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  1. Wealth
November 1, 2007

Does My Brain Look Big in This?

By Spear's

For luxury goods retailers, grey matter is the new black. John Arlidge reports.

For luxury goods retailers, grey matter is the new black. John Arlidge reports.

Used syringes and dirty condoms are not usually considered luxury goods but step into Louis Vuitton’s flagship store on the Champs-Élysées and there they are, proudly encased behind thick glass. Fortunately for the easily-offended jolie Mesdames of Paris, they are not part of Louis Vuitton creative director, Marc Jacobs’, latest grunge collection. They are features of a modern sculpture, Sunset on the Yauza River, by Russian artist, Alexander Brodsky.

Brodsky’s sculpture – the centrepiece of an exhibition called ‘Moscopolis’ – takes up most of the seventh floor of Louis Vuitton’s ‘maison’. The French luxury conglomerate could have devoted its penthouse to monogrammed bags and lure thousands more Japanese ram-raiders but, instead, opted to build an art gallery. Why?

Culture, not couture, is the hottest new thing in luxury retailing. Luxury brands used to appeal to our hearts – and our wallets. The brain, being invisible, hard to fathom and impossible to accessorise, has never been of much interest. But, today, firms as varied as Louis Vuitton and BMW are trying to appeal to upmarket consumers’ intellect. Grey matter is the new black.

Louis Vuitton’s new ‘Espace Louis Vuitton, Lieu d’expression artistique et culturelle’, where Moscopolis is on show, hosts dozens of exhibitions each year. LVMH, the label’s parent company, has also commissioned America’s leading modernist architect, Frank Gehry, to build a Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation, just outside Paris. The intricate glass edifice – that resembles a cloud – will house LVMH’s collection of contemporary art and, the firm hopes, become a creative hub for artists.

Miuccia Prada, meanwhile, is hiring the very best artistic and architectural talent to transform her boutiques into cultural ‘epicentres’. Thanks to Dutch master-modernist Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss team behind London’s much-admired Tate Modern, Prada’s latest stores in fashionable New York, Tokyo and Los Angeles are three-dimensional monuments to the Milanese label’s bleeding-edge modernism.

Outside and in, they challenge convention, dispensing with doors, leaving exposed holes in the floor and creating time-delay TV mirrors. They say to consumers: ‘Come on in… if you think you’re smart enough.’ Stiff old Hermès, the grande dame of French fashion, is following suit by commissioning architect Rena Dumas to dispense with its signature orange wood-panelled interiors in favour of black, bold, detached glass-membraned blocks for its new stores.

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The clothes on sale in these brain boxes are more high-minded. At Gucci, new creative director Frida Giannini has dumped cling ‘n’ bling in favour of erudition. ‘Sex is so 1990s. I’m interested in the brain, in intelligence, not the body,’ she says. Even Donatella Versace, whose label has concentrated more than any other on the body from the neck down, now says her collections are designed to appeal from the neck up. She describes her new menswear as ‘based around the idea of duality, so dear to psychoanalysis and art. Everything you observe could be something else: the trench coat becomes a rather short jacket or else a very long gilet. Even the classic double-breasted jacket is transformed into a waistcoat.’

Away from the catwalk, German luxury car brand, BMW, wants to turn its ‘ultimate driving machine’ into the ultimate thinking machine. The firm describes BMW Welt, its £150 million brand centre which opened in Munich last month, as ‘one of the first examples of a new generation of communications buildings’. The medium – the hyper-modern, swirling, doubled-coned vortex of steel that rises up to the billowing 3,000-tonne steel roof in an aerodynamic testament to BMW’s early-20th-century origins as an aircraft-engine maker – is the message. And the message is: ‘Meine Damen und Heren, we are smarter than the average car firm.’

Auto analyst Peter Brietsche of GfK Market Research Group in Nuremberg, says: ‘Everybody knows the Lexus has a perfect engine, that its mother company Toyota is a good brand, but cars are a deep German thing and BMW wants to export some of that depth.’

In the world of haute horlogerie, making the biggest swinging tick is no longer enough. Vacheron Constantin’s new ‘Les Masques’ watches are part of the high-end Métiers d’Art collection. Displaying the time on these models is of secondary importance. The object’s main function is to serve as a platform to showcase exquisite works of art in the form of miniature tribal masks made from gold or platinum, each of which is an exact replica of an original from Geneva’s Barbier-Mueller museum of primitive art. Each year for three years, a boxed set of four different watches will be released in a limited series of 25 to form a complete collection of 12 masks. Each set of four costs around £205,000.

It’s the same story on London’s Savile Row where the creative director of Kilgour, Carlo Brandelli, has just knocked the stuffing out of traditional men’s tailoring to create a smart – in both senses of the word – new style, called Kilgour Unstructured. Thanks to clever cutting and construction, that has taken three years to develop, he now removes all internal structure – interlining horsehair with strong shoulder pads – that the Row is famous for, taking the weight out of the suit and creating ‘the English elegant line on the outside which is whisper light’.

It’s all a far cry from the days when upmarket retailers were content with sponsoring a ballet, an opera or an exhibition ‘here’, or when manufacturers were content to build an art car ‘there’. How have upscale brands gone from supporting the arts to trying to be the arts?

In spite of its aesthetic nature, these mind games are all about business. The luxury goods giants have identified a brand-new group of consumers called the Ideas Class. These upscale buyers are swayed more by artistic values, innovation and originality than ostentation or performance. They do not want to show off their wealth, but their refinement and knowledge – or at least their refinement and knowledge as reflected by the intellectual value of their latest pricey bauble.

Richard Florida, who first identified the new social group in his book The Creative Class, describes them as ‘self-motivated professionals, who want more than just the latest “this” or “that”, they want to invest in products that mean something. They prize innovation, authenticity and independent thinking above everything, including price.’

It is precisely those qualities that BMW’s North American boss, Tom Purves, wants to capture by pushing the technical and aesthetic boundaries in everything the German marque does, from its cars to buildings. ‘It should appeal to the Ideas Class that we are independent, free to do something new, something that no one else has even thought of.’ (For more on BMW’s artistic ambitions see Ultra Talk: page 112.)

At Gucci, Giannini says: ‘Gucci man and Gucci woman have grown up. They are more mature. They know intellect, eccentricity is sexy now.’ Versace, meanwhile, adds: ‘I want to challenge Versace man because Versace man now wants to be challenged.’

Braining up may be a smart move by luxury goods firms to snare more consumers but it is also a defensive move to shore up their position. As new pretenders to the luxury crown, notably Japanese, Indian, Chinese and Brazilian brands and manufacturers, turn out upmarket products to rival those made by the Old World, venerable brands are being forced to fall back on the one quality that the new upstarts cannot manufacture: pedigree.

In the automotive sector, the new upmarket sub-brands of Japan’s big three car makers – Toyota’s Lexus, Nissan’s Infiniti and Honda’s Acura – offer credible performance vehicles for far less money than their European rivals. BMW’s response? To try to take the shine off the newcomers by contrasting their mass- market roots with its own impeccable lineage.

One new BMW advertisement lists other luxury brands and their corporate parents, suggesting that rivals, namely Acura and America’s Cadillac, have to make compromises to co-operate with their mass-market sister brands, Honda and Chevrolet. Another ad shows sci-fi images of the new £750 million, glass-walled, zig-zagging BMW factory located in Leipzig, designed by Pritzker prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid. The strapline asks: ‘Would a parent company let us build this?’

The big fashion brands are being attacked by high street rivals, notably H&M, Zara and Topshop which employ fast production lines in the Far East to change style and collections every couple of weeks. In response, the French and Italian fashion houses are turning up the volume on quality and heritage.

At Gucci, Giannini’s boss, chief executive Mark Lee, points out that every Gucci product from key rings to couture is made in Italy. ‘The luxury market is expanding – in India, Brazil and China – and as it gets bigger, it is ever more important to hang on to quality and exclusivity. There are other luxury brands that are made in China, made in Vietnam, made in other places. Gucci is a made-in-Italy brand and I guarantee that it will remain a made-in-Italy brand while I am here.’

Is brain power all, in the end, about making a buck? Even the Louis Vuitton exhibition? It is. While LV stresses that its new Lieu d’expression artistique et culturelle is all about art, what it is less keen to publicise is that creating the gallery was part of a ruse to circumvent France’s arcane laws on Sunday opening which used to prevent shops opening on a Sunday but allowed cultural institutions to do so. By opening the gallery, it hoped to persuade the authorities to allow it to open the shop. It got away with it.

Now that really is clever.

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