The global luxury industry sells over $1 trillion of handbags, shoes, cars, vacations, watches, suits, rings, bracelets and earrings a year, according to Bain & Co.
Is it appreciation of craftsmanship or just consumption?
Has the luxury industry lost its feel for innovation in a defensive rush to keep its heritage in a box?
Have we entered a new Gilded Age?
What is the relationship between ‘sophistication’ and wealth?
In an age of multi-billion dollar luxury conglomerates, is there still a place for artisan craftsmen making product one by one?
Sponsored by New York’s Museum of Arts and Design and La Fondazione NY, Luxury in Today’s Society: Between Excellence and Excess spent three hours on a sunny Saturday afternoon in a packed basement auditorium to debate these and other topics.
One thing that was missing was focus on who the core luxury consumer today is? On one hand Elizabeth Paton, U.S. Fashion and Luxury Correspondent for The Financial Times, cheered the bounce back of the luxury goods sales in the U.S. spurred by a “strong middle class.”
Buccellati CEO Alberto Milani provided examples of selling $400,000 iPad covers and $195,000 iPhone covers not just to oligarchs or sheiks but customers in Texas. However, at these price points, customers are hardly Middle Class. A June 1 FT article was headlined, “Tepid U.S. Recovery – It’s The Middle Class” stating, “When most of the gains of growth are going to a small slice at the top, little of the money is spent.” It noted while sales of U.S. homes priced in the top 1 percent had increased 21 percent this year following a gain of 35 percent last year, the other 99 percent had seen a 7.6 percent decrease.
To that point, Riccardo Viale, Chairman of La Fondazione NY, said that luxury is operating in “the era of after, as in after the financial crisis.” Keynote speaker Misha Pinkhasov, co-author of the just released book “Real Luxury: How Luxury Brands Can Create Value for the Long Term” cited a recent The New York Times article about how mansions from The Gilded Age after decades of use as consulates and offices are now being converted back into private residences.
Pinkhasov threw some water on the question of “what is luxury” by equating it to “asking the world for a favorite color.” At the same time Elvira de Bona, Fellow of the Italian Academy of Columbia University, posited whether a product is luxury depends how it is used. For example, for some people a Rolls Royce is transportation, for others it is a status symbol. Bread in some cases simply is a practical way to satisfy hunger, and other times a luxurious experience.
Real Luxury co-author Rachna Joshi Nair noted that objects that have worked their way to museums including famous paintings, bedroom furniture and coffee pots were only practical objects of their day.
Pinkhasov and Nair debated the relevance of technology and luxury. Pinkhasov said in the late 1800s Cesar Ritz made his name in luxury hotels by using state-of-the-art technology. “He knew he couldn’t be as luxurious as (his guests) homes so he wooed them with technology such hot and cold running water, elevators. The Orient-Express was the highest traditional luxury fittings placed on the most modern American railroad technology.”
While Pinkhasov said that he believe luxury brands have lost their courage when it comes to leading customers in technology except with marketing, Nair disagreed. Comparing an iWatch and Midnight Planetarium, a highly complicated mechanical watch from Van Cleef & Arpels where the planets move accurately, Nair noted while both will likely end up in a museum, only the latter will still serve its functional purpose decades from now.
She added that luxury brands have aggressively used technology, however, it has been mainly to enhance production and marketing. Milani said when he opens his flagship store later this year on Madison Avenue, he wants to have his salespeople able to show videos of engravers working on the bench in Italy so that customers can gain a better appreciation of the skills that going into making his jewelry.
Excellence or Excess? Making expensive cases for iPads and iPhones, he noted, was no different from French luggage maker Moynat designing new cases that could be fitted onto cars in the 19th century instead of piled on stagecoaches.
Pinkhasov said at its best, luxury can enact positive change, citing Yves St. Laurent who pushed feminism by popularizing pants for women “empowering them to go out in the world” and using black models. Viale noted that “sustainable luxury” has meant a more rigorous battle against fakes, and more attention to sourcing raw materials and environmentally friendly manufacturing processes.
One dis-connect between consumers and companies is the words they associate with luxury. Pinkhasov said consumers were most likely to use “exclusivity, quality, style, expensiveness and attractiveness” whereas companies focused on “heritage and craftsmanship.” Nair in fact said consumers in different nations value luxury attributes differently. In India, she said, where there skilled craftsmen and cheap labor is plentiful, manufactured goods have more cachet. Other developing countries are beginning to look less to Italy, France and England, and are now more interested in their own heritage.
Both Milani and Enrico Libani, CEO of sartorial specialist Cesare Attolini lamented the heavy focus on marketing over product in the U.S. Libani told the audience for artisans like his company, which employs 160 tailors making garments by hand, operating boutiques in key markets demonstrates credibility.
He said the decline of family owned men’s specialty stores in the U.S. and the dominance of Neiman Marcus, Barney’s and Saks mean “for a company that wants to sell in the United States, your fate will be decided in three 45 minute meetings.”
Both he and Milani said the expense of having their own stores in high-end shopping venues around the world (Buccellati has a store on Place Vendome in Paris) is necessary to give their message credibility in an era where consumers are bombarded with marketing using the word ‘luxury.’ Pinkhasov pointed to advertising from Target, H&M and Top Shop that morph luxury aesthetics and then deliver look alike products for $20. He also pointed to high-end designers whose “collusion” muddies the waters. Libani noted it’s often Hollywood that provides the most influence on American tastes and trends.
While panelists debated the growth of wannabe luxury and luxury for less, Libani and Milani said there still is a place for artisan companies. “We are very small in the scheme of things,” said Libani. Milani noted there is room for expansion in the jewelry category where 80 percent of fine jewelry sold in the United States is unbranded, hence fashion houses now encroaching into the category.
Of course, one thing is clear. Anybody can buy luxury today as long as they have the money or enough credit on their charge cards. Pinkhasov noted as recently as the 19th Century merchants and craftsman who made and delivered luxury goods of the day to the elite were often not allowed to own the objects they were making.