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

Louis Vuitton: Schadenfreude

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Louis Vuitton's Richard Prince Motard Firebird Bag from the Spring 2008 Runway.So we all know that I have some history with the house of Vuitton. My emotions surrounding the brand are in equal measure love and hate. Since we’ve parted ways I have continued to watch LV with mild interest and respect of a certain kind; respect for the creativity and quality that is still at the forefront of the product offering. In the past few months, however, I am sad to see the mighty house embarassing itself in more ways than even my jaded spleen could imagine. The Luxe Chronicles posted a similar essay on this subject last month, but with even more mea culpas in recent weeks, I am glad I delayed in writing a response...er, agreement.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the world can tell that the heyday of luxury must-haves has cooled off considerably, especially given the current economic and social climate. What is the use of a $2500 or even $500 handbad these days when it costs a fifth of that amount just to fill up a gas tank? Isn’t it a little gross to have something like that on your arm when millions of people have been displaced due to the earthquake in China, and not to mention America’s own mid-west? I don’t know any metrics off hand, but I would venture to guess that luxury sales are probably NOT comping against last year, never mind five years ago.

Bernard Arnault seems to be having a difficult time closing a deal these days, and Dana Thomas’ book Deluxe has probably blown the roof off for the true fashion insiders – the ones that actually care. For those that aren’t inside, it’s hard to see what the brands are doing to draw in that mass market like they did before. The notion of hip-hop stars blinging it up with labels seems incredibly stale. The same stars are wearing the same leggings and tops in every gossip magazine, and the latest crop of tastemakers isn’t appearing and everyone seems to be waiting around for the next luxury trend. Will it be of the Fendi Baguette or Jimmy Choo variety? No one knows. But if there is one house that is trying a bit too hard to make it happen for themselves it’s Louis Vuitton.

To be clear, I think Marc Jacobs’ continual creative leadership of the brand remains strong and exciting. It’s what the Vuitton executives are doing with it that is becoming an embarassment.

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Don't laugh...this is war!This April, Vuitton debuted the “Monogramoflage” – a new collaboration between Marc Jacobs and Takashi Murakami. While the collaboration is always fun and proved very successful for the house in the past (especially in its first edition in 2003,) this pattern proved to be a bit of a let-down. Where was the vivid whimsy of the usual Murakami humor? Apparently it’s time to get serious. Meant to be a symbol of the “war against counterfeiting,” the “Monogramoflage” was shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art with an installation of very real-looking counterfeit shops that “sold” actual authentic bags. The concept sounded interesting, but after the initial novelty wore off it just seemed very smug. Here’s this big, fancy, luxury brand fabricating a dirty, illicit scene for the elite art patrons to gain a sense of street. Aren’t we witty, clever and funny? Um…no.

As imagined, the monogramoflage has gone over like a lead balloon. No one’s really mentioned it since.

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The Coppolas for Louis Vuitton's "Core Values"The brand did create a beautiful, well-received film advertisement that took the arthouse cinema world by storm, and followed it up with some new print images. Equally beautiful, one can easily see that Vuitton is trying very hard to get back to its classic “goods for the luxury traveler” image that has been lost recently. The campaign is rightly called "Core Values." While I do enjoy and appreciate these images, the attempt feels incredibly self-conscious. The fresh riskiness that used to abound in older campaigns isn’t apparent here. Choosing such artistic icons as Keith Richards and the Coppolas doesn’t make the brand edgy, it just brings it back to where it should have been in the first place: the true luxury market. Just as a "core values" campaign ought to do! (ThreadTrend and StyleFrizz)

The Sex and the City Movie was yet another debacle, with the most over-the-top Vuitton bags gracing practically every frame – even gratuitously. Granted, the whole film was really nothing but one big product-placement storm, but no one could overlook the prominence of Louis Vuitton. The brilliant and spot-on New York Times review by Manohla Dargis even went on to say “Louis Vuitton co-stars.” She finished her review by saying: “There is something depressingly stunted about this movie; something desperate too. It isn’t that Carrie has grown older or overly familiar. It’s that awash in materialism and narcissism, a cloth flower pinned to her dress where cool chicks wear their Obama buttons, this It Girl has become totally Ick.” Right in the middle of the Ick? Louis Vuitton’s Motard Firebird Bag – probably the most memorable moment in the film, for better or worse.

This week’s latest is yet another dose of the proverbial omelette in the face of LV. The brand was forced to close its flagship in Hangzhou, China since “its products did not meet quality standards.” (New York Magazine, and StyleFrizz) Apparently this has something to do with swatching or some other technicality, but still. Something shady is going on here. Surely the Chinese government could have worked out an arrangement with the house to fix the problem rather than all the public embarassment? Better question: Didn't Louis Vuitton know about these technicalities? I guess not, or maybe it was beneath them to comply? The government seized all of the handbags in the store, forcing the company to close its doors there temporarily.

I have to wonder what everyone’s thinking over at the Pont Neuf headquarters in Paris. Is Vuitton’s current stream of misses making up for its many years of hits? Is this just an indication of the market’s growing impatience with the gimmicks of luxury brands? Or, is it Jean Beaudrillard’s fourth order of similacra wherein the copy has come to replace the original?

Could this be the beginning a teutonic shift in luxury fashion? Or is it just slipping?

Louis Vuitton Spring 2008 Runway Detail from Style.com by Davide Gallizio, "Monogramouflage" by Takashi Murakami, Louis Vuitton "Core Values" image - copyrighted by Louis Vuitton,

Luxury: Our Stinky Semiotics

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I am often asked where I get the inspiration or ideas for my posts. I'm never organized enough to keep a notebook or anything, so I rely memory, and this is usually fine because my ideas come together in layers. I think about one thing, see something else, and then another thing comes along and all three of them seem to just come together in a (more or less) good way. Of course, sometimes things get sent to me too, and then by the mystical powers of the universe something else comes along almost immediately and the two marry perfectly...hence this posting.

This morning my friend Randall forwarded me a car crash of an article from the London Daily Mail, (I say "car crash" only because it was altogether fascinating, funny, messy, and disgusting at the same time...and I just couldn't look away) entitled "The £23,500 Handbag". The article concerns the obscene amounts of money designer handbags are costing these days, and how having enough money to actually collect them seems to mean one loses all reason in the bargain. Discretionary incomes and intelligence quotients seem inversely proportional where "It" bags are concerned. It is indeed a frightening state of affairs.

This afternoon, I read Julie Fredrickson's latest (and totally brilliant) post honoring the death of Jean Beaudrillard - the French philosopher best known for his work on semiotics, and Western culture's "procession of simulacra". (Don't worry - I looked this up...Julie is way out of my league on this type of thing! No wonder she's my blog-crush...) I don't pretend to have a fluent comprehension of post modernist philosophy, but from my limited knowledge of Beaudrillard, the irony of his passing during the season of our most expensive arm candy trend cannot be overlooked.

Just what does a £23,500 handbag looklike? View the Louis Vuitton "Tribute" bag - a patchwork hodge-podge of different handbag pieces from other Louis Vuitton collections. Looking at it, it doesn't really seem that much design was involved in this item at all, that the pieces were merely thrown together and a chain attached. The Bag Snob wrote a post about this very bag this past February, stating: "Is this a joke?...Tribute to what? Marc (Jacobs)'s insanity?" I love it. Finally, someone other than me thinks that Marc Jacobs is the sometime equivalent to the Emperor's tailor. Twice-yearly, I am convinced that Mr. Jacobs knowingly sends unflattering, unwearable designs down his runways because he knows that no matter what he sends out, people will buy it in bulk and call him "a GEEEENious...", and he can then laugh about our consumerist myopia in the privacy of his Paris apartment. And now we have a Tribute Bag costing, as the Daily Mail article stated: "nearly £3,000 more than a Mercedes C180 Coupe SE."

Because what kind of status symbol is a fancy car these days anyway?

Enter Monsieur Beaudrillard. Our fashion objects (mainly handbags, shoes, and other accessories,) are more invested in symbolic communication than ever before. Past societies relied mostly on costume to define the social distinctions, yet in our era where ready-to-wear and contemporary brands are affordable by all, (and designers have lines at Target,) it is left to the accessory items to carry the weight of symbolism. Today we call someone "well dressed" if they have an important handbag and shoes - never mind the bespoke. Even still, most people can scratch together enough funds for your less-expensive designer pieces such as your basic Louis Vuitton Monogram bag, so those that can afford the more exclusive items pay a pretty penny to acquire them - just because they can. Then they buy another, and another, and another. Consumptive society isn't just consuming, it's acquiring. If you buy one of what I have, I'll buy five others in different colors.

If you push this far enough, the fashion trend trickles down to the late adapters who cannot get the must-have item, either because it's too expensive for them, or it's no longer available. Enter the counterfeiters, and Beaudrillard's four orders of similacra:

  • the era of the original
  • to the counterfeit
  • to the produced, mechanical copy, and through
  • to the simulated "third order of simulacra" whereby the copy has come to replace the original.

Of course, by the time we get to the fourth order, the fashion is generally two seasons ahead and no one notices that much. It's like street fashion becoming high fashion, and vice versa. The whole thing creates that wonderful creative soup known as style, individuality, and trend - don't think Marc Jacobs doesn't know this!

I believe in the original; call me a Luddite, but as an artist I firmly believe in the beauty of hand craftsmanship. As someone who knows luxury goods inside and out, I know they are worth their high prices, especially if one appreciates this kind of beauty. The Daily Mail article was upsetting to me (and to the seventy-odd people that left comments) because it was about people acquiring these objects not for their beauty, but because of their symbolism as compared to their fellow consumer. It's as though the handbag is talking, saying, "My owner must be doing something right if they can afford me...and yours? Well...best of luck!" The inherent communication is brutally frank, and comes across with little appreciation for the object - just appreciation for the acquisition.

What can one do? This seems to be the way business gets done in this industry - and this isn't exactly new. Costume and adornment have always been the way society divides itself, it's just that now the division is a little murky due to the indiscriminate power of the almighty dollar, or Pound, or Euro... But there it is, the internationally stinky semiotics of modern fashion.

Image from The Bag Snob