Redefining Luxury Retail: A Shift from the Material to the Mindful

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What does the future hold for luxury retail in an era of political uncertainty? What does the rise of the ethically-conscious consumer mean for the industry? And how do British luxury brands, often built on heritage and tradition, drive innovation and sustainable growth?

We set out to find answers to these questions and more at Walpole’s inaugural ‘Future of’ event: Building the Future of British Luxury. Hosted by the UK’s only membership organisation for British luxury brands, the event gathered opinion leaders and rising stars in British luxury to explore how the sector is being redefined.

Walpole Luxury Summit 2019

Luxury today is not definable by any one material or process: the pursuit of this ‘state of great comfort or elegance’ is an increasingly multifaceted art form. It is not simply a sky-high price tag, an iconic bag, or a logo. Nor is it defined by the most indulgent or expensive experience. Today, luxury has become a way of being or moving throughout the world.

“What does British luxury mean? What is it about the British bit of British luxury that makes it so alluring? Is it tangible things like craftsmanship and creativity, design, quality and attention to detail, service and experience? Or is there a uniquely British sensibility, a spirit; something that’s hard to define or measure, but has to do with national identity; with idiosyncrasy and irreverence; tradition and heritage; mavericks and makers;  the creative entrepreneurs and the brand custodians?” – Helen Brocklebank, CEO, Walpole

Economic and political instabilities, and investments in international markets, combined with new routes of communication and engagement have contributed to a change in the modern consumer, from a shift in “buying” to “being”. To buy luxury is to buy into a brand’s narrative and values: if a brand has no values, it’s lost a vital – and lucrative – part of its identity.

In December, Chanel banned fur and exotic animal skins from its collections. Burberry, Versace and Maison Margiela have all also stopped using fur, due to mounting pressure from an increasingly ‘woke’, environmentally conscious customer.  

Has this demand for more sustainable materials affected demand for luxury?

Bain & Company assured us that there is no slowdown, with 5% real-term growth in 2018. While retail luxury outlets are downsizing, the accessible luxury market is growing, particularly in China, which is expected to account for 46% of the luxury goods market in 2025.

The consumer is becoming more discerning, and new opportunities now exist even in countries such as the US, where luxury consumption is well-established. So-called luxury “values” such as quality, exclusivity and craftsmanship dominate the sector, and the luxury consumer strives for exceptional experiences along the purchase pathway.

'Ralph & Russo' In Conversation

The high fashion house Ralph & Russo has turned its couture atelier into a global powerhouse, with a client list that includes celebrities and royalty. The label produces some of the world’s most beautiful dresses and suits, constructed entirely by hand. But, as Tamara Ralph and Michael Russo explained, they don’t just pride themselves on their exceptional craftsmanship: it’s the next-level personal experiences offered to their customers that set them apart and underpin their growth.

The brand keeps a Mayfair townhouse: a seven-storey, 19th century mansion where fittings take place in plush, carpeted salons under sparkling 1920s chandeliers.

Ralph & Russo Boutique

“We want our customers to feel like family. We always put the customer first, and it is these sorts of one-off, personal experiences that have helped us grow.” Tamara Russo, Creative Director, Ralph & Russo

Time; authenticity; rarity; a compelling narrative: it is a blend of these elements that make an object, a place, a situation worthy of branding luxe.

Richard Carter, Director of Global Communications at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars highlighted that their typical customer has shifted into a younger, more international demographic. He attributes this to their evolving design and communication of the brand story.

Richard Carter, Director of Global Communications, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

Richard Carter, Director of Global Communications, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars.

Despite evolving a traditional luxury car brand to be relevant for the modern age, as with the case of the Phantom VIII, the emotional connection is never compromised. All of the interior elements are hand-trimmed by highly-skilled craftspeople.

“There is a real increase in luxury customers wanting to see ‘under the bonnet’ and experience how and where something is made, to understand the hours of work and skilled craftsmanship that go into creating a Burberry Trench in Castleford, or a Rolls-Royce Motor Car in Goodwood.” – Helen Brocklebank

The same sentiment rings true of the values that are integral to the Manolo Blahnik business: humility, quality, respect and creativity. Kristina Blahnik, CEO, stressed that commercial success is simply a byproduct of the brand’s core values. Creativity takes priority and is what has made the brand a success. “For us, luxury is two things – time and freedom. That’s it.”

Today, one might argue that we’ve entered an era of ‘post-luxury’, where consumers have a new set of preferences and expectations to guide them. Luxury is no longer about the tangible materials brands can offer, but the intangible promises they make – freedom, space, personalisation, ethics and possibility.

“Whether a heritage brand or a new start up, there is a definite shift in the sector from the material to the mindful. While extraordinary experience has always been part of the luxury promise, we can see that this is becoming more important than ever – with the product the souvenir that reminds you of that experience.” – Helen Brocklebank

It’s clear that the concept of luxury is evolving and will continue to do so with time, but what remains constant is that brands must rethink what ‘value’ truly means to their audience.