By  on November 2, 2010

Hedonism is the new black — and it’s just one reason to be optimistic about future growth prospects for the fashion industry.

So says François-Henri Pinault, chairman and chief executive officer of French retail-to-luxury conglomerate PPR, who opened WWD’s CEO Summit here Monday with a powerful keynote address that identified five structural trends — headlined by hedonism — that will enlarge the global audience and appetite for clothing and accessories.

“We’re living in an age when the aesthetic element, pleasure and gratification are present in everyday life, from architecture to the design of common objects, and including fashion,” Pinault told an audience of about 275 professionals at The Plaza for the two-day conference. “Quite simply, the desire to dress and buy new clothes as whim and means dictate is spreading to everyone, and at an even younger age. All segments of the population, regardless of social position, want to look and feel good.”

In an ambitious and wide-ranging speech — referencing philosophers, sociologists and a broad sweep of history — Pinault explained how the democratization of fashion will dovetail with the digital revolution, the increasing power of brands and a multiplication of social groups to create more wearing occasions and therefore business.

For example, “the executive woman will wear a business suit during the day, will bring a change of clothes for her Pilates class, and will once again transform herself to party with friends,” Pinault said.

A keen observer and interpreter of consumer trends, Pinault plans to transform PPR by selling off its retail holdings — the music, books and electronics retailer Fnac, furniture chain Conforama and catalogue retailer Redcats — to build a sport and lifestyle division alongside its Gucci Group luxury division, as reported.

“I pay close attention to the trends that shape our world and integrate them into our strategic planning,” he said. “If we can take off our cultural, national and generational blinders, the fashion of the future will truly be anchored in creation, and technological progress.

“Brands must encompass values to which people aspire to identify, and offer what we might call an ‘art de vivre,’ ” he said, using the French expression for lifestyle.

Pinault, who heads a company with revenues of 16.7 billion euros, or $23.29 billion at current exchange, credited Englishman Charles Frederick Worth for setting, back in the mid-1800s, the template for the modern fashion industry. Not only did the couturier help dressmakers accrue the status of tastemakers, he established the concept of seasonal collections, runway shows, exclusive fabrics and signature labels —along with a global approach to his clientele.

“He was also the first to understand that he was essentially offering dreams, and that dreams had a price,” Pinault said. “He succeeded in combining the artistic as well as the economic component of fashion. And he taught us that to neglect one leads to the destruction of the other.

“Looking back at the career of this entrepreneur, we understand that the future has to be written, not passively accepted, and that the big steps forward will be achieved through creativity, innovation and risk-taking.”

The executive said the popularity of wellness spas, gyms and yoga — and the comfortable, well-designed clothes needed to do enjoy them — underscores an underlying hedonism that bodes well for fashion.

“Every moment of the day…becomes an opportunity to change one’s appearance,” Pinault said. “Clothing is an expression of self, a symbolic language establishing connections between individuals. It reflects one’s taste, life or dream life.”

Pinault argued that the arenas for expression are multiplying as people gather — in venues real or virtual — around common interests, be it sports, music, contemporary art “or whatever.…These are the roots of social tribalism that will impact our business. The choice of an item of apparel is a sign of belonging to a fashion community of which we wish to be recognized as members.”

He noted the signifiers can be as obvious as designer logos or iconic design attributes — such as a bamboo handle on a Gucci handbag — or so discreet that only connoisseurs pick up on the clues. As an example of the latter, he cited the Balenciaga brand, as its designer, Nicolas Ghesquière, “still follows the tradition of secrecy and exclusivity” established by the founder, Cristóbal Balenciaga.

“Increasingly, we are connected to several groups, and move easily from one to the other,” Pinault said. “As each of us has become plural, with multiple identities, we are going to dress in more than one way. That explains why we can observe apparently contradictory trends: the desire for both a durable, fine-quality product referring to a brand’s heritage, and a product that speaks for the now, giving immediate and repeated gratification.”

Pinault said this is especially true of the “millennial” generation, bringing “a level of diversity never before seen on a global scale to the fashion industry consumer base.”

Brands, meanwhile, are the vital markers “in the labyrinth of social communities,” Pinault said. They must “refer to a client’s value system, so she can identify with the brand to express her personality. The brand reassures, and becomes a companion.”

In the luxury sector, brand prestige fuses with the imagination of the consumer. “Both are rooted in the eminently desirable values of perfection, care, excellence, exclusivity and differentiation, as opposed to the ordinary and the banal,” Pinault explained.

Ditto, to a degree, for brands in the sport and lifestyle arena. PPR’s Puma brand, for example, holds not only the promise of high performance, but conveys an aura of irreverence, joy and accessibility, he said.

The digital revolution — a key theme at the summit — is the fourth structural trend poised to fuel industry growth.

Pinault said the Web and associated technologies are multiplying the number of social networks to which consumers belong, transforming each of them into a “purchasing adviser” and social hub.

“Social networks are not only forums for dialogue and interaction, but also create ‘social retail’ markets,” he said. “The Internet accelerates the social groups structural trend…creating a world of ‘digital tribalism.’ ”

PPR generates $2.7 billion in revenues from online sales via more than 100 Web sites, and meeting consumer expectations and improving the online experience are key, Pinault said.

“The essence of exclusivity, creativity and the privileged relationship with the consumer must be rethought to maintain differentiation and cultivate desire,” he said. “I believe client services will be key.”

He noted that PPR’s internal data show that online buyers also make more frequent purchases in its brick-and-mortar stores than “off-line” clients.

Pinault predicted the Internet will become more intuitive with the advent of “enhanced reality” technologies. Still, “we must engage our Web customer as a sales associate would in a store when a customer walks in,” he said.

A passionate promoter of corporate responsibility issues, Pinault said a trend toward sustainability can also contribute to industry growth and “generate opportunities that create value” by reducing costs, building motivation and loyalty among employees and engaging consumers sensitive to such issues.

“Sustainability touches everyone, and we are in an era where people want to make a difference,” Pinault said.

In an interview, Pinault elaborated on his confidence in the sport and lifestyle sector, underscored by a burgeoning youth population, particularly in emerging markets, and the fact that often the first branded fashion purchases are from the sport sector. For example, he noted that Puma sales are progressing at a high double-digit rate in India.

“The sports component of the brand gives it a vitality that is much broader than a regular lifestyle brand,” he said, also highlighting the marketing might of global events like the Olympics, the soccer World Cup, and even cricket championships.

That said, he noted the challenge for sports brands like Puma is to increase the style component in lifestyle categories like apparel. In this way, PPR’s experience in luxury —where the product is king, not marketing — is a vital asset.

Discussing social media, Pinault said the new generation shares their intimate secrets online, presenting a bonanza of information market researchers could once only dream about. “It’s a totally new approach in customer marketing,” he said. “People are expressing themselves loudly and you cannot ignore that. It’s really part of the economic model of a brand.”

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