Can luxury be synthetic?

From Loro Piana cashmere to charmeuse silk, luxury material tends to be rare, hard to produce, and almost always of natural origins. But a growing number of innovative manufacturers are offering synthetic alternatives – potentially changing our perceptions of a precious material.

An industry undergoing such change is the diamond industry. Lab-grown diamonds, made through either high pressure or carbon layering, offer chemically-similar alternatives, and provide greater consistency, lower costs, and can be made-to-order.

De Beers, which had until recently positioned itself against the very idea of synthetic diamonds, has entered this market with its collection of lab-grown diamonds, produced by UK-based company Lightbox. The range, priced lower than its natural counterparts, aims to compete with smaller-sized diamond jewellery products, and is targeted at less conservative, younger consumers. Swarovski has also launched a lab-created collection, Swarovski Created Diamonds, which is positioned as an ethical alternative that possesses the same quality and aesthetic value as natural diamonds. Diamond Foundry, another lab-grown manufacturer based in San Francisco, announced in January this year it will increase its production tenfold, driven by a market where demand is outpacing supply. Already, 70% of millennials said they would consider buying a lab-grown diamond for an engagement ring centre stone, according to MVI Marketing. One famous millennial, The Duchess of Sussex Meghan Merkhal, recently wore earrings containing lab-grown diamonds by Belgian company Kimai.

Luxury fashion is slowly waking up to synthetics too. Several designers have turned to synthetic leathers in recent years, driven by finding a guilt-free alternative to animal materials. The artificial leather market, which was worth $22 billion in 2015, is predicted to grow to $34 billion by 2021, according to research company Marketsandmarkets. But many of these materials have faced criticism for containing polluting plastics, such as PVC. In face of this, designers have sought sustainable alternatives. Los Angeles-based designer Vicki von Holzhausen has developed her own solution, Technik-Leather, which is GreenGuard-LEED-certified, and sees 99% of associated production materials recycled.


Above: Lightbox laboratory-grown diamonds


Other companies are finding entirely new alternatives thanks to new technologies. Modern Meadow, a company that specialises in bio-fabricated products, has created a synthetic leather material called Zoa. Made using collagen, and without animal derivatives, the material is entirely traceable, and was recently displayed in the form of a t-shirt at the MoMa in New York. Timepiece manufacturer Omega has got in on the act, having launched a strap made of synthetic spider silk. The technology, which had previously alluded manufacturers for a lack of scalability, uses Biosteel, a material produced by AMSilk, and has properties of breathability and is anti-bacterial.

Luxury gets woke

In addition to technological advances, the context for synthetic materials has increased due to luxury companies seeking out more ethical and transparent production processes. Driving this is a slow-burning rise in luxury consumers caring about sustainability. Consultancy McKinsey believes as many as 70% of consumers were willing to pay some premium for items produced sustainably, which was announced during a recent roundtable discussion the company hosted with industry experts.

Luxury companies have begun to take note. In December 2018, luxury brand Chanel announced it would no longer manufacture products made from exotic animal skins, such as snakes, crocodiles, lizards, despite the high sums paid for such items in the market. Department store Selfridges made a similar announcement in February this year. While luxury group Kering, a leader in this space, is targeting that 100% of its supply chain is transparent, responsible and meets standards set around animal welfare.

Synthetics can play a part here. Synthetic materials – in being made in one place, requiring less energy, and in not being sourced from animals – avert many of these ethical issues. Synthetic diamonds, in theory, should provide a far more ethical alternative to natural diamonds – certainly more so than ‘blood’ diamonds, but also due to natural cut diamonds requiring 250 tons of ore and 500 litres of water, according to Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie.


Above: Zoa by Modern Meadow


Fake it ‘til you make it

While synthetic material offers environmental benefits, unnatural products are still a challenging idea for many luxury consumers – especially in categories where perceptions of quality have long been synonymous with animal-derived materials. Younger consumers may well be open to this, but the wider market is yet to be convinced. A study by DPA/Harris Poll, for instance, found that 68% of people still consider factory-made diamonds as not being ‘real’.

Another challenge is to avert a two-tier market, where ‘natural’ becomes the expensive and higher quality option, and ‘synthetic’ the cheaper, lesser quality. Critics have suggested that De Beers’ foray into lab-grown diamonds is in part to increase prestige around its natural diamonds.

Overall, success depends on turning existing reservations about synthetics on their head, while directly responding to the ethical requirements of more progressive, younger luxury consumers.

The following three behaviours will be key for brands wishing to enter the synthetic and lab-grown space:


1. Explain the process

A major hurdle is the lack of education about the synthetic process. While many animal-produced items have been found to have an opaque supply chain, the original source of these items (animals) is easily understood by consumers. Lab-grown processes are entirely new and vary greatly. Clear explanations, through online assets, product tags, and other packaging material, will be crucial. But herein lies a further challenge: how to do this in an aesthetically pleasing way. The beautiful imagery of luxury production – craftspeople in ateliers, landscapes dotted with organically reared animals – do not immediately translate to a laboratory context. But they could. The idea of creating entirely new processes aimed at solving global production problems, and the human ingenuity required for this, is profound. Think how photographic documentation of the individuals and laboratories behind the process could provide a compelling insight into how it works.


2. Underline the ethics

So far, pricing aside, the most compelling reason to purchase synthetic alternatives is the ethical argument. Millennial and Gen Z consumers are particularly receptive to this. The role of brands will be to build the social value attributed to owning these products. Marketing and communications should underline the fact that, while the process may not be environmentally perfect, it is in many cases far more sustainable than existing ‘natural’ alternatives. Building manifestos and mission statements, and publishing these within brand material, will display determination and integrity. Consider how a brand like By Humankind integrates environmental objectives into their website messaging.


3. Prove the prestige

Luxury synthetics need to prove they are equal to, if not better than, their ‘natural’ counterparts. Only then will people take notice. Creating desire is key, and part of this will be to showcase how the materials can exist as beautiful items. Brands can do this by commissioning of-the-moment creatives to experiment with the materials, creating credibility – especially for millennials. Consider how designer Eileen Fisher enlisted emerging fashion label Public School to create a recycled capsule collection of clothing made from material off-cuts sourced from the brand’s workshop floor.


If you and your brand require guidance on how to navigate new luxury markets, such as the above synthetic and lab-grown markets, please get in touch with our consultancy