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- 27 Sep 2010
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The Future of Digital Dinosaurs & London's Runway to Luxury

Digital Denizens or Dinosaurs : Plugging it in?

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A screen-shot from Marc Jacobs’ new online shop


Frankly, it’s rather embarrassing that in the fall of 2010, a mass media outlet like CNN can still focus on how outdated the luxury industry is because of its resistance to ecommerce. Reports like this have been recycled for years and although it may seem unjustified considering how rapidly many firms have now begun to adapt, unfortunately, CNN’s perspective is still warranted. Until the final few remaining big brands (Chanel and Versace, according to a very interesting piece in The Retail Bulletin) actually launch transactional services on their sites, the industry will have to continue to endure being portrayed as a digital denizen – or worse, as a digital dinosaur.

The big story surrounding this was Marc Jacob’s very belated but much celebrated online shop launch (see WWD) and the realisation that Prada’s embrace of ecommerce on its site is in fact limited to accessories. Both cases were cited in a perspective that is becoming more and more rare: a defense of luxury’s ecommerce resistance. The MO Down said:

“The commodification of luxury is something these brands desperately try to avoid. Will Prada still be ‘Prada’ when it arrives in a box on the front door? Of course. But the in-store ritual is half the experience. Despite the obvious convenience, there is something clinical about online purchases. In the same shopping session, one may as well order vacuum bags.”

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Bottega Veneta FW 2010 catwalk video stills

 Despite the obvious convenience, there is something clinical about online purchases 

While it’s hard to argue against the virtual environment being more clinical than a real life encounter, the debate is no longer here. The ecommerce channel will at some point soon become non-negotiable for many luxury consumers, so it is up to luxury brands to think creatively to use ecommerce – and the digital space in general – in a way which doesn’t compromise their status. One simple example from this week’s news (see Fashionologie) is how Bottega Veneta is treating the livestream of its show as an extension of its real show.

Unlike the many other luxury fashion brands which have recently tweaked the livestream mass marketing channel like Gucci (see Fashionista), Bottega Veneta’s is invitation-only and offered specifically to VIP customers or invited guests unable to travel to Milan. The brand’s thinly veiled motive was announced via a press release in which its creative director, Tomas Maier, suggested that Bottega Veneta wasn’t interested in promoting the ultra-luxe line to aspirationals or time-wasters. It would be a privilege reserved for punters only:

“Our goal is to put this technology to the service of our customers. We would like to share the excitement and beauty of the live runway show with them, and to do so within the privacy and calm of the Bottega Veneta environment.”

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Making digital into a luxury business opportunity… Thanks to the release of its new car mount at this month’s Paris Motor Show, BMW is being called the first automaker to provide interior support for the iPad


On the opposite end of the spectrum, or so it appears according to Luxury Daily, is a business like Nowness.com. In a refreshingly candid article entitled ‘Why would LVMH launch a luxury Web site that does not sell anything?’, the author concludes that it is a combination of brand differentiation and a bid to snare a younger audience, among other things. We might offer that perhaps it is precisely to counteract the transactional nature of the group’s many brand sites which it realises are increasingly being converted from sensational branding showcases into more functional ecommerce environments.

In other digital luxury news, Luxury Daily also outlined how a forthcoming redesign of Twitter will increase luxury brand engagement. New Media Knowledge offered a much more positive and constructive spin on the digital gap in the luxury industry through an interview with Luke Regan, head of SEO and social media, at the London-based marketing agency Make It Rain who noted an attitude-shift with his luxury clients.

“It’s true that historically luxury brands viewed the mass market Internet as the nemesis of exclusivity, but attitudes and behaviour have changed such that the Web is a ubiquitous tool regardless of what product is being sold,” he said, before offering a deceptively simple reminder as to why many luxury brands need at least a two-prong attack with their online presence. “The Internet is a great leveller where the super-rich and the under-paid masses can equally check out Ferrari or Gucci or Rolex. And they do.”


Dalston Meets Mayfair: the London Catwalk

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Burberry Prorsum, S/S 2011 collection: a hard-edged spin on luxury heritage


Following our last Bulletin’s peek into the New York shows, London was always going to offer a very different prism through which to behold luxury. For most of its history, the fashion week in this city has had what observers often characterise as a split personality disorder. On the one side is design fed by raw youth energy which is put through highbrow, lowbrow and highly controversial concepts (those labels with studios in gritty, party-hard neighbourhoods like Dalston). On the other is a high society aesthetic given an imperial era spin, duly put through the paces of a very ancient heritage (those labels which rarely thrive beyond the confines of the quaint Mayfair district).

As such, the city’s offering to luxury fashion has long been (unfairly but understandably) portrayed as meagre or at least muddled by this dichotomy. And although the ‘divide’ between London’s two visions for high fashion continue to provide a lot of constructive tension and diversity, one gets the sense that this season might be the beginning of a new era. Synthesising the reviews and reading between the lines, it seems there is a growing ‘design bridge’ between the ‘hi’ and ‘lo’ where new luxury can flourish. Many among the younger generation are paying much greater attention to fabrication and achieving a greater degree of refinement in construction while some of the heritage brands are embracing livelier inspiration and modernity.

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Christopher Kane, S/S 2011 collection: a luxurious spin on hard-edged rebellion

 London’s offering to luxury fashion has long been unfairly but understandably portrayed as meagre or at least muddled 

Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune summed it up as follows: “the way that a generation of London designers is pushing forward within its own aesthetic vision is impressive, because the hope is that it will grow collectively into a fashion force." A report in Reuters also seemed to confirm a growing confidence among fashion week attendees and designers alike.

Financially too, the mood seemed to be on the up. “Like in all sectors, [customers] need to be really seduced to buy,” said Joseph Velosa, the CEO of Matthew Williamson, to the Wall Street Journal, adding that the brand’s retail business is up 20% so far this year. “The product needs to be special; you really need to understand why you’re paying the price tag you’re paying. [But] once you’ve got all those things in place, I think the appetite is definitely there.” Williamson is one of the rare few among London’s fashion designers who have long managed to offer conventional and familiar notions of luxury while presenting something slightly unexpected at the same time.

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Vivienne Westwood, Red Label, S/S 2011 finale

In other London luxury news, Fibre 2 Fashion reported that Vivienne Westwood has signed a licensing deal with a UK-based timepiece manufacturer/distributor, Zeon Limited, to produce watches for the British brand. It would appear from a statement given by Westwood’s CEO, Carlo D’Amario, that at least one consideration for foregoing Swiss watchmakers was to support local industry in the UK. “Westwood is incredibly proud of her English heritage so we are pleased to be partnering with an English company," he said.

Zenith Limited’s portfolio of watch brands, however, is clearly not in the same luxury league so what really seems to be the motivating factor is a lower retail price point and a wider distribution – perhaps to sit alongside one of the designer’s diffusion lines (Red Label or Anglomania). Meanwhile, Biba, an iconic British fashion retail brand from the 1960s which has for far too long and under far too many owners been forced into the luxury market, will now finally return to its more democratic roots. WWD described how it will be repositioned, not as a luxury brand, but as an affordable bridge label through the premium/luxury department store chain, House of Frasier.

Tune in next week to part four of this special series to see if Milan dared to reinterpret luxury – or whether it luxuriously laboured over the status quo.