By  on November 23, 2009

BERLIN — Seen as both an opportunity and a threat, technology is now an unavoidable factor to be reckoned with in the luxury market. And whether it’s virtual retailing, social networking or any manner of digital or cyberspace advance, luxury brands no longer have the option of sidestepping technology.

That was the consensus of the International Herald Tribune’s Techno Luxury conference held here last week.

“The luxury market hasn’t embraced early enough or completely enough the opportunities of new technology,” IHT fashion editor Suzy Menkes told WWD shortly before the conference kicked off. This year’s technology focus was spurred, in part, by her experience of chief executive officers’ discomfort when queried about a company’s online activities. “All I’d get is a grimace, compared to the tremendous enthusiasm to how they embrace a new store,” she said.

“Technology shouldn’t be scary,” stated Burberry chief creative officer Christopher Bailey. Together with ceo Angela Ahrendts, Bailey has powered Burberry into the virtual and digital forefront both online and in-house via the use of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Burberry TV, its own social networking site, consumer e-brochures, digital look books, digital and e-commerce links to fashion shows, digital design tools, global videoconferencing, motion sensor lights, a monitor and iPod on every desk, Wi-Fi, Skype, a digital photo studio that can get images online in two hours and so on.

“We always talk about technology as something we do, not that we have to remember to do,” Bailey said. Of course, it helps if you’re a self-acknowledged techie and gadget lover, as both Bailey and Ahrendts are. But it’s been Burberry strategy, he said, “to integrate real technology in all that we do. It’s always budgeted.”

And the payback? Connectivity with ateliers and offices has reduced company air travel by 17 percent, digital look books have saved 32 tons of paper, online sales are growing rapidly and Burberry’s broad online presence provides the brand “with a much broader insight into the consumer and you can build more of a story,” Bailey said.

There’s a tweet every 25 seconds, there have been more than 700,000 visits on Facebook and the recently launched site Artofthetrench.com had more than 200,000 postings and 2 million views in its first week, Bailey reported. “One thing that struck me with our Facebook fans is how many young people are entering the brand via fragrance. We’re talking to a new, junior audience,” he said.

Another virtual standard-bearer, Gucci creative director Frida Giannini, also has embraced all that Internet and digital technology has to offer. Giannini pointed out that 16- to 24-year-olds spend more than 47 percent of their time on the Web versus 3 percent who read newspapers and magazines. “And to reach this new generation — the customer of the future — it’s important to interact in a new way.”

That interaction includes Facebook, which Gucci updates three times a day for its close to 500,000 fans; a constant stream of tweeting on Twitter; a video crew that trails Giannini for Web postings; the brand’s special iPhone apps; the social networking microsite Reflect & Connect photo gallery; online shopping (in force since 2002), and Gucci’s Web site, which will be revamped with more animation in about six months’ time.

“The more you create free access to the brand, the more you create a Gucci community. And that’s the future,” she declared.

The two-day conference brought together a string of luxury players, techno advocates and cyberspace pioneers, the most zealous of whom, like luxury online activist Uché Okonkwo or Net-a-porter founder Natalie Massenet, foresee an online-dominated retail universe. With the site now in its 10th year, Massenet said the focus was to develop Net-a-Porter into its own brand and own content, but the next 10 years would see the designer online retail site “becoming more open to the consumer and letting her express herself.”

Newcomer fashion retail site Fashionair bowed in September with an interactive video-rich format, “because 47 to 54 percent of our target group watch videos,” according to founder Sojin Lee. “We felt what was missing online was the emotional, joyous moment of being a shopper.” Fashionair took its inspiration from the gaming industry to create an experiential fashion platform that also runs like a TV network with a fixed schedule of video fashion features. Next year will see Fashionair aiming to set up affiliate deals and branded microsites “to allow brands to access the network and create a virtual shopping mall,” said Lee.

Jefferson Hack, group editorial director of the Dazed Group (including Dazed & Confused, Another Magazine and dazeddigital.com), is reacting to the uncertainties of the online revolution in the media world with online exuberance. “We’ve come up with a new genre of storytelling (for Dazed Digital) with short, one- to three-minute fashion films. Developed by young designers, it’s a cost-effective way to get their message out there and replace fashion shows,” said Hack.

Up and running since fall 2006, dazeddigital.com has 1.9 million stories viewed each month, “and that’s growing 10 percent each month. Content is being consumed and created simultaneously on the Web. That’s what we have to get our head around.”

As for fashion and technology, Vivienne Tam and her “digital clutch” laptops for Hewlett-Packard were also in Berlin. HP senior vice president of global marketing Satjiv Chahil said no one was willing to make a forecast when Tam’s laptop was launched on the runway for spring 2009, but it “sold over five times the forecast within four months. The embarrassing part is that there are no products left.”

A second clutch in a signature butterfly pattern is due out for spring.

For Tam, technology can be luxury. “It makes the impossible possible, and that’s a luxury for my designs,” she remarked. “And it saves time, which is also a luxury.”

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