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- 11 Nov 2010
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Heritage Through Suzy Menkes's Kaleidoscope


Suzy Menkes in conversation with Karl Lagerfeld on Tuesday

Yesterday marked the end of the International Herald Tribune’s annual luxury conference where two dozen of the industry’s most esteemed creative and corporate executives offered their interpretations of ‘heritage’. When the event’s host, Suzy Menkes, first introduced the two-day London event, the celebrated fashion editor acknowledged that the definition of this year’s theme was “as slippery as the precise meaning of luxury.”

And while there were of course several common threads which were woven through the many speeches and round-table discussions on stage – such as the notion of authenticity based on a brand’s past values – it was striking to see just how diverse each speaker’s approach to harnessing heritage could actually be. Here are just a few highlights in their own words:

Angela Ahrendts, CEO of Burberry

Reminiscing about her very first lunch meeting with Christopher Bailey five years ago as the pair set the course for the company’s future by leveraging the brand’s heritage icons (such as the prorsum knight, the check and the trench coat), she said: “We needed to connect the dots from the Prorsum catwalk collection to the millions of polo shirts we sell. The same customer should be wearing these, not multiple customers.”

Christopher Bailey, chief creative officer of Burberry

“We needed to elevate and innovate those (brand) icons,” he said, likening Burberry to a beautiful diamond that had been trodden into the ground, just waiting for someone to polish each facet of the gem to help it to sparkle again. “If we were going to elevate this “dusty diamond”, we needed a razor-sharp vision.”

Patrizio di Marco, CEO of Gucci

When an audience member suggested that the company’s ‘Artisan Corner’ retail event project (which sees artisans travel to Gucci shops around the world making luxury goods ‘live’ in front of customers) was misleading like Louis Vuitton’s banned advertisement of hand-stitched handbags, he defended the strategy:

“What we have in the stores is not fake, it’s real. It truly implies a lot of work – manual work….I had people who told me that to bring artisans to the shops would be a bit cheesy, [well, it] may be but it’s real. I had people, old, young and even kids who just stood in front of these work benches of artisans making a jacket or a bamboo bag,… They were really moved. I can’t bring the whole world to Florence so I’m trying to be as clear as possible with this and many other references. Believe me, if you come to Florence, we are real.”

Paul Smith, designer

With his trademark self-deprecating style and kooky delivery, Smith pointed out that heritage, like the word luxury, is now overused in branding circles by poking fun at a “Heritage Festival” in Texas which was founded only in 2007. But he also reminded the audience that those luxury brands which we now call heritage brands were all at one point or another upstarts with no heritage to fall back on.

“The new boys – Dolce & Gabbana, Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs and me – we have to work out what our heritage is and how people will develop it in the future. What I’ve tried to do is get the balance right between the more classical luxurious things, the more everyday things and things that the young guys would wear.”

Mary-Adair Macaire, CEO of Pringle

On heritage: “Just because you had it in the past doesn’t mean you still have it today. And even if you have it doesn’t mean that you can sell it.”

On the codes of heritage: “Identify them, use them, even abuse them but don’t lose them.”

Margherita Missoni, accessories designer for Missoni

“What I want to do is bring Missoni back to the time when…. it was rule-breaking,” she said, retelling the story of how her grandparents were “kicked out of Florence fashion week” in the late 1960s because they were considered too risqué by the establishment. “Only afterward it became a classic. There are other brands which maybe disturb you at first but they grow on you so what I would like to do is bring Missoni back to that. Eventually they’ll get used to the idea of our show not necessarily being pleasant at first sight.”

Unlike other designers working for big houses, she said, as the third generation of the family to get involved creatively, “I didn’t have to adapt my aesthetic to Missoni. I might have a different style but I have the same taste.”

Karl Lagerfeld, designer

On the legacy of Coco Chanel: “She was not only a designer but also a woman of her times. But she made mistakes at the end of her career. When the 60s started, she forgot that elegance had to change too. So she decided that miniskirts were horrible. Her standards were completely different. She said, ‘I asked men and not one man told me they love miniskirts’. Nobody dared to tell her. She said blue jeans were horrible too… Nobody wanted to be told by an old lady that miniskirts and jeans are no good. The result was that she lost her power.”

On designing for brands with different heritages: “When I took over [Chanel] everyone said don’t touch it; it’s dead. In a way it was a sleeping beauty…..but [my involvement later] became a blueprint for many others like Tom Ford for Gucci or Alber for Lanvin. I have more than one personality. People think I’m on such an ego trip. But I’m not. It’s a very strange gift. I can get out of people what they want to express but can’t."

On heritage: “I have no archives, I keep nothing. Other people can do that for me. I like now….I never think of what’s going on after me. I never think of what’s next. I only think of the moment."

Diego Della Valle, CEO of Tod’s

“The old luxury was too stiff. New luxury is the compromise between heritage and modernity.”

Kim Winser, chairman of Agent Provacateur

“I’ve gone from a 160-year-old brand (Aquascutum) to a 16-year-old brand (Agent Provocateur) and hope it too will become a heritage brand…Managing a heritage brand is like being handed an heirloom to look after for future generations….You must respect visionaries who built strong brands like Chanel but not revere them.”

Alber Elbaz, artistic director at Lanvin

“There is nothing more dangerous than creating with a formula.”