With luxury, aspirations don’t always have to be upward

My agency recently moved a few miles in London from Fitzrovia to trendy Shoreditch. We’ve been here for three months now but the culture shock is only just beginning to subside.

Richard Madden

Of course, the kids with the ripped jeans in the creative department love it. I console myself with the thought that a radical change of scene is good for a marketer. It kicks you into new ways of seeing the world. 

To which point, there’s a shop a few doors down that sells pre-soiled T-shirts. At least, that’s what it looks like. They only ever have three garments on display. None of them have price labels. The assistants are an emaciated man with a huge beard and an enigmatic young woman with glassy eyes. They don’t seem to have any customers.

No matter how intrigued I am, I feel a certain reluctance to go in there. I feel I wouldn’t be entirely welcome. It’s exactly the same feeling I get outside those posh Bond Street shops where you have to ring a bell to gain admittance.

The elite retailers of Bond Street and Brick Lane are worlds apart. But at the same time, they are not. They are united by the thing that most characterises luxury goods and experiences: a sense of distance in the relationship between brand and consumer. 

This thought is one of several expanded upon by Marie-Claude Sicard in her provocatively titled book Luxury, Lies and Marketing: Shattering the Illusion of the Luxury Brand.

Her central thesis is that, contrary to myth (especially in France), luxury brands do actually indulge in marketing and in ways that aren’t too removed from the strategies of mass brands. But there are other reasons why this book is worth reading, beyond this rather pedestrian insight.

For a start, there’s the breadth of Sicard’s range of reference. Did you know, for example, that the Swiss luxury watch industry has its origins in theologian Jean Calvin’s ascetic obsession with time? Or that French aristocrats were obliged by law to spend a certain proportion of their income on luxury goods in order to preserve class demarcation?

Then there’s her historical classification of luxury brands, which wouldn’t be out of place in an essay by Roland Barthes or some other Gauloise-puffing 1960s structuralist philosopher. 

In the beginning were the classical luxury brands, like Hermès. Their source of authority was and still is the product. Then, in the early 20th century, a cohort of modern luxury brands appeared, such as Chanel. Their source of authority was the genius of the creator. 

Finally, towards the end of the 20th century, contemporary luxury brands such as Ralph Lauren appeared. With a delightfully Gallic shrug of contempt, Sicard classifies mere ‘media image’ as their principal source of authority.

All this is fun cultural history but the idea I found most useful in Sicard’s book is her concept of ‘l’écart’, or ‘the gap’. It’s this that creates that essential sense of distance between the luxury brand and its aspirant user.

Sicard’s insight is that in today’s world of luxury, our aspirations don’t always have to be upward. We are used to thinking of luxury brands as totems of high establishment taste. This doesn’t always have to be the case. 

The luxury-creating ‘gap’ can also operate in a downward direction. Think of those overpriced Brick Lane T-shirts. Peter Sellers’ Radford-fettled Minis in the 1960s. Or Tom Wolfe’s concept of Radical Chic in the 1970s. All déclassé phenomena repositioned as emblems of informed, even subtly dangerous taste.

There’s another ‘gap’ in Sicard’s map of luxury that’s even more interesting, and that’s the lateral one. It’s also the most difficult one to pull off. It means adopting a stance that is apart from mainstream taste. One that’s based on its own, potentially alienating, values-based definition of excellence.

Ian Schrager managed it with his high-concept boutique hotels. In their heyday, Saab and Volvo achieved it by finding different idioms of automotive luxury. I have a feeling that it’s the path the next generation of Chinese luxury brands will follow, probably more or less unconsciously.

While we’re waiting for that to happen, I’m off to buy a T-shirt. A nice plain one, from Marks & Spencer.

Read more from Richard Madden.

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