By approaching brand building like the stages of a love story, each extract from Philippe Mihailovich’s forthcoming book argues that luxury branding is more about human relationships, passion, desire, love, trust, family, kinship, honour and heritage than the mass market theories often used by companies today. The third in his monthly series tackles savoir-faire, métiers d’art and artist collaborations.
The first two steps highlighted the importance of (product) love at first sight, as well as your brand having a face and a place. So now we, your potential customers, now know something about your brand, what you do, who introduced you, where you are from. We’ve been seduced. We like what we see, or what we’ve heard so far, but you’d like us to make a commitment of a sort i.e. buy your offer. We suspect that you don’t only want a ‘one night stand’ and would prefer to build a sustainable relationship with us. If we are buying as a gift, we may be linking you to someone dear to us. Let us know more about your heritage and what makes you more suitable than others. As luxury is rarely a rational purchase, engage us both rationally and emotionally.
On the rational level where you are from / born (made in) or where you live (based in) could convince us more. Champagne must derive from the Champagne region but a perfume may have more influence linked to Paris than Grasse. The heritage brand advantage is that they have a history we can check on if we do not know it already. For a new brand, we may wish to know where its creator worked previously. An authentic luxury brand need have a heritage of integrity with true roots. We don’t want to find that you deceived us. Your roots can begin today. ‘Since 2010’ can be as interesting as ‘Since 1809’ but new customers may feel more secure with established brands. Every new offer introduced should support a brand’s expertise in the category. Without real roots (authenticity in the category) the brand remains vulnerable.
The French rarely disassociate the past from the present. Everything is built on layers of things that existed before. New technologies are adapted to old mentalities and the old mentalities endure. They still produce blue cheese like Roquefort according to a technique dating back twelve centuries and can only be produced in caves from the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon as it is aged using a bacteria that reproduces there, so it can only earn the right to be called Roquefort if it meets certain specific conditions including being derived from one of the 2500 sheep within the 100 mile radius area and so on. These restrictions often add to the value of the brand story and tend to give farmers price protection beyond any fair trade claim however their winemakers often suffer the downside of territorial rigidity. Should they have a bad season in their region they cannot purchase good crops from other regions and must live with what nature has provided.
The roots of the brand form the foundation of the brand’s DNA. It cannot be simplistic storytelling. It’s about real substance. We’d rather hear the truth about the homeless man making bags from discarded Hermès materials than to hear a marketing theme. The disadvantage for many old, authentic luxury brands today is that their heritage has been forgotten, or their owners have forgotten to remind us. Don’t assume that if your brand has a hundred year existence we will know its story. The less it communicates, the less we can bond to it – just as in human relationships.
Mining the Brand
Architect Peter Marino, before designing Chanel’s Tokyo store not only delved into the brand’s archives, he visited all the places where she had lived. This technique, LVMH terms ‘mining the brand’. Find out what the brand’s DNA really was during the founder’s life. A rich brand has a rich heritage. How much better to have a brand based on a real person than a fictional concept story with, say, a Polo theme? There was no shortage of depth in Chanel’s history for Lagerfeld to work on as a foundation with which to revive the brand. He represents her soul and models represent her audacity. She still feels alive. It’s a great case of tradition inspiring trend. Some feel it’s only really authentic when the Name is still at the helm, especially if the Name is still alive. Kenzo, Margiela, Helmut Lang, Mugler, Ungaro, and others face this dilemma. Their roots become fragile unless their Name is supportive of the successor.
In luxury we have become accustomed to hearing comparisons to high-end artists for creators in the decorative arts. Without doubt, to laymen, the high technical skills coupled with a strong sense of aesthetic lead them to such conclusions however high art is not simply decorative, it has depth and conceptual meaning. “I don’t go around calling myself an artist. If anything, I’m a whore. I go wherever they pay me,” says Lagerfeld. In essence, design is about that. Lagerfeld brings vision, concept, sketches and artistic direction based on the brand’s personality, as he sees it, at a certain point of time. The highly skilled craftspeople that embody the knowledge of over 50 years of French ‘savoir faire’ are the ones who will ensure that Karl’s vision is realised to the highest level of quality. As a result of the maison’s dependence on the few remaining ‘Ateliers d’art’ in France (workshops offering high levels of creativity and craftsmanship – embroidery, costume jewellery, millinery, feather-making, silvermithing, and boot-making – used almost purely for image – more as an art than as an income generator and a rare and expensive activity that adds to the aura of the brand), Chanel began to acquire the best of them in 2002.
Many of these ‘Atelier d’art’ houses were established in the age of couture, the 1860’s. They represent the essence of France’s famous haute couture ‘savoire faire’. It comes as no surprise that Chanel chose to acquire them. Only the best creators are considered capable of producing haute couture, not any fashion designer can do so. Working with them therefore is the ultimate accolade for a creator. In 2007, Chanel staged the Métiers d’Art collection “in honour of the couture ateliers that the event celebrates”. The house has clearly understood the need to show that they guard the most precious assets of French fashion – its savoir-faire. No fashion house in the world can make such a claim. “There’s a real knowledge of clothing here and a very high level of finishers”, admits Peter Copping, a New Yorker who came to Paris with Marc Jacobs to create the Vuitton fashion line. “We don’t get the same quality in New York, maybe in the 50’s we did. It’s pushed our standards up by working here.” The French Ministry of Culture takes this knowledge very seriously indeed. In 2006 it awarded the “Chevaliers des Arts et des Lettres” distinction to 4 craftsmen and granted four artisans the honorary title of “Maître d’Art”. Paradoxically, thanks to the growth of the big luxury houses in France, we are very likely to see a massive return to the ateliers and the emergence of more of them because not only do the grand maisons need them, the bespoke independents needs them too.
There are clear differences between the terms ‘artist’ and ‘artisan’. The artisan produces something with a utilitarian purpose. We can argue that that Michaelangelo is therefore an artisan because not only does his work serve the function of illustrating Biblical stories, but like a designer, he was commissioned by a patron, the Catholic church. Today this role too has been filled by luxury brands. They too tell their stories through art, notably art, design and architecture. Luxury brands have to continually add value and raise the bar. How much greater value can they add than to add the personal touch of an established artist who’s work can sells for millions? Imagine the value of a Vuitton bag hand-painted by an artist with the stature of Picasso? The world’s biggest luxury brands are now working more and more with artists, not only fine artists, but all sorts of creatives. Vuitton’s collaboration with Takashi Murakami, which started in mid-2002, has already become mythical and had added a new heritage to the brand.
An artist is normally viewed as a free-sprit creating something that he freely wishes to express. A luxury product then cannot be considered art because it serves a purpose. Luxury aspires to come as close to ‘art’ as it possibly can – art that functions – meaning that the more human contact you can bring to product, the better. The more freedom the creator has, the more passion they will put into the work and the more we will feel their personal touch. Its not just the creator who is intuitive, clients are too. “When a designer is just reinterpreting old stories he is not a createur”, says L’Eclaireur’s Armand Hadid,“ a createur is a visionaire!” Creativity and vision is a key reputation-building root for a brand. Clients can feel when you are creating just to make money.
Authenticity gives truth to the meaning of the brand. This authenticity could have its roots in know-how or simply in ideology. Anything that does not feel real threatens the brand’s authenticity. The true luxury connoisseur does not like replicas. No replica art on hotel walls, no replica furniture. Rather a real, hand-made-by-anyone than a replica of a masterpiece. Art from a local school may be more appreciated than a cheesy replica print in a fake vintage frame. We feel the same way about people. We can’t feel warmth from insincere staff. We prefer kindness above service, true knowledge and passion above robotic rehearsed lines. “Made by hand” always feels better than mechanised production. A personal touch feels real, in cultural terms. We want you to be real and authentic, remaining true to certain values, and standing for something. Be transparent and honest – as we would expect a person with true integrity to do. We want to believe in you.