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Comment: Understanding the evolution of luxury

Graeme Moran

Luxury is not just about a hefty price tag any more – so what does the word mean for today’s fashion industry?

Chan hcr ss19 0098

Chanel couture spring 19

Luxury is a concept that has always been hard to define. And in today’s industry, where fashion has been “democratised” and almost everything is accessible to everyone, where a brand name is as coveted as craftsmanship, and where exclusivity can apply as much to a £4,000 handbag as a £40 T-shirt, luxury has taken on different meanings.

For some, luxury equals expensive, and this can still be the case. At the time of writing, the priciest womenswear items available of high-end etailer Net-a-Porter are a £17,600 embellished and embroidered gown by Valentino and an alligator-skin tote by The Row, costing an eye-watering £37,275. That is not to mention a £170,000 Buccellati gold, pearl and diamond necklace.

While clearly very expensive, these items exemplify one of the key shifts in luxury. It is no longer a world of surly security guards and marble-fitted boutiques on London’s Bond Street. Luxury purchases are accessible anywhere, any time, thanks to the internet.

Access has changed luxury. And not only is it easy to shop thanks to the industry’s digital transformation – where even the laggards are now embracing ecommerce – but the social media boom means consumers are more exposed to the world of luxury fashion, and in turn, want to show off their luxury purchases via their own social posts.

Valentino spring 19 (the dress mentioned on net a porter)

Valentino spring 19, curerntly stocked on Net-a-Porter for £17,600

One of luxury’s current success stories is luxury group Kering’s golden brand Gucci, whose revenue topped €8bn (£7bn) for the full year 2018 – a 33.4% increase on 2017. Gucci has utilised this powerful social media shift to its advantage, which has had a noticeable impact on its product.

While Net-a-Porter stocks a £12,490 bag and a £9,800 crystal trimmed sequinned jacket by Gucci, it also offers the brand’s logo heavy, Instagram-ready £90 socks, £170 phone cases and £215 pool sliders – and it sells them like hot cakes.

This demonstrates two things: that the goal posts of what is perceived as luxury have widened dramatically, and that luxury shopping habits have shifted. Now, more than ever, the mixing of high street and high end price points – which emerged as a trend with streetwear enthusiasts  – stretches across consumer profiles more and more.

Take a trip to one of the London stores of Browns, traditionally a luxury retailer. In its menswear department you will find a £5,770 Gucci coat, but also £35 Champion T-shirts, £40 Versace underwear and £55 Vans plimsolls.

This is echoed at Selfridges’ London flagship on Oxford Street, which late last year opened a 18,000 sq ft “designer street” space, specifically created to cater to this new type of mix-and-match luxury shopper.

These changes have given renewed life to the luxury logo-driven purchase, whereby a brand name and, more importantly, visible branding, is as much the definition of luxury as the item itself. Quality and craftsmanship no longer define what constitutes a luxury item. But is a simple cotton T-shirt with a Balenciaga logo printed across the chest luxury? The £325 price tag would suggest so.


Supreme store, Soho, London

There are other forms of new luxury, too. You could argue that Supreme, the game-changing skate brand that took the non-seasonal “drop” approach mainstream and regularly has customers queuing up outside its stores eager for new products, is luxury today. These relatively affordable products, such as £40 T-shirts, sell out in minutes, making limited edition – or at least hard-to-get – items that come without the punchy price a new standard of luxe.

Experiences have been a buzzy retail concept for the past couple of years, and offer another example of a new type of luxury not defined by price point. For instance, value retailer Primark has opened its largest store in the world in Birmingham, and the huge, five-floor shop features several experiential additions, such as themed cafes and a Duck & Dry Xpress hair salon, offering treatments for as little as £17. It is rolling this approach out to several more key stores.

For me, convenience is another form of luxury in fashion: simple ordering, swift delivery, easy returns. I can buy something from Mr Porter in the morning and be wearing it by the evening, and not at an exorbitant cost.

Similarly, in-store service is an aspect of luxury. But it is not just about personal shopping suites and glasses of champagne. An informed, helpful, friendly member of staff, in a high-end store or on the high street, can turn an average shopping trip into a memorable, luxurious experience. And it happens all too infrequently.

Price is no longer the only criterion of luxury, as today’s shopper wants the luxury experience – whether it be a sense of exclusivity, a level of service or great convenience – no matter where they are shopping. Brands and retailers need to adjust – playing in the luxury space no longer means simply selling expensive clothes.

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