OLD WORLD NEW WORLD
IN THE POST-TECH WORLD, TWO DIVERGENT IDEAS OF LUXURY ARE POISED TO DO BATTLE FOR THE CONSUMER.
Byline: Janet Ozzard / With contributions from James Fallon, London
In the rapidly evolving world of luxury, there are two distinct camps: Old and New.
And as rapidly growing numbers of consumers enter the luxury ranks, the distinction between the two has become a question of attitude, rather than chronology. Old Luxury, whether it’s a suit, a hotel, a car or a piece of furniture, is built on history, reputation and relationships. Old Luxury builds up loyalty and requires maintenance. Examples: haute couture, the Ritz Hotel in Paris, a Rolls-Royce, a Fendi baguette.
New Luxury is pared-down, technology-friendly, impatient, functional and not afraid of a little self-promotion. Examples: the latest cell phone with wireless capability, a Prada windbreaker, a Lexus.
The two modes have a common concern: giving customers the best possible service. There’s also a significant group of companies trying to straddle the divide.
So far, each has its place. Old Luxury is comfortable, say observers, because it can supply a sense of entitlement, tradition and taste. And that can be important to a newly rich tech billionaire who doesn’t want to appear tacky.
“Old luxury is rooted in the 19th-century notion that ‘things European’ had a greater value than those from other parts of the globe,” says Regina Lee Blaszczyk, associate professor of American studies at Boston University and author of the book Imagining Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning. She is working on a book about haute couture, which she calls the epitome of Old Luxury. “In the Old World, before industrialization, inherited wealth and status were inexorably entwined, and remained so into the first half of the 20th century.”
But with technology so dominant now, the New Luxurians can’t help but feel a bit superior to the old ways, explained Blaszczyk.
“The New Luxury reflects the self-confidence that was missing from the Old Luxury,” she says. “In cultural terms, it celebrates America’s greatest achievement of the past 50 years. That achievement is the nation’s ascendancy to global hegemony — in both economic and cultural terms.
“The economy revved up in the Nineties, fueled by high technology growth and globalization. In cultural terms, the New Luxury is the mirror-image twin of the new economy. In the new millennium, both the colonial powers and the hereditary monarchy are dead. Once accessible only to the wealthy, Europe’s cultural capitals — London, Paris, Rome — are now part and parcel of the vacation plans of upper-middle-class Americans. In many respects, the Old World traditions around which the Old Luxury was built are dying or becoming democratized.”
New Luxury is exciting, not just because that’s where a lot of the money is being made, but because of its speedy nature and all those sexy high tech gadgets, like Palm Pilots, cell phones and flat-screen monitors. But the downside is that it comes and goes so quickly. What was luxury yesterday — a portable CD player — is in the masses today. And the New Luxurians have moved onto the next hot item — a portable DVD player.
So for some, Old Luxury is still the way to go.
“Modern luxury makes me think of words like chrome, limestone, streamlined,” says Simon Doonan, creative director at Barneys New York and a fervent fan of Old Luxury. “It doesn’t have the textures that tweak my mind.” Left to his own devices, Doonan would choose to stay in an Old Luxury hotel filled with patterned carpets and chintz furniture rather than one of the “proliferation of hip hotels with chairs with funny legs.”
But then, Doonan got his first glimpse of luxury at Aquascutum, the British retailer that still makes apparel for the fast-disappearing country life that includes pastimes like fox hunting. And he still has emotional ties to the kinds of stores that pay more attention to shirt cuffs than to trend reports.
“The Queen wore Aquascutum when she wasn’t wearing Hardy Amies,” he says. “I have a real soft spot for it. Old Luxury is not style-driven.”
“New Luxury is more democratic,” he says. “If you’ve got the shekels, you can have anything. Old Luxury is snotty. That’s what’s fun about it. Old Luxury is not about buying new, new, new. It’s about brushing your suits instead of dry cleaning, and using shoe trees.
“There are a diminishing number of people who understand Old Luxury,” he says. As might be expected, Doonan thinks Barneys bridges the old and new, but he also admires the whimsy and respect for tradition exhibited by Paul Smith.
“There’s a sense of the personal in Old Luxury,” says Janine Lopiano-Misdom, partner at Sputnik, a trend-forecasting and market research firm. If New Luxury is to keep its cachet, Lopiano-Misdom says, it will have to find its way of communicating the personal.
Hotelier Ian Schrager is a straddler. He believes his guests already take certain high tech conveniences for granted, like Internet access in every room. Now, he has to charm them with personality.
“In the Eighties, luxury was all about ostentation and being over the top,” he says. “Now, it’s pared down and simple. Ultimately, luxury is individual.”
Schrager says his goal in developing his hotels is to make sure that no two look alike. While there is a recognizable signature in his hotels — which include the Paramount, Royalton and Morgan in New York, the Delano in Miami and the St. Martin’s Lane and new Sanderson in London — his aim is to come up with a new design for each one. “There are fundamental values that have to be there, but then we adapt the design to what stimulates us at that moment in time.”
The key to a good hotel these days isn’t good service, room service, Internet accessibility or easy check-in and check-out, Schrager says. “Those are all givens. We have to go beyond that to make sure that our luxury is pared down and intimate.”
For him, that means adding ideas like a rooftop garden. Schrager says he’s recently been meeting with the hip London architects Future Systems about doing that for one of his hotels.
“Good ideas just keep going round and round,” he says. “It’s a cycle. These things are part of the human condition; it’s just that the approaches and the attitudes change. New Luxury isn’t related to wealth, because people have been wealthy now for the last 10 years. It’s just the way people feel now. In hotels, that means we have to be even more quirky and provocative to appeal to their individuality.”
Another difference between the two: Old Luxury is based on long-standing relationships. A New Luxury customer might feel intimidated or uncomfortable with Old Luxury-style service, says Doonan.
On the other hand, New Luxury is very demanding (read: pushy).
“New Luxury doesn’t have loyalty, but if the customer expects something to be delivered at 9 a.m., then it better walk in at 9 a.m.,” says Stephen Elkin, president and ceo of Fashion500.com and former ceo of Bergdorf Goodman. “Americans are better at New Luxury. We are a society of instant gratification. Europe tends to be more a society where you want what your mother and your grandmother wanted.”
“New Luxury isn’t necessarily uncomfortable with service, but it has to be your set of values,” says Lopiano-Misdom. “That is a big leap.”
There’s a significant group of straddlers in the fashion industry, spearheaded by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which has conducted several high-profile repositionings of its brands, including Celine, Givenchy, Loewe and Christian Dior, which is related to but not owned by the group. LVMH is aiming to keep its stable of brands current in some ways, but fundamentally in touch with their history, according to Myron Ullman, group managing director of the $8.58 billion luxury goods group.
“Even our most traditional customers want to be associated with brands that have an edge,” says Ullman. “It is a fine line, a balancing act. You don’t want to undermine tradition or the heritage of the name. But there’s a lot to be said for brands that are current…and relevant.”
Ullman points to the Louis Vuitton ad campaigns, which have a distinctly young and edgy feeling.
“The Vuitton ads are quite current,” he says. “But if you go into one of the stores, you will see that much of the product is from our traditional styles.”
For LVMH, autonomy among brands, especially in the creative arena, is important, says Ullman.
“That allows for entrepreneurial, creative direction,” he says. Putting one person in charge whose job it is to define that direction is also important.
“I don’t think anybody is ever going to convince Michael Kors that he is wrong. I don’t think anybody knows her customer better than Marcia Kilgore,” says Ullman, referring to the creative director of Celine and the founder of Bliss, respectively. Both brands are part of LVMH.
It’s true that Kors has long been a straddler. He is an unashamed appreciator of luxury fabrics and traditional takes on glamour, but he works in cutting-edge fabrics.
“Luxury, be it now or then, is something that feels incredible, is hand-finished, yet is technically sophisticated and functional,” Kors says. He points to a pair of black leather stretch jeans that he put on his signature line a few seasons ago. The feel of the leather is Old Luxury; the stretch, which makes the jeans comfortable and ensures the leather won’t sag, is New.
“Actually, I think what is luxe now is a combination of the two,” says Kors. “I don’t think any luxury is about carrying a handbag that weighs a ton. Here’s another example: traveling with a full set of matched luggage, but FedExing it ahead so it’s in your hotel when you get there. It’s efficient and time-conscious, but you can still pack a Rigaud candle.”
There are bound to be tremors as Old and New jockey for customers. Will Old Luxury, with its emphasis on materials and sensuality, play on the Internet, for example? LVMH’s new site, eLuxury, hopes so.
“ELuxury is clearly in the scheme of new luxury, just because of the way the medium works,” Ullman says. But the graphics that LVMH is using, the full- color pictures shot on a model, the high-end names that are selling on the site, are all Old Luxury mentality.
“But then, it’s instant gratification,” he adds. “You click, and 10 minutes later FedEx is on its way.”
“Old Luxury is something that you save for special occasions, but New Luxury is every day,” says Maya Neighbor, owner of a New Luxury knitwear firm called MAD Co. “Women have increasingly complicated lives, and they need luxury. It’s indispensable.
“You also have to remember that luxury is a state of mind,” she says. “It’s not necessarily about that specific cashmere sweater, although cashmere does become a habit.”
But what is a habit today could become a burden in the future, says Lopiano-Misdom. She thinks consumers will hit a point where they just have too much stuff, Old or New. To survive the inevitable shakedown, she suggests companies keep an eye on their overall corporate image and not just on the products that carry their names.
“There is going to be burnout,” she says. “What will be key is how the Old Luxury companies move into the New Luxury model. That could be in the details, in the packaging.”
Whether companies straddle or choose a camp, the idea of luxury has become a lot more complicated, even over the last decade.
“Luxury is very different from what it was in the Eighties. Then, it was all about conforming to a certain style and showing off how much money you had via your clothes, your car, your watch,” says Rossella Beato, a consultant with GPF & Associati, a Milan firm that advises companies in a variety of sectors, including luxury goods.
“In the Nineties, luxury became more of a culture thing. The luxury product was something that the masses couldn’t understand, something that only a small group of trendsetters or people in the know could grasp and appreciate: the Hogan shoe, the Fendi baguette, the simple but luxurious cashmere sweater. Luxury in the Nineties and into 2000 is a niche concept, something that you need a certain background and culture to understand. Luxury has become a quiet, personal thing. It’s about being rather than appearing to be, and it belongs to an elite group.”