Instant luxury

How prestige brands need more than just their heritage.

“What are we going to do with all this future?”. The caption of Gucci’s latest campaign, created in collaboration with Spanish artist Coco Capitán, is perhaps the most apt question asked of today’s luxury brands.

In their pursuit of millennials and centennials – who together will consist of 45% of the global personal luxury goods market by 2025, according to Bain & Company – luxury brands, such as Gucci, find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of having to question the value of their history. These young consumers, it seems, are just not that into it.

Driving this attitude has been a new digital ecosystem in which millennials and centennials find themselves. Instagram has enabled luxury consumers to instantly post and bookmark premium products as if they were internet memes (and often it’s hard to distinguish between the two). While millennial-favourite fashion media, such as Hypebeast, which concentrate on breaking fashion news round the clock, have helped to create an insatiable appetite for the new and next.

Claudia D’Arpizio, a partner at Bain & Company, described in Forbes magazine how this millennial-driven time-shift has resulted in a new paradigm in luxury. “They are part of the digital revolution, which leads to a different perception of ‘time,’ ‘space’ and ‘possibilities.’ Everything is possible, here and now.” In this context, the old definition of luxury – the romantic idea of having oodles of history and time – seems less important for a brand’s appeal.

Brands such as Off-White and Vetements, born of this millennial era, have quickly gained traction for their ability to shrewdly create heavily contemporary output. For them, luxury is intrinsically tied to millennial culture: music, fashion, and streetwear. Their clothes and accessories, which are bold, often irreverent, and extremely contemporary, are designed to garner attention among consumers who browse Instagram feeds rather than shop floors.

While this is a natural fit for recently founded brands – ones without any history – what should happen to the incumbent club of luxury brands with 100 plus years of heritage? A vast number of luxury fashion brands, such as Hermès, Bottega Veneta, and Chanel, have built their entire equity, thus far, on a foundation of heritage, and consequently face a challenge of having to reinvent for the future or be left in the past.

In fashion industry bible The Business of Fashion, Luca Solca, head of Luxury Goods at BNP Exane Paribas, explained how, following an initial wave of attempting to capture the ‘virgin’ luxury consumers of emerging nations, attention among major luxury brands has gone back to the established markets. But, Solca explained, “this poses a problem for these megabrands because established consumers already own all the luxury icons they need – their wardrobes are full of them. Today, established consumers expect novelty and innovation if they are to part with their money.”

This is why some legacy brands are happily reinventing altogether – forgoing any reference to the past, as if their archive had simply been deleted overnight, and starting afresh with a brand new comprehensive vision, typically under the control of a newly appointed superstar creative director. Balenciaga, Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent, and Gucci have all made this ambitious step in recent years. Invariably, this approach has thrust these brands into the contemporary zeitgeist; it also leaves them exposed to the pressures of maintaining relevance among hype-hungry millennials through continual reinvention.

However, not all traditional luxury brands are prepared to reset from zero. Many are instead opting to undertake collaborations with influential brands that have already garnered a following among younger consumers. These include Louis Vuitton’s partnership with cult streetwear label Supreme, and Burberry’s forthcoming capsule collection with Russian streetwear designer Gosha Rubchinskiy. Both provide a fresh approach without compromising the tradition of the brand.

In order for the old guard of luxury brands to be equipped for the future, and to successfully capture the millennial and centennial, they ought to free themselves from their traditional habits and take influence from newcomers – some of which may lie outside of the luxury industry. They should set their sights on today rather than the past, and move away from a purist view of luxury towards a period of openness, collaboration and cross-disciplines.

– William West