Interesting video from the FT on Moncler, above. London’s more tony neighbourhoods of Chelsea and Belgravia have seen an explosion of thick down jackets over the past three years, mostly colourful, all with the same logo on them. They are worn as much by macho Eurotrash as Yummy Mummies. The brand is seemingly reaching a tipping point, where exclusivity leads to a bling reputation, where mass acceptance is quickly followed by mass exodus. La Martina has done a good job of steering clear of such waters, as we reported on in a state of retail article. While Moncler considers its IPO and a strategy for selling hot coats in Hawaii, North Face takes a completely different tack, embracing its mass appeal while still communicating an aspirational feel by showcasing the demanding professionals who use their apparel.
Zeitgeist doesn’t see many people in Europe on the ski slopes wearing Moncler, and doesn’t see many players on the polo field wearing La Martina (unless they are a sponsor). North Face, on the other hand, seems to have a deeply-seated place among hikers and skiiers, particularly in North America. Time – and a sound strategy – will tell whether Moncler retains its exclusive airs.
Are incumbent companies starting to see the light when it comes to embracing digital? Evidence is slowly starting to point in that direction.
Artists are known for embracing change and innovation, but the art market itself has been slow to adapt to changing consumer behaviour. Now mega e-tailer Amazon is selling art on its site, and venerable auction house Christie’s is pushing headlong into online-only sales, as Mashable recently reported. And while fashion designers know how to use digital to push the envelope, the fashion industry as a business has been notorious for their skittishness at investing in efficient, immersive digital experiences for their customers, so worried are they about detracting from the brand. So it was reassuring to see during Paris Fashion Week recently that French marque Chloé had gotten the message. As Zeitgeist’s dear friend and fashion aficionado Rachel Arthur details on her blog, the brand launched a dedicated microsite for their runway show. Brands like Burberry and Louis Vuitton have been doing this for at least three years, so in of itself it’s nothing new. What made the experience different were two things. Firstly, the site created a journey that started before the show, and continued after it, rather than merely offering a stream of live video and little else. More importantly, it tried to make the experience one that reflected the influence of those watching. As Rachel points out,
“As the event unfolded, so too did different albums under a moodboard header, including one for the collection looks, one for accessories, another for the guests, and one from backstage. Users could click on individual images and share them via Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or Weibo, or heart them to add them to their own personal moodboard page.
‘[We] are excited to see how you direct your own Chloé show,’ read the invite.”
The recognition of platforms like Weibo should be seen as another coup for Chloé. Too often, companies send out communications to global audiences with perfunctory links to Facebook and Twitter. Not only is there no call to action for these links (why is it that the user should go there?), but there is no recognition that one of the world’s most populous and prosperous markets are more into their Renren and Weibo.
Elsewhere, despite what seems like some niggling problems, Zeitgeist was excited and intrigued to read about Disney‘s latest foray into embracing how consumers use digital devices, this time creating a second-screen experience in movie theaters. Second Screen Live, as Disney have branded it, doesn’t immediately sound particularly logical, as GigaOm point out,
“Of all the places I’d thought would be forbidden to the second screen experience, movie theaters were near the top of my list. After all, you’re paying a premium ticket price for the opportunity to sit in a dark theater and immerse yourself in a narrative — second screen devices operate in direct opposition to that.”
And yet the Little Mermaid experience that the writer goes on to describe cannot be faulted for its attempt at innovation, at reaching beyond current thinking (not to mention revenue streams), in order to forge a new relationship between the viewer and the product. Kudos.
Lastly, Zeitgeist wanted to mention the US television network Fox as a classic example of a company that has slowly come to realise the power of working with digital, rather than against it. In years passed, companies like Fox were indisputably heavily involved in digital, but only from a punitive standpoint. Fox and others were ruthless in their distribution of takedown notices to sites hosting content they deemed to infringe on their product. Fan sites that exploded in support and admiration for shows like The X-Files were summarily threatened with legal action and closed. There was little thought given to the positive sentiment sites were creating around the product, and little thought given to the destruction of brand equity that such takedown notices brought about. Not to mention the dessication of communities that had come together from different parts of the world, their single shared attribute being that they were evangelists of what you were selling. Clips of shows, such as The Simpsons, appearing on YouTube would be treated with similar disdain. So it shows how far we’ve come in a few years that this morning when Zeitgeist went onto YouTube he was greeted on the homepage with a sponsored link from Fox pointing him to the opening scenes of the latest Simpsons episode, before it aired. Definitely a move in the right direction.
At Cannes Lions tomorrow, Burberry’s Chief Creative Officer Christopher Bailey will ask “What if ads didn’t have to look or feel like ads?”. In a guest post, Chloé Hajnal-Corob writes about how luxury goods companies are seeking new and diverging paths in order to engage with their customers. Chloé spent time working at a fashion startup earlier in the year, assisting with the launch of a fashion hub for Vine videos, among other things. She is currently placed at Editd, a fashion data insight company.
This spring, the House of Dior descended upon Harrods in London, one of the world’s premier department stores, for their “So Dior” exhibition and café. Last month, for one week only, Hermès had their “Festival des Métiers”, at London’s Saatchi Gallery. These two events represent a recent trend for providing luxury experiences, and though they are markedly different in some ways, they share a common goal: to drive revenues via brand education.
The “So Dior” exhibition, café and pop-up boutique took over a large designated area of Harrods alongside their usual concessions. Their presence was felt throughout, and Harrods have described the takeover as “a luxury-charged adventure combining French Savoir Faire and British charm”, the premise of which is to showcase the brand’s relationship with the store, and Christian Dior’s personal affiliation with the capital. Zeitgeist and I paid a visit, after seeing the social media hype from opening night. The event did not disappoint. On arrival, we were offered a private tour of the exhibition. What followed was a complete education into the history, heritage and identity of the brand and designers (Christian Dior, as well as Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano and now, Raf Simons). The assiduousness and attention to detail demonstrated in the event were striking, and the quality of the experience was exceptional. It stands in particular favour given it was a free event, especially when compared with similar exhibitions such as the recent Valentino show at Somerset House, for which entrance was £12.50. We wondered if Dior and Harrods would set a precedent for luxury experiences where no fee is charged. Enter Hermès’s Festival des Metiers, which has been touring the world in a travelling circus of craftsmen, demonstrating their skills, and charging nothing for the privilege of seeing them. This harks back to how customers at high-end boutiques are treated, but without obvious intent to purchase. We are rewarded for our passion for the brand, not simply our contribution to sales.
What is the ROI for these free events then, when the cost of execution is so high? Both exhibitions come after a lengthy stream of brand “experiences” (as noted in a previous Zeitgeist article) that represent the latest luxury market strategy for driving revenue and footfall to retail spaces, in attempt to allay fears of a mass exodus of shoppers from the street to the website. However, Dior’s CEO, Christian Toledano reportedly told vogue.co.uk at the launch party of the event: “This isn’t a marketing tool… It’s a transmission of Couture”. But these are not mutually exclusive concepts; rather they are means to the same end, and arguably an education into the brand is simply the chosen method of marketing. Indeed, Hermès openly acknowledges the lucrative repercussions these luxury experiences have. An article in the FT cites that the event, in each city, draws around 30,000 visitors, which in turn increases footfall to brick and mortar stores. A twenty percent increase, to be precise, in the week following the festival in Seattle, Washington. In a far more low-key event than Dior, these are impressive figures, particularly given that no attempt at sales was made on the exhibition site. A bespoke, or even generic, selection of products on sale at the event would likely have been very popular.
Both events encouraged significant online chatter, though neither seems to have been particularly driven by the host brands. Dior at Harrods was littered with high impact branded totems, ripe for the social media picking, and as usual, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were filled with images and comments from the event, and now Vine, twitter’s 6-second video app, provided the ideal way to document the experiential nature of the event. It is interesting that Dior made no attempt at harnessing or leveraging the veritable mass of attention the event garnered. On investigation, I found only a limited amount of content around the event on Dior’s twitter feed and Facebook timeline. There was no official hashtag for the event and no evidence (that I could find) of any engagement with consumers who were talking about it. Hermès, though a far more low-key affair, “discreet to the point of invisible branding”, were no less well-represented in the social media space, but were almost equally poor at engineering and engaging with their online audience. The hashtag #festivaldesmetiers seems to have been widely adopted but it is completely unclear whether this was brand-driven, and Facebook interaction was limited to a single status update announcing the event. For brands that exert meticulous control over themselves in the physical space (something that was made patent in the exhibitions), it is strange that they are not attempting to implement this in the digital space, where barriers are borderless and the opportunity for damage is massive. This is a bold (perhaps naïve) move in the current climate, albeit that both events seem to have been highly successful.
It is somewhat ironic that Dior’s exhibition was held at Harrods – an obviously commercial venue, where special Dior products were available to buy – choosing to assert their mission as education rather than marketing. By contrast, Hermès chose an established art space to host their Festival des Metiers, albeit one that is often known for its consumer links, and have clearly acknowledged the potential of education as a means of marketing. Neither space is less appropriate then the other, but both are indicative of the kind of events hosted. Harrods, with its lavish window displays, reputation for luxury and labyrinthine layout, was apt for Dior’s fantastical and grandiose display, not to mention that it was intended to draw on the relationship between brand and department store. The Saatchi gallery’s minimal open space provided a neat backdrop for hosting “a rendez-vous with the Hermès craftspeople”, and apparently, sought to appeal to a younger demographic than perhaps the Hermès customer would ordinarily be. It is appropriate too, to present what can only be described as a fine art and craft, in an artistic space. It’s a notion that rival (and owner of Dior), LVMH, clearly thought worth cashing in on, since they have subsequently launched a similar initiative: the Journées Particulières, which this year will see it open 40 of its ateliers to the public for a weekend.
Both Dior and Hermès certainly made good attempts at getting people to engage physically (as well as virtually). The “So Dior” exhibition, and of course the café, were multi-sensorial. Beyond visual aesthetics, short films with headphones were provided, touch-sensitive technology was exploited and food inspired by Dior’s cookbook made for a wholly engrossing experience. Perfume was a key focus of the exhibition, explored from many different angles; not content with simply handing out the usual sticks of paper to smell, Dior and Harrods provided a telephone box (grey and white, in-keeping with brand décor, naturally) emitting one of Dior’s signature scents. Hermès was less immersive but more intimate; the possibility of viewing and interacting with those who create the product (and by extension the legacy), and even partaking in the sewing of scarves or ties, successfully created a feeling of exclusivity and privilege that the event no doubt strove for.
Toledano stated of the “So Dior” exhibition, “We need to explain why and how we do what we do. I want people to understand the passion, the innovation and our commitment to excellence.” In a similar vein, Guillaume de Seynes, great grandson of Emile Hermès explained: “We want to demonstrate that for us, craftsmanship is something that happens everyday.” Both brands sought to educate the consumer about themselves – Dior by making comment on the ideas and inspiration that produce the end product, and Hermès by demonstrating their commitment to the heritage of the brand by maintaining the quality of garments through skill of craftsmanship. Were they successful in their mission? Certainly; both provided real insight and inspiration. In doing so, Dior and Harrods, and Hermès’s Festival des Metiers, created an opportunity to become part of a legacy, and with this, the aspiration to turn something memorable into something wearable.
“Everything has become more experiential”
- Dante D’Angelo, brand and consumer development director at Valentino
It is an odd state of affairs indeed for the retail sector at the moment. On the one hand, consumers are flocking to digital devices like never before, particularly for their shopping. Conversely, this means that the physical experience of shopping becomes rarer, creating more opportunities for specialism. An article in the Financial Times a few weeks ago read as if a commercial plague had swept through the UK high street over the past few years. With 4,000 stores affected, 2012 was, according to data from the Centre for Retail Research, the “worst year since the start of the credit crisis in 2008″. Names of erstwhile stalwarts like Woolworth’s, Jessop’s, Peacocks and Clinton Cards have all fallen under the knife. As we wrote at the beginning of last month, what little salvation there is lies in embracing digital technologies.
The luxury sector however has its own special, gilt-edged cards to play. In St. Tropez, the Christian Dior boutique’s ample courtyard has recently been made use of with an all-day restaurant. Louis Vuitton have a cinema screening classic Italian films in their Rome boutique. It’s no wonder such brands have also branched into the hospitality sector, the former working with the St. Regis to develop branded rooms, the latter into full-scale hotel management. Ferragamo have been involved in the hotel sector for years. Two recent examples show how companies can extend the experience for visitors, and help drive revenue at the same time.
The auction house Sotheby’s will tomorrow auction a rather large collection of surrealist art. One of the few things that definitively puts it ahead of Christie’s is that it has its own cafe, which, last week and this week, is pushing the surrealism theme into its catering (see above menu). It’s a simple, creative idea that creates a cohesive brand, celebrates a big event, and ultimately hopes to drive revenue from peripheral streams around the auction. The RA’s current Manet exhibition is taking a leaf from this tactic, opening later but charging double the usual rates for a special experience, including a drink and a guide. The other interesting news of note was a new tactic being employed by the fashion company Valentino. Not content merely with having a major exhibition at London’s Somerset House, the label is also tinkering in an innovative way with its event structure. As detailed last week in Bloomberg Businessweek, Valentino is opening a new boutique in New York later this year, during which the typical glitterati will be in attendance. However, the new idea comes in the form of the company inviting prized customers to the opening for the chance to rub shoulders with said VIPs, for a steep price. Similarly, Gucci is offering its non-VIP customers tours of its Florence workshops for the first time.
Something that Zeitgeist has been noticing for a couple of years now, recently echoed by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) senior partner Jean-Marc Bellaiche, is the importance, particularly for those in their 20s – like Zeitgeist – that people place in defining themselves by what they’ve done rather than what they own: “In an era of over-consumption, people are realizing that there is more than just buying products… Buying experiences provides more pleasure and satisfaction”. On a macro level there is significant bifurcation in the retail market; not everyone will be able to afford in creating extraordinary experiences for their customers. A recent BCG report helps illustrate this, noting that while the apparel sector as a whole saw shareholder returns fall by 1.3% for the period 2007-2011, the top ten players produced a weighted average annual total shareholder return of 19%. Expect then for retailers – those that can – to increasingly provide exclusive experiences to their customers, beyond the celebrity, whether it be early product releases, tours, or events. Just don’t expect it to come without a pricetag.
It’s a common fallacy to think of a time before a change in status quo as somehow being magically problem-free. A Panglossian world where all was well and nothing needed to change, and wasn’t it a shame that it had to. Similarly, we cannot blithely consign the retail industry of the past to some glorious era when everything was perfect; far from it. The industry has been under continual evolution, with no absence of controversy on the way. It was therefore a timely reminder, as well as being a fascinating article in its own right, when the New York Times provided readers recently with a potted history and a gaze into the future of Manhattan department store stalwart, Barneys. Not only is their past one in which the original proprietor sought to undercut his own suit suppliers, creating a bootlegging economy by literally ripping out their labels and replacing them with his own, but it was also one where department stores served a very different purpose to what they do today. They had less direct competition, not least unforeseen competition in the form of shops without a physical presence. Moreover, today they are run in an extremely different way, with an arguably much healthier emphasis on revenue (though some might say this comes at the expense of a feeling of luxury, in a lobby now brimming with handbags and little breathing room). The problems and opportunities for Barneys could serve as an analogy for the industry of which it is a part.
Despite brief reprieves such as Black Friday (click on headline image for CNBC’s coverage), as well as the expected post-Christmas shopping frenzy, can one of the main problems affecting retail at the moment simply be that it is undergoing an industry-wide bout of creative destruction? Zeitgeist has written about the nature of creative destruction before, and whether or not that is to blame for retail’s woes, the sector is certainly in the doldrums. In the UK, retailers are expecting a “challenging” year ahead. Recent research from Deloitte shows 194 retailers fell into administration in 2012, compared with 183 in 2011 and 165 in 2010. So, unlike the general economy, which broadly can be said to be enjoying a sclerotic recovery of sorts, the state of retail is one of continuing decline. How did this happen, and what steps can be taken to address this?
Zeitgeist would argue that bricks and mortar stores are suffering in essence due to a greater amount of competition. By which, we do not just mean more retailers, on different platforms. Whether it be from other activities (e.g. gaming, whether MMOs like World of Warcraft or simpler social gaming like Angry Birds), or other avenues of shopping (i.e. e-commerce, which Morgan Stanley recently predicted would be a $1 trillion dollar market by 2016), there is less time to shop and more ways to do it. The idea of going to shop in a mall now – once a staple of American past-time – is a much rarer thing today. It would be naive to ignore global pressures from other suppliers and brands around the world as putting a competitive strain on domestic retailers too. Critically, and mostly due to social media, there are now so many more ways and places to reach a consumer that it is difficult for the actual sell to reach the consumer’s ears. This is in part because companies have had to extend their brand activity to such peripheries that the lifestyle angle (e.g. Nike Plus) supercedes the call-to-action, i.e. the ‘BUY ME’. The above video from McKinsey nicely illustrates all the ways that CMOs have to think about winning consumers over, which now extend far beyond the store.
If we look at the in-store experience for a moment without considering externalities, there is certainly opportunity that exists for the innovative retailer. Near the end of last year, the Financial Times published a very interesting case study on polo supplier La Martina. The company’s origins are in making quality polo equipment, from mallets to helmets and everything in between, for professional players. As they expanded – a couple of years ago becoming the principle sponsor of that melange of chic and chav, the Cartier tournament at Guards Polo Club – there came a point where the company had to decide whether it was going to be a mass-fashion brand, or remain something more select and exclusive. As the article in the FT quite rightly points out, “Moving further towards the fashion mainstream risked diluting the brand and exposing it to volatile consumer tastes.” The decision was made to seek what was known as ‘quality volume’. The company has ensured the number of distributors remains low. Zeitgeist would venture to say this doesn’t stop the clothing design itself straying from its somewhat more refined roots, with large logos and status-seeking colours and insignia. Financially though, sales are “growing more than 20% a year in Europe and Latin America”, which is perhaps what counts most currently.
In the higher world of luxury retail, Louis Vuitton is often at the forefront (not least because of its sustained and engaging digital work). While we’re focusing purely on retail environments though, it was interesting to note that the company recently set up shop (literally) on the left bank of Paris; a pop-up literary salon, to be precise. Such strokes of inspiration and innovation are not uncommon at Vuitton. They help show the brand in a new light, and, crucially, help leverage its provenance and differentiate it from its competition. Sadly, when Zeitgeist went to visit, there was a distinct feeling of disappointment that much more could have been done with the space, which, while nicely curated (see above), did little to sell the brand, particularly as literally nothing was for sale. The stand-out piece, an illustrated edition of Kerouac’s On the Road, by Ed Ruscha, Zeitgeist had seen around two years ago when it was on show at the Gagosian in London. Not every new idea works, but it is important that Louis Vuitton is always there at the forefront, trying and mostly succeeding.
So what ways are there that retailers should be innovating, perhaps beyond the store? One of the more infuriating things Zeitgeist hears constructed as a polemic is that of retail versus the smartphone. This is a very literal allusion, which NBC news were guilty of toward the end of last year. “Retail execs say they’re winning the battle versus smartphones”, the headline blared. What a more nuanced analysis of the situation would realise is that it is less a case of one versus the other, than one helping the other. The store and the phone are both trying to achieve the same things, namely, help the consumer and drive revenue for the company. Any retail strategy should avoid at all costs seeing these two as warring platforms, if only because it is mobile inevitably that will win. With much more sound thinking, eConsultancy recently published an article on the merits of providing in-store WiFi. At first this seems a risky proposition, especially if we are to follow NBC’s knee-jerk way of thinking, i.e. that mobile poses a distinct threat to a retailer’s revenue. The act of browsing in-store, then purchasing a product on a phone is known as showrooming, and, no doubt aided by the catchy name, its supposed threat has quickly made many a store manager nervous. However, as the eConsultancy article readily concedes, this trend is unavoidable, and it can either be ignored or embraced. Deloitte estimated in November that smartphones and tablets will yield almost $1bn in M-commerce revenues over the Christmas period in the UK, and influence in-store sales with a considerably larger value. That same month in the US, Bain & Co. estimated that “digital will influence more than 50% of all holiday retail sales, or about $400 billion”. Those retailers who are going to succeed are the ones who will embrace mobile, digital and their opportunities. eConsultancy offer,
“For example, they could prompt customers to visit web pages with reviews of the products they are considering in store. This could be a powerful driver of sales… WiFi in store also provides a way to capture customer details and target them with offers. In fact, many customers would be willing to receive some offers in return for the convenience of accessing a decent wi-fi network. Tesco recently introduced this in its larger stores… 74% of respondents would be happy for a retailer to send a text or email with promotions while they’re using in-store WiFi.”
These kind of features all speak more broadly to improving and simplifying the in-store experience. They also illustrate a trend in the blending between the virtual and physical retail spaces. Major retailers, not just in luxury, are leading the way in this. Walmart hopes to generate $9bn in digital sales by the end of its next fiscal year. CEO Mike Duke told Fast Company, “The way our customers shop in an increasingly interconnected world is changing”. This interconnectedness is not new, but it is accelerating, and the mainstream arrival of 4G will only help spur it on further. The company is soon to launch a food subscription service, pairing registrants with gourmet, organic, ethnic foods, spear-headed by @WalmartLabs, which is also launching a Facebook gifting service. At the same time, it must be said the company is hedging its bets, continuing with the questionable strategy of building more ‘Supercenters’, the first of which, at the time a revolutionary concept, they opened in 1988.
One interesting development has been the arrival of stores previously restricted to being online into the high street, something which Zeitgeist noted last year. This trend has continued, with eBay recently opening a pop-up store in London’s Covent Garden. These examples are little more than gimmicks though, serving only to remind consumers of the brands’ online presence. Amazon are considering a much bolder move, that of creating permanent physical retail locations, if, as CEO Jeff Bezos says, they can come up with a “truly differentiated idea”. That idea and plan would be anathema to those at Walmart, Target et al., who see Amazon as enough of a competitor as it is, especially with their recent purchase of diapers.com and zappos.com. It serves to illustrate why Walmart’s digital strategies are being taken so seriously internally and invested in so heavily. Amazon though has its own reasons for concern. Earlier in the article we referenced the influence of global pressures on retailers. Amazon is by no means immune to this. Chinese online retailer Tmall will overtake Amazon in sales to become the world’s largest internet retailer by 2016, when Tmall’s sales are projected to hit $100 billion that year, compared to $94 billion for Amazon. The linked article illustrates a divide in the purpose of retail platforms. While Amazon is easy-to-use, engaging and aesthetically pleasing, a Chinese alternative like Taobao is much more bare-bones. As the person interviewed for the article says, “It’s more about pricing – it’s much cheaper. It’s not about how great the experience is. Amazon has a much better experience I guess – but the prices are better on Taobao.”
So how can we make for a more flexible shopping experience? One which perhaps recognises the need in some users to be demanding a sumptuous retail experience, and in others the need for a quick, frugal bargain? Some permutations are beginning to be analysed, and offered. Some of these permutations are being met with caution by media and shoppers. This month, the Wall Street Journal reported that retailer Staples has developed a complex pricing strategy online. Specifically, the WSJ found, it raises prices more than 86% of the time when it finds the online shopper has a physical Staples store nearby. Similar such permutations in other areas are now eminently possible, thanks in no small part to the rise of so-called Big Data. Though the Staples price fluctuations were treated with controversy at the WSJ, they do point to a more realistic supply-and-demand infrastructure, which could really fall under the umbrella of consumer ‘fairness’, that mythical goal for which retailers strive. Furthemore, being able to access CRM data and attune communications programmes to people in specific geographical areas might enable better and more efficient targeting. Digital also allows for a far more immersive experience on the consumer side. ASOS illustrate this particularly well with their click-to-buy videos.
As the Boston Consulting Group point out in a recent report, with the understated title ‘Digital’s Disruption of Consumer Goods and Retail’, “the first few waves of the digital revolution have upended the retail industry. The coming changes promise even more turmoil”. This turmoil also presents problems and opportunities for the marketing of retail services, which must be subject to just as much change. If we look at the print industry, also comparatively shaken by digital disruption, it is interesting to note the way in which the very nature of it has had to change, as well as the way its benefits are communicated. It is essential that retailers not see the havoc being waged on their businesses as an opportunity to ‘stick to what they do best’ and bury their head in the sand. This is the time for them to drive innovation, yes at the risk of an unambitious quarterly statement, and embrace digital and specifically M-commerce. What makes this easy for those companies that have so far resisted the call is that there is ample evidence of retailers big and small, value-oriented to luxury-minded, who have already embraced these new ideas and platforms. Their successes and failures serve as great templates for future executions. And who knows, the state of retail might not be such a bad one to live in after all. Until the next revolution…
“If all signs are autonomous and refer only to one another, it must seem to follow that no image is truer or deeper than the next, and that the artist is absolved from his or her struggle for authenticity.”- Robert Hughes, 1989
Tom Wolfe, one of America’s greatest living writers, recently had his latest work, Back to Blood, excerpted in Vanity Fair. In it, the author excoriates the miasma of power, money, influence and ignorance that surrounds the contemporary art market. Wolfe describes the billionaires descending on Art Basel Miami as a “raveling, wrestling swarm of maggots”. What has become of art, its pursuit and its collection?
The pursuit of excellence can sometimes can be a quixotic quest, all the more so when dealing with something as ephemeral as art, and particularly with the contemporary art market today. But how does excellence, or authenticity, in art cope with a nexus of questionable experts and highly liquid but bifurcating market, in a world where promotion is all?
Part of this problem resides in the question of expertise, its influence and its value. If one thinks of artists in the period of the Italian Renaissance, the quality of the fresco or sculpture is mostly self-evident in the verisimilitude of the work. Moreover, the media worked with often necessarily involved painstaking, long-term commitment and toil. What artists like Marcel Duchamp began and Andy Warhol perfected was the thought that works of art should be valued by their conceptualism. In other words, not necessarily how much time or effort was put into making an object, or whether it was any “good”, aesthetically speaking, but with more emphasis on the power of the underlying idea – representation – behind the work. “Art can be expressed purely as a thought or action”, wrote the FT recently. This postmodern concept has not evolved since the time of Warhol. Without being able to critique the amount of expertise in the manufacturing of an object, it becomes harder to address the worth of an object, unless you are in the presence of a designated ‘expert’. The situation risks creating an echo chamber of unedifying art that speaks to no-one and is so self-reflexive it loses all meaning. It also allows for an artificial inflation of prices, creating a false market that shuts out all but the ultra-rich, whose tiny but influential numbers can significantly skew the market. One need only look at how much the Chinese taste for wine is influencing global production to see such an instance in action.
Such points were neatly summed up recently by the prestigious art critic and lecturer Dave Hickey, when he announced he was leaving the art world:
Writers, dealers, curators, advisers have become “a courtier class – intellectual headwaiters to very rich people”. For this 0.01%, “art is cheaper than it’s ever been” but “nobody cares if it’s any good, and everybody hates it when something’s really great”
The ‘experts’ who assign value to contemporary art objects have come full circle. Rightly recognising that there is art worth shouting about beyond an arbitrary, Westernised canon, it has now gone too far in the other direction. As a brilliant FT article on the subject recently pointed out, “The market loves theory because it spares the need for discrimination.” Making matters worse, the article quotes gallerist David Zwirner lamenting, “connoisseurship is really not valued, sometimes it is even looked down upon”. All of which leads to a highly fragile concentration of expertise and financial capital sitting with a select few. If we look again at the wine industry, American wine critic Robert Parker was at one time so influential that growers in France began changing their product purely to suit his taste so as to earn a higher rating on his guide. Zeitgeist asked art critic Brian Sewell at a debate earlier this year whether influential patrons such as Charles Saatchi and Francois-Henri Pinault were playing a similar role in the contemporary art world; shifting value perceptions of art and artists according to their personal whim. It helps little when major collectors like Frank Cohen admit publicly that they have “bought a load of bullshit”. The quotation may sound flippant, but it underscores the massive influence the bullshit they have bought has on the broader prices in the art market.
Art adviser Lisa Schiff spoke openly about this recently to Forbes magazine, saying she was “worried that there are a lot of young artists that could really take a nosedive”.This influence is being felt keenly right now with small but highly influential – and influenced – groups of buyers in Russia, Brazil and China. But as the BRIC regions continue to stall, what will happen to arbitrarily in-demand art and artists if these markets suffer further losses or even a sudden shock? Such problems are further compounded by the massive rise and fear of litigation, as previous, bona fide experts able to certify works as being genuine are being scared away by the threat of legal action.
So there’s an expertise fallacy here, one which is not restricted to the world of art. Elsewhere, marketing, something that admittedly has always been part of the selling of art to an extent, is becoming increasingly essential for a successful artist or studio. The Montoya exhibition currently on at The Halcyon Gallery in London represents the epitome of this new trend. Full-page ads in The Economist and 30-second spots on CNBC (see beginning of article) are being taken out for the exhibition, placed seemingly without irony at the feet of the very audience the art seems to be mocking, or at least parodying. It is the increasing lack of ironic awareness that creates an emptiness in the purchase and reputation of some of today’s bigger artists, including Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Takashi Murakami. Interestingly, the latter two have both seen stratospheric success that goes beyond the confines of the art world, helped in part by collaborations with luxury goods company Louis Vuitton.
The marketing of art is at its most visible at contemporary art fairs – of which there are now more than 200 annually around the world – mentioned earlier as a subject of Tom Wolfe’s new work. Frieze, which takes place annually in London, is one of the most well-known. It was intriguing to see that this year saw the debut of Frieze Masters, which some saw as an attempt to breathe new life into an event that had begun to lose its ability to surprise. It was also seen as a deliberate attempt to focus attention on more established names in order to avoid some of the volatility the market has seen with newer, less-known artists. So the market isn’t so insular that it doesn’t recognise the need for significant change.
Collecting art is something that few of us can turn into a committed past-time. Moreover, the vagaries of art over the past ten years-plus have been such that only a select few would be able to decipher the worth of a current artist’s produce. The value of their art has been dulled by demographic shifts and concentrations, by overly-excessive marketing tactics and by a reduction and muddling of the nature of what it means to be an expert. Regulation of the sector seems overdue, as conflicts of interest and an oligopolistic marketplace seem to cry out for legal oversight. Some of these problems are not restricted to the art world and it will be interesting to see if a paradigm shift sits on the horizon. The Internet is providing some antidote to this. Recent online-only auctions by Christies – one of ArtInfo’s top ten stories that moved the art market in 2012 – have made the process of bidding for items extremely popular, and small art-sellers like Exhibition A are illustrating there is room for innovation in the industry. Is the art market in an aesthetic and financial bubble, and will it burst? Time will tell.
Whither the sage of a shop assistant? At a time when we as consumers have access to all the information we could want about a brand and its products via our smartphones, of what use is it to have someone tell me something that I am unlikely to take at face value, working as they are for said brand? Why even bother being in the store at all when I can be buying my item at home? The luxury goods company PPR (owners of Gucci, Saint Laurent Paris, Balenciaga et al.) could be said to have recently adopted a similar mindset. A new joint venture with e-tailer Yoox is sure to shake things up. Honcho Francois-Henri Pinault said recently, “While the whole industry has been resisting e-commerce for the last 15 years it’s now realising it’s inescapable”.
Not everyone believes such a move is inevitable. Chanel is steadfastly refusing to sell its principle collections – from ready to wear to handbags – online for the foreseeable future, according to a recent interview with the CEO. While this might strike some as akin to sticking one’s head in the sand, the reasoning the company gives centres around the unique experience of going into a store to buy a product, rather than sitting at home in one’s pajamas. From a strategic point of view, the idea is sound. Reducing avenues of purchase encourages a scarcity factor that high-end fashion must rely on. It also ensures that the products are seen in the best light possible, incredibly important when justifying such a premium. It’s interesting to note that though the thinking may be sound, it is certainly not appropriate for every luxury brand to be resisting the lures of online shopping in such a dramatic way. Chanel is – and always will be, in multiple ways – a very special company, an exceptional brand, in the literal sense. Like Apple though, it’s practices are to be emulated with caution, as a great paper by McKinsey Quarterly highlights. “Outliers are exactly that…”, the report states.
But what is the state of stores, and how important is service in these places? For luxury, we can assume a high priority of the physical shopping experience is connected to the person assisting you. Recent experiences at two different luxury goods stores highlighted jarring differences, monumentally affecting the way Zetigeist felt about the brand. Last month in New York, Zeitgeist visited Tiffany & Co. to find a Christening present. Without turning this article into a rambling letter of complaint, the section Zeitgeist found itself in was woefully understaffed, and when help was available, information turned out to be incorrect and, most importantly, not dispensed as if it were important to them. Zeitgeist left without buying anything. The experience was deflating enough to mention to the manager en route to leaving the store. Returning at the weekend to try again, the experience had not much improved. The item needed to be engraved. Taking it into one of the London stores upon returning home meant being greeted with the same mediocre level of service. No passion, no interest. This would be perfectly acceptable for somewhere such as Ernest Jones, but Tiffany is a massively, massively powerful brand. For many it is incredibly evocative, and speaks to nostalgia and deep-seated emotions with very personal connections. There is a dream that is Tiffany, that is replicated extremely well in their above-the-line marketing. It is completely absent in its physical embodiment, the store. Cartier, by comparison, manage to present a fantastical vision of their brand, while also maintaining a consistently excellent level of service in-store that brings cohesion to the image it evinces.
Louis Vuitton could not have presented a starker contrast to Tiffany. The brand had one brief flirtation with TV ads about four years ago. While also a powerful brand, it perhaps could not be said to elicit such powerful emotions as Tiffany, purely on the basis that Tiffany purchases might often be assumed to be gifts. Purchasing what is surely one of the cheapest things in the store, Zeitgeist was delighted to be led through the purchase process by an exceedingly-well trained woman, who was happy to go over the minutiae of the purchase, and knew answers to arcane questions when asked. It made the experience extremely pleasurable. Remarkably, the store went a step further, sending Zeitgeist a random act of kindness and imploring to get in touch if further assistance was required.
That kind of experience simply cannot be replicated online. If Amazon were to start selling Prada clothing anytime soon, the dissonance would be powerful. So while the luxury industry, and many in the retail sector at large, struggle with the idea of the shopper journey online, moreover how and where that connects with the physical journey, we cannot forget basics. The importance of good training, especially for demanding customer who are expecting a premium experience, cannot be overstated. Though smartphones and tablets may hold the data, it must be remembered that the purchase of a luxury product is often an irrational experience. The service and assistance received during purchase consideration may be an irrational influence, but it is an immensely powerful one. If a brand talks the talk, it must walk the walk, or face the consequences of failing to live up to its own promises.
Luxury brands have found it hard to come to terms with the shift in consumer shopping habits from retail to online. For several years they have dipped their toes in the water of digital, but with little commitment and much hesitation (until recently). This is understandable. Often for luxury products, the justification for higher prices is only evident upon seeing the item in real life, or it can sometimes be intangible. These assets are hard to replicate when seen on a computer screen. A store’s retail environment allows the company to control every aspect of the brand experience. Someone checking out the Louis Vuitton website could be using a slow computer in an old browser; the experience will suffer, and there is nothing the brand can do about it. Much more sensible then to invest in concept stores, such as the recent one in Selfridges. But there needs to be a focus still about managing the brand and courting attention beyond the four walls of the shop.
So it should be of little surprise to see that recently luxury has been looking to broaden its horizons in the physical space, aiming to brand experiences that seamlessly fit into the lifestyle that they think is associated with their brand. This was evident in no small part when Zeitgeist took a trip recently to St. Tropez. Before even entering the town, visitors were greeted with the sight of mega-yachts and enormous Gin Palaces, and – on one of the days Zeitgeist visited – evidence of the relatively recent collaboration between Gucci and Riva (see above picture). Such a partnership probably helps the former more than the latter. It certainly helps validate the clothing company’s brand, which sometimes fails to leverage its relatively strong heritage. Walking away the port – past the recycling collections strewn with empty bottles that had once contained vintage wine and champagne – toward the famous Place des Lices brings you face-to-face with the hotel White 1921. This is one of LVMH’s newest incarnations, an eight-room hotel.
It was a beautiful hotel to behold, and had just opened the week Zeitgeist was visiting. Though much in need of a lunchtime glass of champagne – the brand here makes the most of its ownership of several champagne labels – the dining area was sadly not open until the evening. White 1921 is not alone as a recent example of hospitality being managed by a luxury brand. LVMH’s first such hotel was back in 2010 in Courchevel, named Cheval Blanc. More recently, Bulgari have launched their own hotel in London’s Knightsbridge area, close to the Mandarin Oriental hotel. The St. Regis hotel in New York now has a small collection of fashion-related suites, including the Dior Suite. All this is about embracing a certain idea, a crystallising of what it means to be living a particular lifestyle. The question for LVMH begins to arise as to whether, strategically speaking, having one arm of your company (Dior in this case) having a room owned by St. Regis creates any significant competition between the hotels you are opening elsewhere in the world. The more they open, and the more branded suites appear under competitor’s names, the stickier this situation could get.
Releasing products that compete for the same consumer type is never a good idea, and is a mistake General Motors made. A very good essay on this is available in Richard Rumelt’s ‘Good Strategy / Bad Strategy’. The market is becoming crowded. Hermès has side-stepped this by designing luxury apartments in Singapore. Some companies have thought at a more granular, perhaps relevant, level. Trunk-maker Moynat have teamed up with the famous Le Meurice hotel in Paris by providing French chef Yannick Alléno with a roll-in trunk so he could cook breakfast for guests in the comfort of their own room. It’s an inspired idea that retains the original idea of what makes the brand special and heightens it by creating a unique experience for the consumer. The New York Times reports,
The chef’s breakfast trunk is genuinely designed to travel, its porcelain plates held upright with leather straps and its cutlery in drawers. Mr. Alléno already has plans to send it to hotels where he has connections, first in Dubai in September, then to Courchevel in the ski season and on to Marrakech. At each destination, he will make a personal appearance and demonstration.
Similarly, Prada has thought about how best to showcase its ready-to-wear line, in this case including its clothing in the sumptuous film The Great Gatsby, due out next summer. The highlight of Zeitgeist’s time in St. Tropez was in visiting one particular boutique. Christian Dior, while not be a brand one immediately associates with good food, featured an open courtyard that hosted a cafe dedicated to indulgent delights. Mr Alleno was also responsible for the food here. It was an impressive exercise in brand management… and excellent profiteroles.
Zeitgeist has written before about the luxury goods company Yves Saint Laurent. Then-creative director Stefano Pilati opined, “[I]t’s such a contradiction, because we want to be luxurious and have 300 shops all around the world, but you can’t be luxurious with 300 shops around the world”. It’s always difficult to introduce dramatic innovation to a company that conversely prides itself on provenance and tradition. In trying to adhere to past methods, what starts out as a respectful outlook can lead to stagnation. It was evidently with this in mind that incoming designer for YSL, Hedi Slimane, has decided not only to personally redesign all retail environments – as he did at his last post at Dior Homme – but also to change the name of the brand itself, to Saint Laurent Paris.
It is not the first time a luxury label has grappled with a name change. “Gianni Versace” was similarly shortened some years ago to “Versace”; more recently Dolce & Gabbana’s more affordable “D&G” brand, announced it is to be shuttered due to consumer confusion over nomenclature. YSL’s name change is actually a return to tradition of course, as the brand used to be known as Saint Laurent Paris. This news was overlooked though on Twitter, where a lot of the knee-jerk reactions to the news were far from positive. The move will allow Slimane to stamp a real sense of authority on the brand, much as he did while at Dior, where many objective observers rightly claim he revolutionised contemporary menswear.
Most importantly though, the renaming should help move the brand away from the vestiges of any remaining cheap associations (evinced by the above person wearing a YSL polo shirt). In the 1980s, the company sold licenses to use its name to over 200 different companies, which led to poor-quality clothing being produced under the YSL marque, and a significant erosion of brand equity. A similar situation befell ’70s doyen Halston. Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent Paris has the opportunity to breathe new life into the company, while still maintaining a distinct sense of style that the eponymous designer would have been proud of.