Luxury Marketing: Timing is Everything

Madonna for Louis Vuitton, Spring 2009I've been asked by a number of people to chime in on the latest advertising imagery produced by the house of Vuitton. I kept avoiding making my answer public because I was really hoping the hype would just go away. Sadly, I can run but I can't hide.

When I initially heard that Madonna would be gracing the new Vuitton marketing I thought it was a great idea. Her images for Versace were glamorous, elegant, and very on-brand. Then, I started to hear that the ad was set to be shot at a cafe in Los Angeles that merely looked Parisian, and that they would be photographed by Steven Meisel instead of Mert Alas and Marcus Piggot (the pair of photographers that, in my opinion, are the only ones who truly captured the proper balance of glamour and product for Vuitton,) and I started to get a little wary.

And then there's Madonna. We love Madonna, we've always loved Madonna, the prospect of Madonna collaborating with the revered Marc Jacobs made us giddy in apprehension. Divorce aside, Madge has been on good behavior lately; rather than ignoring her middle-age, she's accepted it and seems to understand that over-the-top, sexed-up, and skimpy starts to look cheap instead of provocative. Her new ladylike style reinforced by friendships with Isabella Rosselini and Gweneth Paltrow seemed down-to-earth and irreproachable. This down-to-earth motherhood of Madge made us love her even more - she became one of us, and was finally a bit normal.

Enter the new Vuitton images: skimpy, tight, elaborate and burlesque (and not in a Dita Von Teese way,) and all in an inexplicable smoky sepia-tint. Nothing makes a woman look fifty and far-too-thin than being photographed in not enough clothing. And the crotch shot? Please, we've had Madonna exposing her coochie to cameras for thirty years. Why is this new?

Of course, aesthetics aside, one can see why Vuitton chose using Madonna: pure economics. Yes, I do believe that Marc Jacobs thought of calling her after seeing her Hard Candy concert, but it would be naive to assume this is all there is to the story. Vuitton executives probably leapt at the idea because if Madonna can do anything, she can create notoriety; notoriety drives traffic, and traffic drives sales.

Sprouse Speedy Bag, $1310The same theory applies to the new Stephen Sprouse collection. The popular Graffiti collection was initially launched in 2001 and quickly became one of the first of the modern "It" bags. Ever since, the original pieces have generated a cult status, saying: "you shoulda been there, shoulda bought it, shoulda been so lucky..." With this release of new Sprouse colors, surface designs and accessories, Vuitton is leveraging its previous success by reviving an old favorite that they know will sell. Not exactly innovative design, nor risky business.

True, now is not the time for risky business, but I do find it interesting that Vuitton is betting the bank on such high-profile efforts. I suppose both the Madonna ads and the Sprouse collection leave me with such distaste is because they so blatantly run counter to the current climate. Vuitton is still going day-glo, over-the-top, and high profile in a time when people are tightening belts and shopping the closet. They are making safe business decisions, but still asking their customers to be daring and extravagant.

Sprouse Neverfull BagToday's New York Times article by Elaine Sciolino entitled "In the Lap of Luxury, Paris Squirms" cites how other French luxury houses are understanding this climate and making appropriate changes. Sciolino even went so far as to mention the class and social issues that are at the background of the luxury industry - an inherent point that many have overlooked during the past decade of luxury mass-marketing.

"Paradoxically, that sentiment may not be all that difficult for the French to accept. France’s national identity may seem wrapped up tight in the aura of luxury — elegant dress, sophisticated perfume, good food and wine, and no shortage of Champagne for the flimsiest of celebrations. But even though the French more than most Europeans appreciate the finest quality they can afford, they pride themselves on balance. France remains a deeply conservative country, one in which it traditionally has been unacceptable to show off material possessions. Most French use debit cards, not credit cards, which means they tend not to spend more than they have in their bank accounts. Getting a mortgage is a torturous process.

And so, many see in the closing of an era of free and easy spending on luxury goods — when luxury became associated with flash and ostentation around the world — the potential for a restoration of the classic French virtues of restraint and modesty. Even a bit of suffering and sacrifice might be in order."

How about a global restoration of the classic virtues of restraint and modesty? While a cultural understanding and respect of luxury products is at the core of French culture, I think we are all heading into restrained, modest times. For Vuitton to offer such unrestrained products and marketing at this time makes me wonder who's taking the temperature over on the Pont Neuf. After all, timing is everything!

Sprouse Bag images from Bagsnob.com

For additional posts on Vuitton and Vuitton marketing, please read:

Our Stinky Semiotics, March 2007

I Hate to Love Him, October 2007

Louis Vuitton Gets Moody, February 2008

Schadenfreude, June 2008