When Coach announced just under a month ago that the American brand was done with accessible luxury, the very same segment of the market that it, like many of its peers, embraced with open arms just a mere two decades ago, it signalled a shift towards something that many had been moving to: expressive luxury.
Defined as a broader change that consumers want from brands, expressive luxury is “a shift from brand expression to self-expression, exclusivity to inclusivity, from status and ownership to emotions and values,” said Joon Silverstein, Senior Vice President, Global and North America, Marketing and Sustainability at Coach in an interview with Vogue Business.
What that means for the brand is that Coach is exploring circular business models, Silverstein explained: Consumers care more about participation than ownership now, they want to regularly switch up their self-expression instead of investing in one item, worn the same way for life.
“We’re seeing consumers make trade-offs that prioritise affordability and trend over sustainability, and increasingly recognise the dissonance of those choices,” she added.
What that means in simpler terms, is that Coach is becoming a bit more exclusive. “They are moving away from the upper end of the mass market and really trying to focus on products, style and fashion, said Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData Retail.
In a way, it’s a return to what luxury should be,” he continued. “Because one of the issues with accessible luxury is that the term is a little bit of an oxymoron; accessible can sometimes mean mass, meaning lots of people can buy and access the product. Whereas luxury tends to imply something that’s a bit more rarefied and exclusive that you have to make some effort to access it.”
“What Coach is signalling is that it wants to focus on (in commercial terms) is higher cost products, higher margins, and maybe serving fewer customers, but having those customers be higher spending and more valuable to them,” he added.
Unsurprisingly, a large part of that drive is to focus on younger consumers, who are expected to account for 40 percent of the global personal luxury goods market by 2035, according to a report by consultancy, Bain and Company, which also estimates that millennials and Gen Z will help to make up 130 percent of market growth between 2021 and 2025.
“When you think of expressive luxury and what it means, it's really trying to bring in the new younger customer and balance their values with sustainability and desire to express themselves,” said Robert Burke, CEO of Robert Burke Associates.
“We're seeing a shift from brand expression to self-expression, from exclusivity to inclusivity,” he noted. “But, it’s important to note that it also kind of goes against the model of luxury. If everything's inclusive and accessible, it's not as desirable. And that's just the nature of fashion.”
Expressive luxury it seems might just be a bit of a buzzy way to sell a new strategic direction. But, does this mean that the era of accessible luxury is now over?
Well, not quite. Whilst Coach is shifting away from accessible luxury, and has been for some time now, the opportunity for brands to tap into that consumer base still exists but perhaps, in a different way.
“It's still present in some pockets of the market, but the focus has now changed,” said Saunders, citing different players who have filled the gap for customers looking to spend more on categories like athleisure, beauty, and skincare.
“It’s shifted away from companies like Coach and some of the luxury players, and it now exists more in what you might call athleisure,” he continued. “Lululemon could be considered accessible luxury because it's not a cheap product, in fact, it's pretty expensive compared to others in the market, but it's very good quality and it's still seen as a kind of luxury purchase. And I think that's where you see a lot of the accessibility now, it's in those kinds of brands.”
Likewise, the opportunity for brands to expand into beauty, skincare, fragrance as well as other categories remains a great opportunity. Take, for example, Hermès, which recently added two new products to its make-up line: Hermès Plein Air and Hermèsistibles as well as two new fragrances. The luxury goods company reported in its half-year results that perfume and beauty grew by 23 percent thanks to its new product launches.
“I don't think it's completely over,” said Burke of the accessible luxury category. “The hardest question in fashion is figuring out the right balance between exclusivity and distribution and figuring out how to sell a lot without losing the ability to command a price. And there's nothing new about that.”
What is new is that resale is having a huge impact on consumers’ consideration of their luxury purchases and what brands they choose to buy, added Burke. “The uptake and general acceptance of the resale market has changed the way consumers buy. For instance, do you buy a Coach bag, or do you buy a previously owned Fendi bag? And it has become very apparent that customers wanted the brands that were more exclusive.”
On top of that, what consumers appear to be responding to is how a brand expresses itself and how it connects to its community of customers who identify with it.
"It's no coincidence that consumers are buying into more expressive and directional brands,” said Saunders. "If you look at a brand like Tiffany, it has done a number of things to try and be more accessible, but about it's the all-round image of the brand and trying to connect with younger consumers rather than trying to sell products. And that speaks to the vision that they want to be a luxury player, they want to be a place that feels exclusive and a bit rarefied not just another jeweller that anyone can buy things from. But it's important that they're not trying to be exclusionary.”
“Brands are being much more individual, much more creative, more inclusive in their marketing, which is very strategic and very smart,” said Burke.
“But I do kind of struggle with this,” he added. “This idea that expressive luxury is inclusive,” said Burke. “I'm not sure what that really means. They talked about it. I mean, everyone talks about this. These are interesting terms, and they make sense but if all of these brands elevate which it sounds like they're wanting to and will, where does that leave the customer in the accessible luxury category?
“This term is fun, it's buzzy and catchy,” continued Burke. “But I'm not sure where it's going to be after a couple of years. What's the impact going to be? And how do you really clearly differentiate between expressive luxury and accessible luxury?”