Mock Minimalism: Why Bother?


Helene Le Blanc | April 10, 2010

It's not only design that suffers when retailers pressure brands to lower prices

It’s not only design that suffers when retailers pressure brands to lower prices

LONDON – To say that the financial crisis and ensuing recession have been harsh on the luxury industry would be an understatement. Although no sector was spared, the impact has been particularly painful on fashion houses and luxury retailers, two sectors whose fortunes have long been closely intertwined. Understandably, the first priority has been to entice consumers to start spending again.

Many upscale retailers, particularly in the US, have identified pricing as their strategy of choice: make designers bring price points down and newly cost-conscious customers will return to the fold. Under the current circumstances, who could possibly fault luxury retailers for fighting tooth and nail to bring hesitant customers back to their stores or for enlisting the help of the brands they carry?

According to figures released in January, the strategy may not be without merit – Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus all reported stronger than expected sales. On the face of it at least, the strategy seems to be bearing fruit. But what is in the best short-term interest of a retailer isn’t necessarily in the best interest of luxury brands (or consumers) and herein lies the trouble for many designers. Design can suffer and, as a result, so too can the brand.

Pricing, especially in the luxury sector, has always been tricky. There are only so many ways to lower costs while maintaining the standards of quality and prestige inherent to a brand’s image. So, when a retailer asks luxury shoe tsar Manolo Blahnik to create lower priced versions of his famous footwear or pressures Oscar de la Renta, whose dresses cost in the neighbourhood of $5,000, to produce versions that sell for one third the price, it obviously poses risks to the brand’s status and consumer confidence.

While simplified designs, plainer materials and fewer embellishments may indeed lower the price tag, paring down a garment’s design doesn’t necessarily achieve a desirable product. Unless minimalism already forms part of a brand’s DNA, a brand known for lavish detail or elaborate designs that suddenly shifts to a pared-down aesthetic may end up looking like it is lacking creativity or direction, rather than making an aesthetic statement. Worst still, core customers may come to view the shift as little more than a cynical business move – hardly the message a brand wants to send customers in the best of times, let alone when it is desperately trying to woo them back to the tills.

Minimalism involves considerably more than meets the eye especially as it applies to luxury apparel and accessories. Consider for instance the recent offerings of Phoebe Philo at the newly revamped Celine label or those of Raf Simons at Jil Sander. Both designers are known for their mastery of strict lines and clean shapes that belie rigorous cut and construction. Philo’s hugely popular cotton poacher jacket from the Celine pre-spring 2010 collection, for example, may not look all that different from its mid-market or high street rivals from afar but pick it up and you are immediately struck by the difference. Examine it closely and every detail that goes into the jacket’s spare design reveals the intricacy of its construction from the weight and texture of the fabric to the shape of the shoulder. There in a nutshell lies the essence of a minimalist luxury garment and any reasonably seasoned luxury consumer will notice the difference immediately.

Luxury apparel and accessories need to look and feel noticeably superior to rival products by mid-market and high street brands. Otherwise, a luxury consumer now accustomed to routinely mixing high and low is very likely to ask themselves: "Why bother?” In other words, simplifying designs may in fact make luxury apparel less appealing to affluent consumers, not more, despite the reduced purchase price. When you have a well-made product at an even lower price-point without a compelling design incentive, it makes it that much more difficult to justify the watered-down luxury version.

In the long run, modern luxury can only survive if it offers unparalleled creativity or cutting-edge innovation, not by flirting dangerously with the middle ground, a terrain already occupied by brands who have long mastered the art of cutting corners. Luxury brands should therefore be wary of efforts to enlist them in strategies that compromise design in the name of cutting costs. Once the dust settles, the survivors will be those brands that still stand for aesthetic excellence, quality, prestige and integrity – not those who bargained away their souls for a lower retail price tag.

Helene Le Blanc