Austerity may beget luxury, but it must be promoted correctly says ELAN UK’s Jennifer Attias

Recently there was huge controversy about the arrogance of designer brands and their marketing methods following the installation of a giant Louis Vuitton suitcase in the middle of Red Square in Russia. This publicity stunt caused outcry and a demand for the immediate removal of the offending installation, forming yet another blow in a series of attacks on the luxury market since the economic crisis set in.

Looking after lifestyle brands including L’Oreal, Clarins and Moet & Chandon, I am not surprised by the scrutiny that the luxury market has come under in recent years. But what is astounding is the resilience of luxury brands in the current economic climate. Performance figures for companies like LVMH have never been stronger.

I wondered at first that there must be a real divide between consumer appetite and media perception. But upon reading lifestyle magazines such as Vogue, Elle, Vanity Fair, FT How to Spend It and even the more specialist luxury and fashion titles like Quintessentially and Bon, I noticed a pattern. They were all writing about how handcrafted, artisanal products are the true values and aesthetics of luxury today. And among consumers, there is a hunger for heritage practices, and the kinds of fabrics that cannot be reproduced cheaply through outsourcing.

People are willing to invest in quality despite (or because of) tight purse-strings. And the success of couture brands and premium products in the downturn seems to have created a trend, leading many mass-market brands to adopt a luxury positioning to transform their products into more desirable items for the consumers of today.

This paradox of appetite and perception got me wondering about how best to position luxury brands. Was being notorious okay if sales are still up, or is there a job to be done here to dispel any misplaced consumer guilt for seeking out luxury in times of austerity?

I didn’t know the moral answer to this question, so we held a roundtable discussion with our clients and international press contacts in November last year to delve deeper. The discussions revealed that this shift in appetite from the flashy maximalism of the 1980s, 1990s and noughties, to what can only be called a more subdued display of quality, bespoke craftsmanship, elegance and sophistication today, was not contrived by the brands but an organic shift that originated in consumer behaviour. This was not a marketing strategy; this was a consumer phenomenon.

But, even if this is the case, the key question is how, in our austere times, do we explain this growing consumer appetite for luxury?

I wonder if the answer lies in something more intuitive. Surely, luxury is more than just a type of product or market that denotes financial wealth. I wonder if luxury is resilient because it is an emotional rather than material desire.

It got me thinking that luxury is an “aspiration”, a way of living and an affirmation of taste and culture that is not just about “lifestyle” and status in the Anglosaxon sense of the word, but about an “art de vivre”, as we say in France.

I believe the true asset of the luxury market is that it appeals to a human desire for a good life that exists irrespective of economic climate. And the growth in appetite, which is evident as much in Europe as it is in emerging markets, is not just due to a growing Asian consumer market, but because luxury, in the true sense of the word, is not just the preserve of the rich, but a wider pursuit that includes young people with less disposable income and occasional buyers who appreciate and invest in luxuries today.

I wonder if it is actually in times of economic crisis that our barest values rise to the surface: our values for quality, for art, for pleasure, for love, for friendship and for loyalty. I wonder if the secret of success actually lies in the fact that austerity begets luxury.

Jennifer Attias, managing director, ELAN UK

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