Walpole, Helen Brocklebank and Harrods, Michael Ward

Don’t be fooled by the Brit’s serious demeanor. This week, Walpole, the sector body for the British luxury industry, took on its third annual trade mission in New York, led by Michael Ward, chairman of the body and managing director of Harrods, and Helen Brocklebank, chief executive officer of Walpole, who said it pays to have a sense of humor in the industry.

The week, which began with discussions of the art of British luxury in hospitality at The Whitby Hotel and ended in a showcase of British brands at The Glasshouses on West 25th Street, focused on the luxury experience, the dynamic heritage of the quintessential British, and attracting the next generation of luxury consumers.

Walpole trade panel

Charlotte Keesing of Walpole leads panel discussion at The Whitby Hotel.  Courtesy of Walpole.

“The great thing about Britain is we can be really playful and people expect this, they expect eccentricity,” Ward said. “No one bats an eyelash because people expect it.” Of this, Ward and Brocklebank agreed that retail isn’t dead, in fact, with experimental experience, they say retail is thriving. Further, brands they say are doing well are masters of reinvention.

Brocklebank pointed to Lock & Co. hatters, a British brand created in 1676 as a business that, despite holding a very prestigious position in fitting royalty, has not rested on laurels. Most recently the brand has seen an uplift from the popular show Peaky Blinders and received attention being worn by David Beckham. Just a few weeks ago, the company also launched a Lock & Co. Couture collection.

“You just keep on reinventing, and that’s very much part of the British luxury sensibility to always be renewing, reinventing, always be looking forward and yet have this extraordinary past as well. The past is just a springboard for a new clever story about the future,” Brocklebank said. “The big change in luxury, not just British luxury, is you must let your customer tell the story.”

British heritage luxury has been enchanting consumers forever, and it is a willingness to learn that sets successful brands apart. Though as a highly anticipated Gen Z audience enters the market with different expectations, will brands struggle to connect? Ward says luxury brands know what they are doing. “The brands are really good at this. I mean who would have thought that Vuitton would partner with Supreme, who would have thought that Rimowa would do some of these partnerships,” Ward said. “[Our] generation overthink everything. But it’s about that engagement. Its willingness to learn constantly.”

To further understand today’s luxury consumer, Walpole and Sunshine, the brand storytelling agency, have released a commissioned research study this week, finding “What Matters to Gen Z.” In the study, the generation is broken down into 10 distinct personalities, directing the luxury industry to “stop calling Gen Z, Gen Z.” Gen Z is then analyzed as part of the larger luxury consumer, finding similarities in six personality categories including “sustainable idealists, high stylists, experimentalists,” and “aspirational admirers.” The study finds creative opportunities are lost when only looking at averages or extremes, causing brands to overanalyze the young generation.

According to Ward, Gen Z will represent 130 percent of luxury’s growth over the next five years.

“Everyone has prophesized that Gen Z are not going to buy stuff,” Ward said. “The big call out of this [study] is they just love brands. And however much the doom-mongers predict it, the future is there in product, and it’s there in the big brands and people want it.” Ward praises heritage luxury brands for working to appeal to the younger generation in ways that align with the start of a journey. For example, brands are now creating color makeup.

So, he says, when a 16-year-old buys a Gucci lipstick, this is a fundamentally important moment because it is the start of a journey which will lead to a consumer’s relationship to grow as they customer matures. “Even crusty brands like us are changing the way forward,” Ward said. “Five years ago I never would have thought we’d put a piercing bar in. Now it’s one of our best sellers with Maria Tash.”

Despite current trade relations uncertainty between the U.S. and the U.K., as reported by WWD earlier this week, Walpole sees the U.S. market as one of growth with continued strength in the international relationship.

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