Altruism: Luxury’s new faith?


Sophie Maxwell | April 22, 2011

Sophie Maxwell, head of insight at Pearlfisher, explains why Luxury’s future does not centre solely on wealth but on connection: merging business in a more culturally influential way

The courtyard bar at Prada’s pop-up Double Club, of which 50% of profits were donated to UNICEF

Traditional luxury brands have always traded on exclusivity but today’s consumer desire is based on the longer-term implications their choices and actions offer. Luxury brands understand that being more committed and visible can now enhance rather than damage their reputation and we see a massive change taking place in the mainstream luxury sector as these brands adapt their focus and reach.

Luxury brands are looking for new ways to build integrity into their offer and align with the changing needs, wants and desires of our society. Eco and sustainable credentials are fast becoming integral to today’s luxury brand offer with, for example, a call for us to buy Fairtrade Gold and fair-mined Diamonds and with the appearance of the first ever, eco-luxury gifting suite at this year’s Oscars.

Similarly, this month, Selfridges ran an on-line charity auction on behalf of Oxfam auctioning celebrity donations featuring an item given by eco-fashion supporter Livia Firth, wife of actor Colin Firth. On the tails of this growing eco-luxury movement, we are seeing a new altruistic luxury movement gaining momentum with brands upping the ante in terms of their charity involvement and alignment.

“ luxury brands are looking for new ways to build integrity into their offer & align with the changing needs, wants and desires of our society ”

Though the Charity Ball and auction has, of course, always been a tried and trusted fundraising event, the excessive glitz and glamour – whilst right for luxury – has not necessarily sat easily with the issues they are trying to alleviate, for example poverty, famine and homelessness. There is no denying that these events and their ticket prices, extravagant raffle prizes and star-studded cast of thousands do help raise the profile of – and, more importantly, raise the funds for – charity coffers. But is this now a bit passé and disconnected? Is there an opportunity to initiate new ideas and expressions with a deeper connection to their cause?

It’s a hard one. Luxury brands are recognising the need to be good and altruistic but – in reality – luxury has always been the polar opposite of charity. What is interesting now is the opportunity to bring two polar opposites together to both help charity and successfully show the altruistic face of luxury.

Always a front-runner, Prada founded their pop-up Double Club in the heart of London with artist Carsten Holler and restaurateur Mourad Mazouz of Momo. A typical representation of the group’s visionary behavior, the Club donated half of its profits to UNICEF and The City Of Joy – a Congolese charity.

Famed in retrospect, at the time of opening the Club and its marketing was super discreet. The dining room resembled a checkerboard, divided into dining squares, with each square of Congolese or Western design, alternating between dark African hardwood and French brasserie tiling, serving two menus in parallel: authentic, family-style Congolese dishes and a western offering that focused on simple European bistro classics.

Aesop pop-up space at Merci, Paris

Not about publicity and kudos for Prada but about creating a highly desirable but synergistic venue to raise funds, with the masterminds behind it being at the very top of the fashion, art and food scenes, the fit was perfect.

Merci, In Paris, is another favourite example. It has become one of the most desirable destinations in Paris with it’s mix of constantly changing, beautiful stock of limited edition homewares, fashion, vintage books and haberdashery donated by famous benefactors. All profits go to children’s charities allowing the founders, Marie-France and Bernard Cohen of luxury childrenswear brand Bonpoint to say thank you or ‘Merci’.

And a brand started specifically with altruism in mind is Bottletop. Founded by Cameron Saul, son of Mulberry founder Roger Saul, Bottletop is a young people’s charity that focuses on the plight of young people globally with a mission to “empower people; to protect themselves, their families, their communities and the environment.”

It’s about educating and empowering young people worldwide and doing this by fundraising through primarily fashion and music routes – so completely on target with today’s youth. To date, Bottletop has saved over 3,000,000 aluminium ring-pulls from ending up in landfill by turning them into high fashion items such as bags, belts etc

“ luxury brands should embrace the fact that luxury today is no longer confined to certain categories and is being redefined ”

As Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the UN (Source: is quoted as saying of the initiative “The world needs the type of innovative thinking that you have come up with.”

At the moment, it would seem that every new brand initiative we read about is promoting a charity link up or association. And when it comes to luxury brands – with long-standing values and quintessential beliefs – it is imperative to think from the inside out about representing core brand beliefs when choosing a partner or cause. It comes down to defining the right route and brand fit with a particular charitable action – rather than just going for a momentary ‘halo’ effect and association.

Luxury brands should embrace the fact that luxury today is no longer confined to certain categories and is being redefined. With the widespread change of designing for social impact affecting the whole brand and design community there is a great opportunity for the two to come together and for luxury to have a more meaningful connection and effect. Whereas – by its very definition – luxury brands have always had highly covetable aesthetics, charities traditionally have not. However, many more are now realising the importance and significance of this and the examples above show the very real power of rebranding altruism with desirability.

All design challenges are about resolving problems, and in this respect that’s all we have to do – think differently about what luxury means, by looking at a host of new creative opportunities which can appeal to the hearts, minds and desires of the luxury/charity consumer whilst addressing our changing society.
Future luxury will be about many ideals and with a new age of consumerism driven by inventiveness, creativity, discovery and giving back, luxury will need to shift in line with this from being detached and untouchable to finding inspiring ways to explore causes, blend influences and create awareness.

One of Bottletop’s high fashion products, made exclusively from recycled materials

Analysis | Arts