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Luxury is culture now. Here’s how

Luxury is culture now. Here’s how

Vetements has teased a rebrand as a platform for young talent. Gucci spotlighted 15 emerging brands including Collina Strada and Bianca Saunders at November’s GucciFest film festival. Saint Laurent recently teamed up with Bang & Olufsen, Baccarat and JL Coquet on a lifestyle product series.

Luxury brands no longer sell just their brand. In a new era of consumer expectation for shared values, brands are curating platforms to function as tastemakers to extend their own brand halo into the wider cultural world.

Creative collaborations are springing up around the industry – Alexander McQueen’s sub-label McQ and the relaunched John Paul Gaultier where drops with external creatives rather than one creative director dictate the season’s look; and Gucci and Balenciaga recently linked up for their collections the past two seasons, featuring signature designs in each other’s shows.

The desired outcome: building cachet by establishing shared values and moments that are bigger than the brands themselves, experts say. Such curation allows brands to become part of the cultural zeitgeist in a seemingly organic way, says Paul Greenwood, head of research and insights at We Are Social, the creative agency that works with brands from Adidas to Netflix.

Saint Laurent Rive Droite in Paris offers everything from limited edition products to vintage music photography and art....

Saint Laurent Rive Droite in Paris offers everything from limited edition products to vintage music, photography and art. The brand also started selling lifestyle products in its London store this year.

 Saint Laurent

This forces brands to consider a unique philosophy beyond a single aesthetic, which in turn will convert more people to loyal customers, says Thomaï Serdari, a luxury marketing professor at New York University. By stocking and promoting other designers, brands can create even more powerful storylines and collections, she adds. “Luxury brands understand that it is more risky to only have one type of value proposition for their customer. By expanding their curatorial offerings, they’re ensuring that the customer considers them as a destination for any kind of need.” It's also why today's creative directors are less known for being couturiers, and instead as people who can generate a lot of ideas, she adds.

Dilution is a risk, says Greenwood, therefore the core creative eye and getting product mix right, is critical. However, collaborations on brand platforms are especially beneficial at a time when wholesale partnerships are decreasing and direct-to-consumer relationships are on the rise, says Barbara E Kahn, a marketing professor at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. The shift is important, she explains, because “once you have that direct relationship with the end user, you become a trusted brand for them, and therefore your recommendations to other brands make sense.”

Customers over product

When Stella McCartney reopened its London flagship store in April, it handed over its space to what it calls its #StellaCommunity friends, hosting a different local business each week, featuring beauty, art, music, food, live-streamed talks with special guests and skincare treatments from Dr Barbara Sturm and Face Gym, among others. The initiative was the start of the new global rollout, with the goal of turning its stores around the world into a hub for local businesses and consumers.

Marc Jacobs’s Heaven, which opened its first store in Los Angeles recently, also stocks other brands, including Mowalola and Nodaleto — something that Marc Jacobs had done since 2010, in his Bookmarc stores in New York and Tokyo, which curates books, photography, music and pop culture tchotchkes. The Heaven store is one of 15 retail locations that the designer plans to open in the US this year.

“One trend we are seeing in luxury retail is a focus on customers rather than products. What that means in general about spending is that brands are prioritising customer loyalty; their goals are customer acquisition and retention, which is a different goal than just promoting products or innovation. It’s a different focus for their media spend,” says Wharton’s Kahn.

Brands like Stella McCartney are able to execute curation successfully because of their holistic approach and clear personal philosophies. “[The designer] stands for a lot of principles and more than just her fashion,” Kahn says. Saint Laurent, which has long dressed youth, music and pop culture provocateurs, also does well to build out its brand identity around its lifestyle products, she adds.

Marc Jacobs's Heaven store in LA stocks a number of brands including Mowalola Nodaleto and Climax Books.

Marc Jacobs's Heaven store in LA stocks a number of brands, including Mowalola, Nodaleto and Climax Books.

 Marc Jacobs's Heaven

Brands are making it work in different ways. Jewellery brand Astrid & Miyu, which has a network of stores across the UK, offers mentorship to the brands featured in their stores alongside their own products. Selections are based on brand vision and sense of purpose. “Business size doesn’t matter,” says Astrid & Miyu founder Connie Nam, but adds that she’s particularly drawn to brands that aren’t solely focused on growth and enjoy a cult status among loyal followers. “These partnerships are a huge benefit because it’s a great way for us to connect with younger brands that are up-and-coming. It also provides new exposure to different audiences for us both without a huge risk,” she says. Instead of taking a cut of sales, products are bought on a wholesale basis.

Since 2019, lifestyle label Toast has sold products from selected creatives — including, this year, jewellery designer Jodie Metcalfe, basket weaver Julie Gurr, ceramicist Kelsey Rose Dawson, product designer Aude Arago and sculptural artist Corrie Williamson — as part of its “new makers” programme. A year-long mentorship is offered, and full profits are turned to the brands.

Meanwhile, Saint Laurent collaborates with external brands on products before they are featured in stores, allowing space for even greater creative collaboration. Creative director Anthony Vaccarello often curates beyond just the products, too. The most recent example is a large-scale installation created with artist Doug Aitken, which will also be the backdrop of the menswear Spring/Summer 2022 show in Venice. The goal is to create a new cultural destination that merges multiple disciplines and fuels the idea of creative intersections.

Strategic brand extension

While brands once dictated their vision to customers, they lacked “meaningful connection” about who they were. Consumers have raised those standards, says David Kim, director of customer experience at Gentle Monster, which recently opened a new flagship store in Seoul, featuring products from other brands alongside its eyewear. “[Our flagship] has quickly become a local influencer hotspot. Sales from Nudake [the dessert offered in store] are at full capacity, meaning we’re selling as much as we can make. We focused on creating an inspiring environment and experience, and feel we have accomplished just that.”

Gentle Monster also has a rotating concept space in one of its stores with brands whose creative vision and philosophy aligns with theirs, says Kim. “People appreciate the curation of a brand they trust. Imagine a brand they grew to trust and listen to, just as they would a friend. Customers feel they can lean on brands and their taste, but at the same time, they can also easily disagree [with a brand’s selection]. That alignment is therefore very important when selecting who to work with.”

Extending your brand to include new products only works if there is a synergy and it adds value, says Wharton’s Kahn. “The old rules of brand extension have always just applied to products, but today it’s what you as a brand are able to offer on your platform. What’s crucial is that unlike Alibaba or Amazon, which sells everything, a luxury brand will have to be careful about the brands that they bring on. It still has to be a curated assortment.”

Astrid & Miyu founder Nam felt a strong sense of community because of her Korean roots, where local business owners could always be found in their stores talking to customers, she says. “I never want to lose that feeling as we expand, and if our stores started looking like another high street brand stamped out of a cookie cutter, that would break my heart. I want every single of our stores to be a place of discovery.” As the brand continues to expand regionally, Nam and her team plan to mentor and support more creatives from local areas. “It’s a great opportunity to build the community that you want to be a part of,” observes Serdari.

Becoming a part of culture takes time however, and building a culturally relevant platform doesn’t happen overnight, says We Are Social’s Greenwood. But it’s the direction in which the industry is moving, and brands must start preparing by taking the time to “understand audiences and the cultures that they play in, to be able to market to them on a values-based proposition,” he advises.

Brands will continue to focus on innovative marketing strategies as traditional ads are interruptive and don’t hold people’s attention, says Serdari. “Brands are looking for more organic ways to be able to tell their story, and I think that’s why they are turning to curation. If these collaborations allow them to present content and ideas, other than merchandise, it’s a fabulous opportunity to reinforce what they stand for.”

from the Vogue Business newsletter