Has Luxury Brand Diversification Gone Too Far?


Sophie Maxwell | April 18, 2012

Sophie Maxwell, Insight Director at Pearlfisher, offers five key ideas in keeping luxury brands relevant as the high street rises to power

The meeting of two luxury brands: candles by Jo Malone & David Hicks

Luxury appears to be having a bit of an identity crisis. This as the high street enjoys a high moment where it has the power to entice some of the world’s most coveted designer brands into its bed. Or the wherewithal to turn catwalk looks into sartorial currency in a matter of weeks. Not to mention the ability to offer the kind of detail, finish and extras that were once the preserve of the designer brand.

Two things have happened here. First, luxury has ‘got down’ with the high street. Second the mass market has gotten hold of luxury’s own codes, and made them its own. And thanks to both, there is a risk that luxury has lost its way.

Luxury’s high street appropriation is of course through its headline grabbing collaborations – Marni for H&M; is the latest. Whether you chose to track its story on Twitter, or indeed in store, the luxury icon became a high street hit in the blink of an eye. Sweet glory for the Marni wanabees who could now pick up a skirt for £59 or a jacket for £89 – the Castiglioni touch for a song.

“ For a true luxury brand to stay ahead of the game, it needs to bring the focus back to itself – to its core values and identities ”

Yet to see those Marni for H&M; shopping bags dotting the pavements seemed to rub off its luxury patina. They broadcast a newly acquired ubiquity that seemed the antithesis to its niche, conceptual, intellectual design aesthetic. This was yet another confirmation of how luxury’s increasing diversification is clouding what it really means to be luxury.

Consider today’s high street clothes where luxury codes have become epidemic. From tailoring details such as visible hand stitching along collar lines (Zara), to beautifully designed tags attached with a cord and brass safety pin.

Or neat, envelopes containing spare button and yarn (Reiss, Whistles, Cos, which is as it happens modelled on Jil Sander and Marni – note too its luxury niche style website). Production values have improved to such a degree that the luxe-mass divide is less clearly defined. How then can luxury now strike a difference? And reassert its specialness?

For a true luxury brand to stay ahead of the game, it needs to bring the focus back to it self. To its core values and identities, and all the while create new codes of luxury. After all a luxury brand (whilst inherently about quality, craftsmanship and all those things we know) is a pioneer, a leader and a groundbreaker. The question is, how?

Marni for H&M;

Handle Diversification with Care

Embrace diversification but handle with care. When developing a relationship the sum of its parts has to be more. If you are going to collaborate, you have to show that you are going to benefit. Versace’s link-up with H&M; is a good example. On the down footer in terms of relevance, the showcase revived the Versace profile, restaged its identity and put the wind back into its lavish, sails. It was a smart move.

The Lanvin collaboration had a different resonance. That a leading, cutting edge luxury house at the pinnacle of its revival should explore brand stretch on a mass level, jarred. What value did it bring to the brand aside from remunerative – a guest pass to the high street shopper’s fashion vernacular?

True, the luxury landscape has changed and is no longer about servicing an elite group – so it has to have a certain mass appeal. It has to do so globally, and cross not only social barriers (it’s no longer just a thing for royalty and aristocracy) but also countries and continents. And with this change, luxury has to adapt. This is a challenge, because it also has to remain special and inspire desire in the individual. In this context it becomes easier to understand the Lanvin move.

Yet it remains that whatever the association, there must be a palpable benefit beyond the sum of its parts. Luxury perfumery explores collaborations to brand enhancing effect. Jo Malone with David Hicks in specially designed scented candles. And as the ultimate, a Roja Parfums collaboration with Fabergé, where the Diaghilev scent is presented in a limited edition bottle complete with gold and diamond egg pendant by Fabergé. These examples are the meeting of two luxury brands: is this the key to the conundrum?

“ The luxury landscape has changed and is no longer about servicing an elite group – therefore it has to have a certain mass appeal ”

Pare it Back

Second, the luxury brand needs to pull it back – bring the focus back to itself, its core values and identities. In the 2000s Tom Ford – king of luxury branding – achieved this at YSL by reigning in all licensing deals; it sparked a trend and others followed.

More recently, it’s been about putting to bed the diffusion line, with D&G; the latest. A luxury brand is more likely to work a super elite brand extension, such as Armani Privé – a move towards the couture end as opposed to ready-to-wear (swimming against the tide).

Yet counter to this idea, diffusion lines such as Marc by Marc Jacobs or See by Chloé manage to retain their luxury purity. The lesson here: consolidate and reaffirm core values and identities (and ship past season items to TK Maxx at your peril).

Miuccia Prada chasing new aesthetics at Miu Miu


Not only does innovation maintain the distance between you and potential copiers, it helps to reaffirm a luxury brand’s unique position as master of its craft. Lagerfeld is good at this and one example sticks, where in 2005 he recast the quilted Chanel 2.55 bag in a groundbreaking new rigid design.

It neatly took control of the mass appropriation of the 2.55 in presenting something revolutionary, radically different and not easily copied. To mark its 175th anniversary, Tiffany has developed a brand new metal called Rubedo and trademarked it. It is a pinkish alloy designed to capture the pink light at sunrise.

Push for a New Aesthetic

With innovation comes fresh new aesthetics. Alexander McQueen – still a relatively new luxury brand -established a new visual language from the start. Easy for the new fashion guard you might say – the real challenge is in continuing to do so. McQueen succeeds: take the collection of ceramic dresses and shoes shown for A/W 2011/12.

Miuccia Prada has always pushed the boundaries of what is wearable – she made librarian skirt lengths chic. Her shoes both at Prada and Miu Miu always delight in a way that’s comparable to the innovative and groundbreaking, Salvatore Ferragamo of the mid 20th Century.

This idea isn’t afraid to move outside the norms of what is aesthetically obvious, pleasing, or even practical. Willingness to explore new aesthetics demonstrates innate confidence, expertise and command of a brand’s own identity.

“ The foundations on which luxury was built are changing as new centres for craftsmanship and new platforms for sales and presentation emerge ”

Embrace Change

The foundations on which luxury was built are changing as new centres for craftsmanship and new platforms for sales and presentation emerge. A luxury brand needs to work with change to stay ahead and relevant. It also needs to retain and protect its core values.

Note how Chanel bought the key crafts ateliers in Paris, such as the embroidery atelier, Lesage to protect and nurture original craftsmanship. Yet luxury houses (Prada, Mulberry) are increasingly prepared to enlist the expertise of the new centres for craftsmanship: all eyes on China. And the most digitally forward thinking brands such as Burberry, are embracing online sales potential from the outset.

After all, the luxury brand is a living, breathing thing, evolving and organic. It thrives on change. But at the same time its integrity lies in all those original tenets for luxury: excellence, expertise, craft, quality, specialness. Protect these whilst keeping things vital and relevant and you keep your brand’s future safe.