Brands are looking to usher their customers into a more exclusive shopping experience where discernment and craftsmanship are in, and queues and bling are most definitely out.
A step in a more exclusive direction
So many beautiful things to buy. So many ways to acquire them. Seductive shopfronts smiling silently at us from every glittery new mall; slinky new shopping sites to visit online. So much coming at us from every direction. With more delectable products being offered to us, in more rarefied surroundings, than ever before - have you been into the private suite at the new Dolce flagship on Fifth yet? - one thing is clear. We are living in the golden age of luxury shopping.
Rare and covetable items made by people good with their hands - the essence of luxury shopping, really - have been on offer since the dawn of time. Prehistorically, it would have been a swap. Their spare sharpened flint for your spare animal skin. A few centuries on and craftsmen would have come to your home to show you a sample of their work in the hope of earning a commission: to carve you a wooden chest, stitch an embroidered robe or twist you a piece of jewellery. You might even have visited their workshop at the entrance to their home.
The development of the great international trading routes would have brought exciting new novelties as Silk Road merchants arrived in the great capitals with trunkfuls of spices, tea, ivory, gemstones, pearls and silks. Nothing would have been available in any quantity. However, everything was handmade. Had you lived in a remote rural area, far from trading routes and civilisation, you'd probably have been stuck with the local markets and fairs, and barely any choice. Scratchy garment or extra-scratchy; small wooden bowl or slightly bigger wooden bowl.
Zoom through the centuries and by the mid 1800s you'd at last have been able to head excitedly to the first department stores - Le Bon Marché in Paris, Wanamaker's in Philadelphia - to browse under new electric lights through the exciting new machine-made items that the Industrial Revolution had made possible. But the most exclusive items were still only available directly from the single shops that sold them.
By the 1920s the reputation of the most talented craftsmen and family businesses had spread, so you'd know to go to Hermès in Paris for the finest saddle, Louis Vuitton for the best travel trunk and, for clothing, one of the French or Italian dressmakers, or a Savile Row tailor in London. Motor cars, passenger liners and plushly fitted out trains such as the Orient Express were making it possible at last to travel in some comfort to - and shop in - once-fabled destinations.
Fast forward to the 1960s. Revolutionary arrivals - credit cards and jet travel - made it easier to go to such places as Rome, Venice, Paris, New York and Tokyo, to buy more things. In the 1970s, the appetite for famous labels and luxury-everything got a bit chaotic. Jeans formerly known as cheap work clothes were marketed as luxury items by the US heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, and the invention of licensing so muddied the water that the old Tsarist jeweller, Fabergé, suddenly seemed to be in the business of selling men's underpants and the famous Paris designer, Pierre Cardin, kitchen aprons and pencil cases. Off-putting. In the 1980s, deregulation of the financial markets prompted a business boom and an explosion in the range of luxury products and shops. By the late 1990s, thanks to globalisation, you could find outposts of Louis Vuitton around the world, and as shopping online started to take off (Tiffany & Co was an unusually early adopter, setting up in 1999) craftsmen were, metaphorically, once again coming to you.
And now? Well, now you can shop the world around the clock.
With an iPad, PC or phone (maybe the £78,000 [Dh435,000] gemstone-studded Dior Reverie mobile) to hand, you never need leave home. Tiffany & Co now sees 70 per cent of its sales happen online. Fashion shows are streamed online, so anyone can have a front-row seat; Fashion Week Singapore this spring saw the launch of fully shoppable live-streamed coverage. You can buy Prada on Amazon, which along with eBay is trialling micro-warehouses and the joyous convenience of same-day delivery that has helped make such a success of the game-changer Net-a-Porter. Having changed how fashion was sold, the upmarket online fashion store is now evolving into what its founder Natalie Massenet describes as "the fashion magazine of the future", blending editorial with retail. "Storytelling, seduction and service."
In terms of bricks-and-mortar stores, especially in the shopping capitals of London, Paris, Rome, New York, Hong Kong and Dubai, the top shops have become ever more competitive in their quest to create that wow factor. Following the success of the Louis Vuitton Maison concept, launched in 2005, of which LV (now contributing a reported 28 per cent of the revenue of its 60-brand parent body, LVMH) has more than a dozen around the globe, flagship stores vie to outdo each other in novelty and splendour. Take LV's London Maison store, which opened in 2010. In the words of a spokesperson, it was designed to "resemble the home of a collector who loves only rare and beautiful things".
These flagships bring together a brand's whole range under one roof, with chic "lifestyle additions". In Milan, for instance, Armani's flagship has its elegant Ristorante, with a Michelin-starred chef in charge. In Paris there's a florist, cafe and bookshop in the new store Hermès has built on the site of a former swimming pool. Burberry's new store on Regent Street, London, has a hydraulically raised stage for live performances, and plenty more theatrical touches in its six-storey New York store.
Department stores have risen to the challenge of losing you to the starry new single-brand flagship stores by devising fun novelty experiences. At Selfridges in London this spring, for instance, a Chanel vending machine dispensed the company's new mascara. Naturally, it only took excitingly special double-C coins. Henry Rose, a master tailor who used to work for Doug Hayward, "tailor to the stars", was installed to counterbalance the Made to Measure bespoke tailoring just launched by Alexander McQueen and the like. Next January, Selfridges will launch a drive-through service, with goods you ordered online ready to be loaded into your car by uniformed porters when you drive into Edward Mews, at the rear of the store.
With the wealthy classes now almost constantly on the move, hotel shops have also upped their game. At the new St Regis Bal Harbour in Miami, you don't even have to go down to the lobby to try on new clothes. Check in and you'll find that a "curated wardrobe" personal shopper has already filled the wardrobes with items they thought would appeal to you, sourced from the city's upscale boutiques. They'll quite likely have nailed your taste, too. With algorithms to evaluate every nano particle of info collected about you as you browse online, dissecting information about your preferences has become big business.
These days you also get the chance to luxury-shop when you fly, too, thanks to "luxury aviation retail". No, not the duty-free shopping we can hardly be bothered with any more. This is strictly limited-edition purchases you won't get on any other airline. Earlier this spring, VistaJets, the fleet of private jets launched in 2004 by the Swiss financier Thomas Flohr, presented an exclusive line of jewellery - gold Fabergé egg pendants - available exclusively on a VistaJet flight for a limited time only, of course. To advertise the move, the jets had their tail fins painted by the Turner-nominated artist Ian Davenport with one of the Fabergé designs. "Aviation retail can surely only get bigger," Flohr predicts.
The ultra-exclusive experience is becoming an increasingly important tool. With such variety and choice in the luxury goods market, the big brands are terrified that you may start to feel saturated, get bored and go off to look for something new or more exclusive. To shop in pastures more exciting and more glamorous, so to speak.
Conscious that the serious luxury shopper would prefer not to have to make their purchases while rubbing shoulders with other luxury shoppers, they are being invited to "step this way" into the extra-special, private-invite, guests-only inner sanctum. You're essentially back to visiting the craftsman in his workshop; whether it's Valentino in Rome, Armani in Milan, Chanel in Paris or Ralph Lauren, Tom Ford, Celine, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada et al in New York, every flagship now has its VIP suite. Make yourself comfortable and get ready to be shown some of the hyperspecial, super-rarefied limited-edition products on offer.
Not everybody can buy a limited-edition little something while relaxing on soft sofas in a private room, having the cream of the collections brought for their perusal. Just look at the queues outside Maison Louis Vuitton on the Champs Elysées, where list-bearing Chinese shoppers wait to acquire bags at prices around 40 per cent lower than in Shanghai. But an emphasis on craftsmanship - the concept of luxury not as ostentation but excellence and rarity - is thriving among the long-established brands. Take the old-world simplicity of the raffia-work of Prada's S/S13 handbags and Dolce & Gabbana's artisan Ingrid straw bucket bags, and Ferrari's announcement this spring that for the first time the company would be reducing the number of cars it produced, from 7,318 in 2012 to 7,000 this year. "We are not in the business of luxury; we are in the business of quality," its CEO informed journalists.
The focus on excellence and artisanship is especially evident among the new generation of luxury companies. Take Opening Ceremony, with its multi-brand stores (the latest opened in Tokyo), which rocks a modern old-world vibe, mixing high-end brands and knitted or handstitched items from local micro set-ups. Or Zai, with its painstakingly handmade skis, and Pagani Automobili with its tiny, treasured output. Wonderful things for the connoisseur who really knows and understands what they're buying.
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