Complex Made Simple

Disrupting the luxury fashion world

A big change is witnessed in the forms of presenting fashion, communicating with the public and purchasing upmarket items.

The most coveted ticket at London’s half-yearly fashion weeks is to Burberry’s Prorsum show, where the British trench coat-maker presents its upmarket ready-to-wear clothing. Christopher Bailey, the brand’s chief creative officer and CEO, likes to surprise his audience. At the birds-and-bees-themed unveiling of his womenswear for spring and summer 2015, held in September in London’s Kensington Gardens, the sartorial novelty was an indigo wasp-waist denim jacket. The digital novelties included a highlights tape on YouTube that let viewers zoom in to focus on various aspects of the show, such as the music. Twitter used the occasion to launch in-tweet purchasing for luxury.

This is a big change from the traditional model of presenting fashion in which designs are conceived at the top, handed down to journalists and buyers at fashion-week set-pieces and pop up in the shops four or five months later. Technology has narrowed the distance between designers and consumers and sparked a conversation.

YouTube, Instagram, WeChat and the like have “completely disrupted” the way fashion companies communicate, says Imran Amed, editor of The Business of Fashion, an online journal.

This is the first of three technology-induced changes that will profoundly affect luxury brands. The second is a shift from selling in physical stores to online. The third, for now only just visible in the distance, is a technology-related change in the way luxury goods are made.

The digital transition is running alongside a demographic one. By 2026 the main consumers of luxury will be millennials (or generation Y), people born in the 1980s and 90s, says Unity Marketing, an American market-research firm. Brands with pedigrees can use technology to win this age group over, as Burberry is trying to do, since it was among the first to spot the millennial potential

A study by the Boston Consulting Group reckons that millennials “Are geared to pleasure rather than to possessions”, making them less inclined to buy things. They are assertive, sceptical of authority and nonconformist, none of which bodes well for traditional luxury brands.

On the other hand, photo-sharing social media such as Instagram put a premium on appearance, argues Denis of Jimmy Choo, which should be a good thing for companies like his.

Live-streaming of catwalk shows is now common practice, as is giving celebrity bloggers front-row seats alongside editors of the main fashion bibles. Brands feed their “communities” with streams of images on Instagram and Pinterest and Hollywood-quality videos on YouTube. Cartier’s L’Odyssée de Cartier, starring a bejewelled panther, has been seen 17.6 million times.

But brands must prove that their products are worth the price, not rely on mystique alone. Generation Y-ers tend to be unimpressed by logos but entranced by “codes”, subtler ways of conveying a brand’s identity.

This includes the red soles of Christian Louboutin’s shoes and the quilting on Chanel’s 2.55 handbags.

Some millennials also want luxury goods to be made in ways that damage neither workers nor the environment.

Disruption is not something that comes naturally to most established luxury brands, but when they embrace it they sometimes do it well.

© The New York Times 2014