Steve Altman

Steve Altman

October 8, 2020

Opinion: Is luxury over?

“Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is opposite of vulgarity.” Coco Chanel

Indeed, before we should even begin to answer this question, we should first ask ourselves something even more key: What is luxury? It is certainly a very overused word.

Luxury also means different things to different people. However, generally research shows that luxury conjures up certain ‘expressions’, amongst them – elegance, craftsmanship, rarity, bespoke, heritage. Something that has longevity. Something that is timeless. Something that makes us feel ‘special’.

However, research also shows that luxury consumers’ views of luxury have changed and evolved over time. Luxury is now seen as something more experiential in nature and encapsulating greater ‘lifestyle’ elements, such as interiors, art and so on. To many, luxury also increasingly reflects time. As Tom Ford said himself, “Time and silence are the most luxurious things today.” It has also been said that luxury has been too commercialised. Bastardised even. If luxury is meant to be something that is more exclusive and rare, then why is its access so available?

Our original question was ‘Is luxury over?’ To me, the answer is most definitely no. However, luxury and brands need to re-invent themselves. There will definitely be a shift in consumer behaviour. Even before Covid struck, there were already shifts taking place. A consumer who is more discriminating. Demanding. A consumer, who now in particular, is more in control than ever.

Research also shows that the luxury consumer increasingly wants to know the story and the heritage behind a brand. However, that story has to be one that is not only compelling, relevant and resonating, but one that is also unique. Buying luxury can and should also be a very emotive experience.

Consequently, brands need to understand what emotive triggers to pull that will entice the consumer to their particular brand. They will need to position themselves in such a way that meets growing consumer expectations, which will indeed be different.

This has to be in play for both offline, as well as, increasingly online. Personally, I feel that there will be fewer (offline) brand retail boutiques. And, whilst these different channel experiences will need to be brand consistent, they will also need to be different.

Consumer expectations will also focus more on the less ‘tangible’ aspects of luxury. Service will be a key differentiator. Retail boutiques will need to offer special experiences. I remember visiting the Tom Ford boutique on Madison Avenue, supposedly to purchase a shirt, but coming out with far more, thanks to an over-indulgence of fabulous champagne delivered by a liveried butler.

I had an afternoon tea appointment later and they even suggested that my appointment joined me at the boutique and we could all have tea together. Very clever and it certainly worked, some three or so hours later! Even their packaging was monogrammed for me.

I left with a warm and fuzzy feeling (no doubt brought on by the copious amount of champagne), which I must admit did change slightly when I received my credit card bill! But the point is, I still talk about that experience with fondness.

On the other hand, I have had other ‘experiences’, not as positive (I will leave the brand name out of this), where the mannequin had more personality than the sales associate.

I do feel that luxury will revert back to ‘true’, good old luxury and everything that stands for. There is a need to re-focus, re-establish and go back to one’s roots. Heritage. Respect. A greater wish for sustainability. Something that is timeless. Subtle. Humble, even. Less accessible. Basically, the aura needs to come back into luxury. I think through all this, Hermès, as an example, has managed to retain its true luxury positioning.

However, I also understand that, commercially speaking, this may not work for all brands. Some ‘top tier’ brands and sub-brands are also supported by a more mid-level offering.

Therefore, segmentation is key here. Brands may also consider extending their offering and embracing lifestyle-driven products/services, capitalising on this growing trend. Of course, it needs to be consistent with the DNA of the brand.

Armani has done a good job at this in the past. He has managed to retain the allure of Privé, yet also appeal to a more mass market with Emporio, creating a positive halo effect. He has also leveraged this in the lifestyle arena. Brands will also need to be more innovative and creatively driven, to meet the greater level of inspiration that consumers will be seeking from luxury. Mc Queen has often been heralded as a good example of high creativity.

However, before all of this happens, brands first need to ask themselves a key question. Who and what are they? And most importantly, who and what do they want to be? Any difference will be the key to success.

“Luxury will always be around, no matter what happens in the world.” Carolina Herrera

Steven Altman is the co-founder and managing director of inspiring-i, a research consultancy specialising in lifestyle and luxury. He is based in Hong Kong and works across the Asia-Pacific. He also loves shopping.