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- 12 Aug 2010
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The HAUTeLUXE™ series: Step 9 – Soul Mates

By approaching brand building like the stages of a love story, Philippe Mihailovich argues in his forthcoming book that luxury branding is more about human relationships – passion, desire, love, and trust than the mass market theories often used by companies today. The ninth in his monthly series covers aspects of soul.

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When we feel that we share the same thinking, interests, values or background to someone, we may begin to feel an affinity to them. The more we ‘connect’ the closer we come to being soul mates. We often trust editorial comments written by specialist journalists in media that we love or believe in. Some trust brand selections made in ‘Sex in the City’ and other ‘brand content’ media such as the Michelin Guide. If you cannot interest these journalists in your offer, you are unlikely to interest their readers. If your passion is fake, they’ll sense it. If not, they’ll probably end up sharing the same passion as you do.

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It’s a feeling

The best fashion editors are very sensitive to soul. After an Armani Privé show, the IHT’s Suzy Menkes wrote, ”Accessories from bracelet cuffs to clutch bags all add to the notion that this show is a brand extension, rather than something that comes from Armani’s pure design soul.” When I asked how she would describe soul in a brand, she replied « Well, you can’t describe it. It’s a feeling, that’s the whole point. It’s a feeling that the designer has got to the essence of what he or she believes in, and you cant say ‘the soul of the brand is this’ if the designer doesn’t feel it – and this is the problem with all these people coming into brands and designing under a label that,… you know,.. how can they find the soul? It’s hard enough for all of us to look into our own souls and when you’ve got to look into somebody else’s, that’s really tough.”

“So when a designer no longer exists is there any point in the brand existing,” I teased. “Yes well they should shut down all the houses except maybe Chanel as Karl has done such a great job. Why do we keep all these houses open? Why can’t they close down?” she quipped.

“Its true that with Chanel we can feel the soul,” I mentioned to Lagerfeld who’s attention was now with us. “I’m happy you say that,” he replied. “Imagine me telling you? I’m a beginner, that’s why. I always think it will be better next time. It’s true, because success is dangerous, because you can get used to it, so the best thing is to think that you did nothing and you have to start it all over again all the time. And I feel equally at ease with myself and for the brand. For Fendi and Chanel, I totally identify with the brands, not only their images but the people who run it are great and that makes something special. I’m very much a person who is behind a label and the brand where people do everything the way it should be done. The two persons who were the best in my professional life, who behaved the best, are Alain Wertheimer (Chanel) and Bernard Arnault (Fendi). The rest you can forget.”

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With passion and with pleasure

Zoologist Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape “is keen on the concept of playfulness, which he says fuels our ingenuity and inventiveness. Playfulness is being human. Those at the extreme end of the ‘playfulness’ spectrum, and likely to be more creative than the average. People who exhibit a ‘Peter Pan syndrome’ to an extreme degree he considers to be of above-average intelligence, inventiveness and creativity.

When I asked Jean-Paul Gaultier how he adds soul to Hermès, he replied, “With passion and with pleasure, that’s what brings out the best – always being passionate and loving what we do, voila. I hope. I do all that I can for this.” Many great designers tend to work for the big brands as well as their own. The best manage to inject soul into these labels. We feel a personal touch through their passion. They do not set out to create just to sell- they create to excite. They put everything they can into it to the extent that we can feel it. To Roberto Cavalli, the secret of soul is to be happy. "I love life. I’m positive. I love life. I love everything that is around me. I love colour. That is the reason why my collecton is so colourful. The colour is positive, " he says at the opening of his boutique in Paris. “He knows how to make a woman feel perfect!” two women with arms full of clothes tell me.

“At Hermès, there is always the feeling that the object is a gift that we are offering or presenting to another. The object is a friend, it is expensive because it is beautiful and perfect, it has involved the house, its creators and its vendeurs. It is griffed”, says Christian Blanckaert. It’s a matter of soul being greater than technique. The passion delivered in the writings of Baudelaire, Shakespeare or in the speeches of Ghandi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, or in our favourite music tracks. The depth of the soul that we can receive from such sensory stimulus is perhaps beyond measure. The memories we retain, marked by music or fragrance or prose. All our senses have a direct connection to our souls. The soul is our guiding inspiration. Soul brings creativity, inspiration, spontaneity, enthusiasm and love. It can’t be explained. We have to feel it and give it so that clients feel it and receive it. Luxury is that simple. It’s a two-way process. “Luxury is a human place. A company is not created just to make money”, says Blanckaert. “Luxury has become less and less human and more financial in its approach and I don’t like it.”

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Adding Soul

At Boucheron, the craftspeople claim to cut the gems to release the stone’s soul and then to set them in an imaginative way. We don’t know the names of these craftspeople but we do feel their passion. It would seem that the success or failure of a piece is totally linked to the amount of passion that went into its creation. We cannot measure this scientifically of course, but we know – just as we know if a potential lover is sincere or not. Interestingly enough, Vuitton have special sewing (souling?) machines that give the effect of hand stitching by providing a heavier indentation –say every 5mm although they can regulate the space. Not only does it serve to ‘add soul’ by looking hand-made, it also helps to differentiate from counterfeits– but the importance of the personal touch cannot be underestimated. Here’s where the ‘French touch’ and artists come into it too.

Brands with anonymous owners or designers can always try renting some soul by employing artists or celebrities to design their products as Longchamp has done with British artist Tracey Emin (no doubt to attract the Brits) or even Kate Moss. Vuitton hiring Jacobs and Jacobs hiring Murikami may be a more famous example. The less the original creator is involved, the more it may be helpful to invite ‘guest-souls’.

There are many reasons why a luxury maison may wish to align itself with art and artists. They are not simply buying art or sponsoring the arts and culture as banks and other corporate businesses may do. They invest in artists, create with artists, integrate art into the very DNA of their brands to reach a creative level way above pure artisanal craftsmanship to add soul to their marques. They have understood that a wonderful work of art, even if experienced for one short second, could trigger such powerful emotional reactions in us that we may never forget. Only real art can do this, not replica art. Soul may also be added by collaborating with top architects, curators and the like.

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Of course, every member of staff should be adding soul. At Banyon Tree Hotels and Resorts it’s simply added by the creative personal touch given daily to every room by their housekeepers. Arrigo Cipriani of Cipriani Group says there is a difference between service and taking care of your customer. He believes that “taking care of the customer without imposing on them is key to a successful business”. He does not give ‘service’ but offers ‘kindness’. To become a soulmate, a brand needs to ‘connect’, be trusted and respected on top of which, we need to be able to relate and feel a bond to it.

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Is CRM soulless?

It is usual to find that the regular clients of a luxury maison also happen to be lovers of art and collectors of art in particular. Should you wish to attract them to your hotel, would you place a replica painting or sculpture in their rooms instead of a real Picasso or an authentic work from students at your local Fine Art school? Instead of typical CRM (customer relationship management) happy birthday follow ups and discount offers, you could invite them to your next art event instead. Would you operate a CRM system on your lovers? Stay away from anything that is too corporate or automated. That’s for the mass brands. You need to bond with your clients in a world that you both live in and share – a world you are both passionate about. If you share the same universe, they will find you. You are not hosting an art event just for them but for your combined pleasure. It’s not about ‘targeting’ but about sharing love, passion and pure pleasure. You are spritualising your brand. Fragrance, music, art or a personal message are additional ways to share something soulful.

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Art and Soul

It does not surprise us to see Luxury brand moguls creating art foundations, museums, and galleries. Some such as Fondation Cartier and the Byblos art Gallery do not link the art to their brands whereas Vuitton does and others such as Agnes b and Colette actually sell art in their gallery spaces. We are now accustomed to finding star designers collaborating with artists or discovering that star designers such as Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford are keen art collectors themselves. Art inspires them. Art is more often than not, the source of their inspiration. Contemporary luxury brands could almost be considered as part of the contemporary art scene. To work in luxury fashion without understanding art is like working with your eyes closed. For technical luxury, perhaps precision sports play similar roles. To not feel or understand links between them is equal to possessing a painting without knowing anything about it or its creator -an object, orphaned from its legacy.

LVMH’s Bernard Arnault believes that ”art adds to the motivation of staff, it gives something more.. soul, and that soul is patronage of the arts”. But can we claim that all art is soulful? Both luxury and art tend to attract collectors. The € 30,000 Vuitton ‘cubist’ bag (made from a collage of bags) packed in a stunning transparent perspex case, looks much like a piece of art and sold really well, because “rich people are prepared to spend the money to possess those cult items and are mainly collectors”, the recent Studio head, Peter Copping told me. That may explain the existence of the Chanel “Diamond Forever” white alligator and pavé diamond bag dubbed “the World’s Most Expensive handbag” that cost a cool $260,050.

Increasingly artists can be considered as luxury brands and art is no longer always art, it has also become commerce. Damian Hirst is now a ‘luxury brand’. His propensity to control the exhibition style of his work and his tight control of his reputation can be seen in his involvement in the diamond-encrusted skull entitled “For the Love of God” with an asking price of $100 million that was aimed at oligarchs. One of Jackson Pollock’s works became the most expensive piece of art ever sold after it went for $140m in October 2007. “Why the leap in value? A fingerprint on the canvas apparently belongs to Jackson Pollock. Good job no one wiped it off,” concluded The Guardian’s Andrew Dickson (1).

Today’s branded contemporary artists are so popular with the masses that they are considered by art insiders to have sold their souls and with it, their integrity and credibility. The quicker their prices have risen, the more their image has fallen. They sell to the highest bidder rather than to the most prestigious museums. Some feel that the work was created just for the money, and commerce has taken precedence over creativity.

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The Age of Soul

Your brand is an extension of the people who love it…your clients. We defect when you no longer feel authentic, have lost your integrity or when we feel that your work is simply soulless. It’s the soul that makes us human, that gives life meaning, warmth and individuality. It’s what makes us unique, different and quirky. Machines are infinitely duplicable. The soul is unique. The more soulful we are, the more human we are. Even imperfections feel soulful and thereby, authentic. Brands that exude a genuine sense of humanity provide a more authentic consumer experience. It’s about inviting people into your experiential world of soulful experiences.

Today’s luxury brand has to spiritualise without becoming too familiar. The high luxury brands don’t try to be cool, they just are. We love their passion and authenticity. We love the experiences and daring that they share with us. They are true to themselves and to us and that’s what we love about them and we only want to fall in love with something real.

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Philippe Mihailovich

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(1) The Guardian – The art of valuing paintings