, CEO of Christian Dior, recently declared: “Dior must resemble Avenue Montaigne everywhere in the world”. From the Avenue Montaigne boutique to the catwalks, the prime goal is to perpetuate the brand rather than tarnish it with basic products, like the “J’adore Dior” tee-shirts that were so popular a few years ago. Luxury must regain its uniqueness. It should re-shape its outlines by taking into account the drastic changes in consumer expectations. The sparkle of the brand will no longer suffice in the future. The dream is no longer exclusively one of glamour, glitz and glitter. Individual happiness now encompasses such requirements as integrity, ethics and respect. Products and brands should incorporate these emerging desires in order to fit in with their times while maintaining a strong identity.

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Serge Carreira, Maître de conférences at Sciences Po

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This article was originally published in ALL – May 2010.