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What makes a luxury? This was a discussion I had yesterday (October 31) with some brilliant students in the ancient southern English town of Winchester. This is where The University of Southampton run their world leading Masters Course on Luxury Brand Management, and this is the third year I have been privileged to talk to them.
The question about luxury became complicated in the 1990s after branding took centre stage in the lives of consumers and the new wave of globalisation created huge production capacity for good quality affordable items. Furthermore, at Louis Vuitton, Bernard Arnault introduced a variety of modern business concepts into the sector which drove brand image and profitability to the top of the agenda and has led us to misunderstand a most important segment.
I had a just spent the weekend in Vienna admiring the amazing imperial architecture that history has left us in that city, mostly filled with incredible works of art, so I had a picture to show the students. It is a famous picture by David of Napoleon crossing the St Bernard Pass. Napoleon ordered five copies to hang in key Palaces of Europe. This one was originally for Milan but taken by the Austrians and finally installed in the Belvedere in Vienna in 1834.
A picture is worth a thousand words
I took my own picture of it, although there are plenty on-line and here is the slide I used with the students yesterday. It tells us a lot about leather and a lot about luxury. To make this journey, thought to be impossible in winter, Napoleon and his army had to have a lot of leather. Just look at his boots, what we can see of his saddle, his bridle, the stirrup, the cover for his sword and his gloves.
Every one of these items carry three characteristics. They will do the task required of them, standing the test of time in varied conditions: they look outstanding, worthy of just as much acclaim as any item produced by Apple in the 21st century: and they were put together by great craftsmen who would have been carefully picked out by Napoleon and his staff.
This is the stuff of real luxury. It is not about prestige or premium. It is about the artisan with a determination to make a great product. Yet this is the skill of the artisan linked with a feel for society. To know, as Hermes did, that it was the right moment to adapt a saddlebag from the equestrian world into a handbag for the travelling woman, is inspirational. Taking not only the skills you have into a new area but also moving with, sometimes leading, your own customers. This was brilliant thinking.
Many tanners argue that they should only focus on leather, and that great leather sells itself. It is a worthy belief but is not the whole truth in an ever-changing world.
The same tanners look at luxury goods and say this is essentially a constant market since great handbags, shoes etc. will always sell. It is not so, all markets are evolving, and many luxury companies found their true success based on cleverly introducing new materials. Think of Louis Vuitton with canvas, Burberry with gabardine or Barbour (are they really luxury?) with oiled cloth. Searching out new materials is often part of a luxury brand’s DNA.
Right now, we see many challenges to the leather industry but the greatest is probably complacency. You cannot stand still. Leather has always evolved with its markets to find the correct position. To say that luxury as we have seen it in the last twenty-five years will stand still as a permanent market is quite wrong.
While leather wins on performance and beauty, as well as sustainability to those who chose to learn the facts, these three characteristics need to constantly advance if leather is to survive and prosper.
It is hard to define what makes a luxury, but it certainly involves innovation, relentless updating, incredible craftsmanship at every stage, and a lifetime to build the trust and reputation required to make a true luxury brand.
Dr Mike Redwood
Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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