Making a Good Investment And The State of Luxury Retail By Lucia van der Post

Lucia van der Post

Making A Good Investment

We’re in the middle of exceedingly interesting times and how to deal with them is furrowing the brows of every provider of bags and shoes, frocks and furbelows. Since few of us are actually short of clothes or in dire need of another gew-gaw, what, they ponder, is going to prise that elusive credit card out of our tightly-curled fists?

Something special is the universal view. Something of serious quality, with a story to tell, with real wit or that is properly gorgeous. The lower end of the market is still holding up – where the shop assistant and the student and the budget conscious can go for cheap and cheerful bargains, and where disposability is still part of the cast of mind. What won’t be selling any time soon are the sort of mindless frivolities that speak so much of “now” that in a few months’ time they’ll look just SO “not now.” For high-end consumers, the thrill of “now” has been replaced by the comfort of knowing something is uniquely made to last.

As documentary-maker Gary Hustwit points out, whose film Objectified takes a serious look at the stuff we surround ourselves with, there’s a new Puritanism flying about. The form it takes is not so much a rejection of all “stuff,” but a serious look at which of it matters. In the world of luxury, it turns out what matters is good old-fashioned class. At Selfridge’s, they tell me that some accessories are selling even better than ever. Up by 40% over the same three-week period last year are the classics – handbags by Chanel (£1,600), Louis Vuitton (from £330) and Gucci (£525). At www.net-a-porter.com Balmain’s acid wash jeans at £1000 a pair sold out within days, whilst Christopher Kane’s limited run of Christopher Kane dresses were snapped up by personal shoppers for their favoured clients. Roland Mouret’s RM capsule collection of demi-couture frocks (at just under £1000) were also very hot tickets. At the top, customers will still buy, but they’re being infinitely more discerning – they want to know that whatever it is they have their eye on is being made in very limited editions (witness the way Louis Vuitton’s Sprouse-designed collection went flying out of the shops), that it is truly special and that it is made to last. They’re buying investment pieces that solve a problem – the gorgeous brightly-coloured boyfriend blazer from Stella McCartney, or if they’re really in the money, from Chanel, the midi skirt from Marni or Prada, some jodhpur trousers from Dolce & Gabbana or combat trousers from Balmain and Gucci, or a one-shouldered dress from Richard Nicoll or Versace. These are all beautifully made investment pieces, a single one of which would perk up everything in an existing wardrobe.

If there’s a discernible trend, it’s this: look for small editions of items that are exquisitely and lovingly made and that are made to last. If you can’t be sure that you’ll still love it just as much in five years time – forget it!

The State of Luxury Retail

First the bad news: shops, it’s pretty obvious, are having a bad time. Sales are almost universally down. Now for the good news: tough times call for tough action, and retailers everywhere are rethinking the shopping experience. They’re looking into how to provide a truly luxurious experience in a thoroughly new way, a way that is appropriate to what I suppose we must call “these trying times.” It’s clear that many of us are tired of high streets that look identical all over the world. What shoppers want are quirky, individual, special shops. Already premises left empty by failed enterprises are beginning to see pop-up shops and installations – little one-off ventures filled with surprises and the sort of experiences the high street never provided. Their wares are idiosyncratic and unique, and for the customer, they have an added appeal: once the pop-up shop has pulled down the shutters, that is the end of that.

Other shops, knowing they’ve got to do more to bring the punters back, are offering their customers an enhanced experience and service – they’re trying to involve their customers more deeply by providing meeting places and activities (Priscilla Carluccio’s Few And Far, for instance, has tea and chocolate cake on Friday afternoons, and Liberty is offering craft classes). Others do it by offering services that may not bring in much revenue (Browns’ fantastic new shoe boutique will be doing shoe repairs, whilst both Harrods and Selfridge’s offer psychic help in the shape of “professional intuitives”), but which will tap into the customers’ loyalty and bring them back again and again. Online websites are trying to establish off-line clubs, where customers can meet like-minded souls, and where serious advice can be properly given. Other shops – Selfridge’s is a notable example – make a point of always having a bit of theatre on show, whether an art project, make-up lessons or even lingerie counselling (yes, really!). Many stores are these days prepared to offer out-of-hour services – chauffeur-driven cars, house calls by personal shoppers for favoured customers and advice on styling. Some of these things have been on offer before, but now everybody’s trying harder, giving more bang for the buck. Just having lovely stuff isn’t enough.

Even Prada, one of the great big panjandrums of “Planet Fashion” had clearly been doing some lateral thinking when four of the world’s most influential fashion mavens re-did four of their biggest stores. Alex White of W magazine was on Lower Broadway in Manhattan, Katie Grand of Love transformed Bond Street, Oliver Rizzo of V and Arena Homme Plus was given the store in Milan and Corinne Roitfeld, editor of French Vogue, waved her magic over the Avenue Montaigne location. Exciting times but proof – as if it were needed – that, even for the blue-chip names, more of the same doesn’t cut it any more. Drama, theatre, excitement, customer participation, anything to lift the spirits and intrigue the customer.

What retailers have given up on is gimmickry and tat. For those in the luxury business, it’s time to bunker down and offer real value. Nobody’s in the mood to show off. Those who have money are looking for quieter pleasures – pleasures that are just as real (soft-as-butter cashmere, fine cut, attention to detail, something bespoke and beautiful), but speak of long-lasting value. Customers are looking for some emotional connection to the things they buy. One and all know that key to survival in this tricky time is service, service and yet more service.