By approaching brand building like the stages of a love story, Philippe Mihailovich argues in his forthcoming book that luxury branding is more about human relationships – passion, desire, love, and trust than the mass market theories often used by companies today. The eighth in his monthly series covers aspects of aspiration.

Consuming passions

I want you because I want you. I want it because I want it. Desire is not rational, neither is luxury. It integrates irrationality with wants and dreams relative to a person’s aspirations or motivations. Is the luxury a gift to oneself or to another? The client buying an engagement ring is less likely to desire the ring over the person he is buying it for. A bride arranged by parents is a more rational choice than the bride chosen by a love-smitten suitor. Gift giving between Kings were often tokens of goodwill with a touch of showing off i.e “here’s what my people are able to make”. Motivations vary greatly by person as well as by culture.

Is the motivation one of self-gratification, generosity or greed, wanting to possess something unique and rare, or even taking the life of a rare animal? Not all motivations are noble. Morality plays a huge role in luxury. If all animal species were protected, many luxury brands would not be in business. How far are we prepared to go to appeal to our potential client?

Before the advent of Pret-a-Porter when ‘designer’ fashion became more accessible it had mostly been an attitude of, “this is what our creator makes. Either you want it or you don’t”. The luxury marques would not dream of adapting for each country. With the growth of wealth in the new world they have been forced to rethink.

When Louis Vuitton chose Marc Jacobs to lead it into the fashion arena, it was undoubtedly a very calculated decision. Yes, he was already considered a creative genius in America and was recommended by American Vogue’s Anna Wintour, but his appointment by the infamous French maison was certain to create top news across the USA. The appointment of a French designer would not have. LV won immediate love from east to west coast without advertising. Marc’s appointment of Japanese artist, Takashi Murikami to update the outdated LV bag collection had the same effect in Japan.

Such appointments carry a “we love you, you love us” message.
The result was a striking, colourful collection that was extremely well received in Japan as well as elsewhere. Desire for Vuitton bags accelerated. Newsworthy? Yes. Bonding and adapting for foreign countries? Yes, and as a special bonus, we find the griffe of Vuitton combined with the griffe of Jacobs, combined with the griffe of the artist resulting in collective super-griffe package leading to unprecedented desire from the affluent Japanese.

I have to have you

What do creators put into that ‘have-to-have’ bag? We cannot fall in love if there is nothing to evoke our emotions. Love comes when we least expect. Desire has to evoke the feelings of love and of urgency to create the need for spontaneous action.

Connecting is a two-way process and the clients in Europe have very different wants and needs to those in Asia. In “the Cult of the Luxury Brand” (1), authors Chandra and Husband go as far as to explain how each country in Asia is at a different ‘stage of luxe evolution’, for instance in Japan the ‘have-to have’ is more about ‘fitting in’ with a social circle than with ‘showing off’. Not all are looking for the same things and as such, each brand finds different ways to adapt. At the time of their book’s publication, Japan was leading the way and today is considered to be ahead of the rest of the world in terms of quality standards and demands. “Recognising this, Louis Vuitton upped its already high quality-control standards for Japanese consumers and found ways to increase perceptions of durability,” they claim.

Bearing in mind that not all markets are in the same stages of collective development, it important to monitor trends in the collective consciousness and to identify which stage fits the core of your brand best. It can be useful to turn to Maslow’s tried and tested Hierarchy of Needs to see how it may fit the stages of ‘luxe evolution’ model.


On a global stage it would seem that Old Europe has always been ahead in connoisseurship followed by the USA, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore with South Korea and Taiwan not far behind but still aspiring to brands that will make them look rich – just as in relationships where some seek partners with the fame or wealth to provide them with the status and lifestyle that they seek, no matter that the person lacks in education, culture, integrity or honesty – anything to get away from a background of poverty and wanting.

Perhaps the luxury brand may choose to offer its most sophisticated products to the mature markets and a less sophisticated mix to the emerging markets. “Asian people are now starting to see the differences between the brands. In China, its no more ‘show-off’, its very young, so simple messages need to be delivered”, Reflexgroup’s CEO Luc Besnier tells me. " Dom Perignon means something to the French, something else to the Americans and another thing to Asian people. So when we are dealing with a category-educated group, we have to be subtle and add some other things such as an experience around the champagne, and so on. For a less knowledgeable group, we have to go with the more simplistic approach of ‘taste my champagne, its amazingly good’, so our approach to promotional events for the same brand differs according to the place.”

For De Beers it’s the same. They create different diamond rituals for different cultures. “Vuitton played a strong role in educating the Chinese and counterfeits helped too”, says Besnier. “The Chinese learned about the monogram, the DNA of the brand, that it’s expensive and ‘show-off’ in Europe, and the government even went and destroyed the whole counterfeit market in Shanghai so now the middle classes have started to understand that it was because the brand was so special and so now its an amazing success in China. As a result, they are also discovering other French brands, so everyone is benefiting” he concludes. Desire works in very strange ways. How nice if the government can do your buzz marketing campaign for you, free of charge!

All stars!

For the past few years both fashion and hotels as well as the rest of the luxury industry have been adding as many Names as they can to add cache and newsworthiness to their brands. The NAME of the architect, NAME of the lighting designer, NAME of the sound designer, NAME of the furniture designer, NAME of the chef, NAME of the restaurant owner (such as Nobu part-owned by Robert de Niro which has many hotel placements, or the Alain Ducasse restaurant in the Chanel Tokyo building), NAME of their tableware designer, NAME of the staff uniform designer, NAME of the spa brand, NAME of their mattresses, NAMES of their artists and NAMES of their esteemed guests, all to add value to the NAME of their own brand. By the end of it, we get ‘griffed-out!’ For the less confident client, the more famous the names, the more they feel secure and the more they feel desire.

This all-star formula is what ‘starchitects’ describe as being ‘packed with personality”. The movie industry has done this for ages. Take Oceans 13 directed by Steven Soderbergh with Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Danny Ocean and other Names – more stars than script, blockbusters with lacklustre content. Celebrity-packed for a celebrity culture. Popularity and fame does not mean luxury. Mostly it’s the opposite. True luxury comes with discretion. The maisons were discreet, as were their celebrity clients. They were not publicity seeking. They were aristocratic in their manner. The wealth was inside, just as it is at Buckingham Palace. That’s exactly where high luxury is today.

Be Discreet

Love comes with respect, shared values and personal experiences.
“The shouty branding of recent seasons now looks very out of date,” says Eleanor Robinson, womenswear buying manager for Liberty (2). "Generally, there is a move towards understatement, but I think certain consumers want their spending to be more discreet anyway, given the state of the economy. ‘Stealth luxury’, understatement, nodding quietly to those in the know – is the new buzz-phrase. Sophisticated consumers just want the ‘right people’ to recognise their quality choice, which is encoded in the item itself. The death of the logo is a phenomenon of more sophisticated markets; in the boom markets of Russia and China, logoed clothing is still hot property, leading brands to develop two-tier collections, one with, one without”.

Bottega Veneta – which prides itself on sporting no labels at all – is a brand that the Luxury Institute named ‘The world’s most luxurious brand’. “Creative director Tomas Maier, who removed all the labels and went back to the brand’s original understated allure, has since been credited with defining luxury as discreet individualism,” says Time Magazine’s Barbie Nadeau. Many are now de-branding and following its lead. Clients have been moving towards specialised niche stores consisting of a rare or uncommon selection of ‘under-the-radar’ products. They seek a personal touch over marque brands.


Connoisseur shoppers are opting to visit multi-brand concept stores such as L’Eclaireur (Paris, Tokyo) that discover great new talents and show unique items that won’t be found elsewhere and many have moved towards ‘bespoke’. Bespoke brands – derived from the old English phrase, “has been spoken for”, meaning fabric used, features, fit, and the way the garment should be made for a specific person – are emerging everywhere offering everything from head to toe. To hear, “Sorry Sir, this fabric is bespoke” is like hearing that your dream partner is already happily married.

“Hand-fitted, hand-made, hand finished and hand delivered, whether to St Tropez or St Moritz, an Armand suit is exquitely personal, and practically priceless,” says Twill magazine’s Lisa Hilton (3). Armand de Baudry d’Asson is one of the few independent bespoke Parisian tailors offering a service that is very, very personal. His strictly confidential phone number is only known by word of mouth. What makes Armand’s work truly exclusive is that it requires an investment in time as well as cash. Time is a more amusing way of measuring status than money, and bespoke requires it. Bespoke is not a guarantee of good taste though. Any expert artisan can make you what you want, perfectly, but does he have a good sense of taste? You may also end up with something vulgar. “A special order is a compromise between desires and needs from the client and our aesthetic and technical requirements,” says Patrick-Louis Vuitton of the founding family who oversees all of LV’s custom projects.


Many no longer feel the need to show-off, instead they prefer to show a caring philanthropic or social consciousness side. With the advent of the banking crisis, the world is finally speaking out against the ‘greed is good’ mantra online with statements such as “…these luxury brands are the less concerned with today’s social issues such as; global warming, animal rights, child labour, sweat shops, etc. and these are issues that are very important for the new generations (wealthy or not). Consequently, new social issues are more likely to affect luxury brands much more than the economy. (4)” The opening of the new Vuitton ‘maison’ in London was announced alongside the launch of its £1 million plus Young Arts Project – an arts and education course aimed at 200 under-privileged Londoners aged between 13 and 25. Is it generosity or just good marketing? We cant help loving LV for that.

Obviously each individual is different as are his or her needs and desires. For many of us, reaching the level of philanthropy already represents the stage of Self Actualisation. For others it could mean spiritual growth. Some simply self-actualise by indulging themselves as well as by indulging others. We need to recognise that luxury clients in different countries have different motivations for wanting luxury and each may be found at a different stage of upward mobility however we should be aware that if we aim to provide ‘bling’ to a developing country, we can expect to be abandoned once the collective consciousness has moved to a more sophisticated level.

Love comes when we least expect, but it only comes with respect. As with life partners, clients seek items that allow them to express themselves and purchase from places that share their tastes and philosophies in life. What does your brand stand for? Luxury brands have to evoke the desires of their customers and that does not only come from producing star products. The most sophisticated expect you to believe in something more than money. No social consciousness, less respect.


Philippe Mihailovich


(1) Chandra,R and Husband,P, “The Cult of the Luxury Brand” (2007) Nicholas Brealey Int.

(2) Logo a no-go: Has the loud label had its day?

(3) Twill – A toast of freedom

(4) Brand Channel