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

The Anthro Effect

The Anthropologie "Presents 08" CatalogLast weekend I let myself spend some time at Anthropologie. Now, this can be a highly dangerous activity for normal women, but I've found that the danger comes when rushing through the store and buying indiscriminately. This time, I took control of the situation and recognized the cute-overload for just what it was: and evil ploy to rid me of my money. In so doing, I could take a deep breath, slow down, and take it all in.

The masterminds at Anthropologie have distinguished their brand by its sheer girlishness. A brand that exploded in the early 2000s, it popped onto the scene when the dot-com crowd was young, stylish, and had full pockets. It was the perfect product line for the "cool job" and the new economy which distinguished itself from the old by accepting casual offices, youth, and femininity. Anthropologie was the darling of the hour and hasn't quit since.

While Banana Republic says "we're mod, lean, kinda boring, and perfect for work, " and Zara says "we're Euro and cheap, but totally dashing," Anthropologie practically screams its validation for just being a girl. It says: "we're here, we're cool, we're girls." It says it so loudly that the nob must be turned to eleven.

From the "Presents 08" catalog...Anthropologie knows what we like: knitwear, floral patterns, delicacy, buttons, monograms, appliques, stripes, ribbons, flounces, embroidery, sashes, vintage, bright colors, bedding, romance, tea cups, and scented soaps. They tell us that it's okay to light candles during the day, just because, and that dressing a vintage chandelier in Spanish moss and twine is not only chic but totally normal. They tell us that we too could live life on the cusp between a World War II era kitchen and a Paris flea market. They tell us that if we were truly creative we'd recycle our old junk into clever visual props that would make everyone go gooey with delight. In fact, "gooey with delight" is really the whole point.

After twenty minutes in the store my head begins to spin. Dizzy from the sensory cute overload, or that scented candle that's meant to evoke laundry drying in a French lavender field... I'm not sure which. I notice "the boyfriend" section is completely full with obviously uncomfortable men who are trying very hard not to put their hands anywhere, while they are also trying very hard not to make eye contact with anyone. Yes, it's the look common to caged animals and those enduring torture.

The sale section is crammed to the rafters with redlines and the women who love to buy them. But what do they really buy? My theory is that everything at Anthropologie always looks better on the hanger than it does in real life. Or, as to quote this fabulous post from Decorno:

"How about something that fits? How about something that is not an empire waist? Anthro clothes are for women who no longer want to get laid, or who are already dating a boy who isn't interested in sleeping with girls anyway."

Um, yeah. (And Decorno is my new favorite thing. I also found the beautiful blog called Breakfast at Anthropologie which is just as lovely as the brand, but that blogger too frequently expresses her own frustration at the brand in her posts, despite her love.)

True, the visual merchandising is truly amazing. Opulent, clever, and pitch-perfect each season. Take a look at the gorgeous holiday windows photographed by Platinum Blonde Life at Rockefeller Center. I definitely do give props for creating the atmosphere most girls want to fall into and never leave, but still, how well does that translate to reality?

Much like the fit of the clothes, my feeling is that the Anthropologie brand doesn't quite suit the current climate, and it will probably only get worse. While this is always a store I love to visit, it's rare that I actually make a purchase; the items are too specific, too styled, too detailed - it's like they wear you instead of the other way around. They're nice to haves, not need to haves, and as we all know, the luxuries are definitely back burner these days.

So, despite overall adorable-ness, charm, and girlish appeal, can Anthropologie survive this new new economy? How does a brand founded on cute suddenly become more serious and hard-working? I guess it's time for the Anthropologie girl to grow up...

Your Luxury 101 Textbook

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It's funny how things are like kismet in the blogosphere...I was just finishing my post about this subject when Chic & Charming scooped me! Regardless, we both agree: Dana Thomas' book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster is required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in fashion. If you have more than a passing interest (and you probably do if you're reading this,) then it's a prerequisite. Then there are all of those interested in business, modern economy, product sourcing, power politics, hostile takeovers, history, style, and juicy gossip, then this is a book for you too.

I loved every moment of Dana Thomas' Deluxe, finding so many passages resonating with my personal experience in the fashion industry. My copy is now dog-eared and underlined - there's wisdom in these pages! In fact, I've become a little bit obsessed, telling everyone I know how much they need to read it. It surprises me though because it seems that a lot of people in the blogosphere still haven't given this work the time of day. Sure, they might mention it in passing, but have they read it? (I always find it so funny when people cite references that they haven't read. It didn't work in college, and it doesn't work now.)

Ms. Thomas has entree to interviews most fashion writers could not imagine. She asks Miuccia Prada directly about how many times she's filed for IPO, she asks Fred Hayman about his sales per square foot totals at Giorgio Beverly Hills in the mid-80s, she talks with Elaine Wynn about how Las Vegas has changed the luxury and retail industries forever. She also talks directly to LVMH's Bernard Arnault and Louis Vuitton CEO Yves Carcelle, who, it is rumored, "uninvited" her to the Fall 2008 Louis Vuitton fashion show because of her candid remarks about the brand in Deluxe.

I loved the passages about visiting the one rose grower in Grasse who harvests the Centifolia rose exclusively for Chanel No. 5, the part about the history of the iconic Hermès handbags, and the chapter about shopping at Daslu in São Paolo (which sounds like heaven...an expensive heaven.) Dana Thomas' intrepid candor comes throughout the work, providing first-hand glimpses of the "fashion gods" that are usually kept so high on their pedestals. For instance, this is her description of Miuccia Prada:

"She had moral objections to taking over the business: she was a feminist and a communist, albeit an Yves Saint Laurent-wearing, haute bourgeois feminist communist who had never worked a day in her life."

I laughed out loud reading this, and appreciated that even with this background, Miuccia Prada does "get it" when it comes to the inherent essence of luxury. This is how Ms. Miuccia puts it:

"To fake luxury today is easy. You put some details from the brand's past, you put a little bit of gold, and that's it. I can't bear that...Real luxurious people hate status. You don't look rich because you have a rich dress. When you look at a person, do you see the spirit or the sexiness or the creativity? Just to see a big diamond, what does it mean? It's all about satisfaction. I think it's horrible, this judgment based on money. It's all an illusion that you look better because you have a symbol of luxury. Really, it doesn't bring you anything. It's so banal."

I think banal is the perfect word for the state of "luxury" today. I think that's the word I was after when I wrote my post on the ridiculous notion of "Affordable Luxury" a few months ago - the post that brought Dana Thomas' new book to my attention via the flurry of discussion that followed.

Ms. Thomas' book cooled my own fires of disappointment about the industry which was indeed a relief. I'm not going crazy, it seems, it truly is the brands that are doing it to themselves. The moment fashion changed into the beast we know it today was when the large conglomerates took over from the families of designers and craftspeople, and decided they had to satisfy shareholders and boost stock prices. The easiest way to do this, as we've seen, is by catering to the indiscriminate middle-market, which has now been stretched into a true mass market. The luxury industry has now become it's own worst enemy, a source of its own demise.

Ms. Thomas concludes Deluxe with a hopeful note, however, by alluding that the true luxury customer will always exist, will always buy the true product. Cristiane Saddi, a Daslu customer confides to Thomas:

"Daslu clients don't need the logo entry-level handbag or to wear labels or logos. We buy from luxury brands, but not ordinary products. Special items. There's always something special. You can see what is mass and what is special. Luxury is not how much you can buy. Luxury is the knowledge of how to do it right, how to take the time to understand and choose well. Luxury is buying the right thing."

I'm not sure that the luxury brands know what the right thing is any longer, even if their better customers do, but Dana Thomas' book certainly leaves that optimistic idea open. Perhaps things will again get back to what they once were: exclusive items, small productions, hand-craftsmanship, and the true customer...not merely the mass buyer.

The Fashionable Oxymoron

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Oscar de la Renta Fall 2007 - This bag is not "affordable"...as it shouldn't be!A post for Coutorture Salon on Luxury and Accessibility... 

“The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” - James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story

Affordable luxury: two words that really don’t belong in the same description. In sixth-grade English class we would have learnt that this was an oxymoron – a paradox of two words, or the bringing together of two opposites. Sometimes oxymorons are successful, such as in the case of “eloquent silence” or “eccentric elegance,” however “affordable luxury” just doesn’t work.

Luxury is also the opposite of “necessity” – no one really needs a $2000 handbag when the free paper sacks from Whole Foods have convenient handles and lots of cargo space. Our modern consumerism has us brainwashed into thinking that the “It Bag” featured in Vogue actually is a necessity, but that’s just the magazines and marketing people getting into bed together to the detriment of our bank accounts. Once we turn the page and breathe normally again the intelligent person realizes that said “It Bag” falls under the “nice to have” category rather than the “need to have.”

True, no intelligent, style-minded, self-respecting person would actually use a paper bag to carry their everyday items, but the notion is worth considering.

During my tenure within LVMH, I learnt what luxury really meant, both concretely and abstractly. Concretely, the term has to do with design, craftsmanship, and quality. Abstractly, “luxury” is ethereal, aspirational for 99% of the population, and a semantic carrying the caché of exclusivity. I appreciate both sides of the coin: I understand the incredible beauty endowed in these products, while I also know the thrill of possession.

Ownership of luxury products should always be a privilege. By creating an “affordable luxury” market, the privilege becomes less thrilling, less exciting, less luxurious. Luxury brands used to be limited to the rarified air of Fifth Avenue, Rodeo Drive, Post Street, Worth Avenue, and the like. Everything inherent in a "luxury brand" connotes something that is hard-to-get, limited, and rare; today, luxury houses are popping up everywhere, even secondary and tertiary markets like suburban malls.  This then begs the question: if it’s so easy to get, is it really luxury?

Yes, the internet and ecommerce has widened the market – average Jane housewife in northern Minnesota can order up some expensive confection and have it delivered to her door, but what is this kind if accessibility doing to the brands? Some would say that due to the expense the items really aren't accessible, which therefore leads to the counterfeit industry. It's nice to know that for the sake of crappy knock-offs (ie: "affordable luxury") people are supporting child labor and terrorism. Doesn't that make you all warm inside?

During my time in luxury fashion I also saw the dangers of the maddening “must-have” mentality of consumers. I witnessed customers splitting the cost of a handbag across three and four credit cards, counseled the sobs of teenagers who were thought “uncool” because they didn’t have the bag that all their friends had, and heard the frustration of time-honored customers who vowed to never buy the brand again because they were sick of seeing it on every girl in the country. You see, to them the brand once meant “something” – it meant that they were privileged, that they were the “haves” and the others were the “have-nots”.

Sorry to make this a class issue, but when you get right down to it, that’s what luxury is all about – it simply isn’t mass-market, it’s exclusive. Let’s go back to the 1% of the population for whom luxury is NOT an aspiration, it’s a way of life. They have multiple homes, private planes, Bentleys and Maseratis. These people know luxury inside and out – they have the best of everything: clothing, hotels, toys, vacations, services… THIS is the luxury demographic, and it’s not for everyone.

If the luxury brands want to preserve their power and caché, I suggest that this is the group they target. Stop opening so many stores, stop targeting teenagers, stop dressing pop stars, stop being affordable. Already, some luxury brands are so watered-down that they are losing the affluent customer base that made them so aspirational in the first place. Is this what the brands want to happen?

“Watered-down aspirational” – now that’s an oxymoron!