Unlimited luxury? Conference in Paris answers a stylish question

PARIS – It was a fashionable high-power gathering in Paris last Thursday evening. Amid the flowing champagne stood the towering Hubert de Givenchy, timeless Valentino, colorful Christian Lacroix, playful Jean-Paul Gaultier, mad milliner Philip Treacy, outer-space consciousness Paco Rabanne, not to mention the fashion players who work behind the catwalk scenes: Rose Marie Bravo, the orchestrator of Burberry’s stellar comeback; Umberto Angeloni of Brioni (he’s the one dressing James Bond) and Patrizio Bertelli, the mastermind behind Prada and Miuccia Prada’s husband. The occasion? A dinner at the Musee de la Mode et du Textile, Union Centrale des Arts Decoratifs in Paris – before the wing’s renovation and inauguration as part of the visiting museum – hosted by the International Herald Tribune to celebrate «Luxury Unlimited: The IHT’s Fashion Conference.» Earlier that day, the king of brands, Ralph Lauren had made his first public speech in Europe, while Diego della Valle, president of Tod’s, made his first speech in English. And these were just a few of the highlights of the stimulating two-day conference, where delegates heard of a luxury jewelry brand diversifying into the hotel business and how Britain’s crown jewelers are now catering to the contemporary royalty of rockers and Hollywood stars. Hard times Who could deny that the 83-million-dollar-a-year luxury business has been hit by political and financial hard times. Yet, even on the verge of a new war and the rising fear of more terrorist attacks, the luxury industry marches on, relying heavily on the forces of human nature and desire, marketing and creativity. The conference kicked off with a poignant opening speech by Suzy Menkes, the International Herald Tribune’s fashion editor, who noted that her choice of the conference’s title, «Luxury Unlimited» was, in fact, a contradiction in terms. The question, said Menkes, is for personalizing luxury items and making people feel special, while also adding a great deal of service – what she called «the individualization of a branded universe.» The branded universe of Polo Ralph Lauren is worth $10 billion these days and right in the middle of it stands its founder, chairman and CEO, Ralph Lauren. «How do we aspire our life to be?» asked Lauren at the beginning of his entertaining speech, in which he told an excited audience that his career began in a «drawer» sized space in the Empire State Building 35 years ago on a $50,000 loan. In the USA, Lauren argued, it was more about companies and labels, rather than fashion designers, and his idea of top-quality ties became the starting point for building one of the most powerful brands ever based on «utility, function and living.» Named as the Most Successful European Businesswoman for 2002 by the Wall Street Journal as well as Fashion CEO of the Year by Time Magazine, Rose Marie Bravo, chief executive of Burberry, took an established, yet fading British brand based on the trench coat and turned it into one of the hottest names in the business. «Accessible luxury,» was how Bravo described the hot brand, placing it in the middle of the accessible yet aspirational ladder of luxury names. The key to its success, said Bravo, was going back to the brand’s DNA, looking at what it stood for and proceeding by expanding into accessories and womenswear, for instance, while challenging mentalities along the way – Burberry sold 100,000 bikinis the last two seasons; not bad for a company that supposedly thrives on bad weather. The emergence of China as a leading player in global markets is nothing new, but David Tang’s take on East-meets-West fashion and culture was absolutely refreshing. Tang, the founder and CEO of Shanghai Tang, the first global Chinese lifestyle brand, does not believe in fusion and explained in Paris last week how his firm takes into account sizing, fit and cut, but does not incorporate Western elements into its garments. The world of fabrics is a world of innovation and heavy investment, and Bill Ghitis, president of global apparel firm DuPont Textiles and Interiors (DTI), made the point: «Cell phones used to weigh 5 kilos, and are now grams,» he said. «We must be more ambitious with what clothes can look like.» For DTI, the world’s largest integrated fiber business and the leading supplier of elastane, nylon 6.6 and specialty polyester, fiber science is as important as any designer’s sketch pad. Celebrating his family’s 100 years of excellence in silk was Moritz Mantero, CEO of Mantero Seta, the Italian silk textile company and supplier to top international brands and designers. «Don’t consider the world of fashion as fickle,» said Mantero, adding that in the world of Mantero the focus is on mixing craftsmanship with technology. Ethnicity and folklore as exciting elements in fabric design were marked by Kean Etro, head of the menswear division and creative director of Etro. «There was a time when pineapples were a luxury; not anymore,» said Susannah Handley, senior tutor at the School of Fashion and Textiles of the Royal College of Art. «For me, luxury equals desire, which equals intangible things.» She proceeded by presenting the power of «sentimental and connecting technologies,» where designers are looking for new ways to inspire their consumers. Take the visible perfume, for instance, which produces color on the skin, or «soft body armor for the urban battlefield» designed by Vexed Generation 2002, or even Dr Manel Torres’s groundbreaking spray-on cotton fabric. In one of the conference’s most inspiring speeches, British designer Sir Paul Smith talked about «a luxury overload» and stressed the need for individuality. «Oysters are special because they are available at a particular time every year. Does this mean that we should have a handbag season?» he asked with a smile. Smith, who received no formal training and proceeded to build a mini-empire of coolness which is free of debt, is especially big in Japan, where, in the span of a decade, he has developed a wholesale network of 200 stores. He also added that in all 200 Paul Smith outlets around the globe, the motto is: «Think global, act local.» Scooters are on sale at the Tokyo store, for example, while books are available in Paris’s Left Bank shop. «Luxury has always been around, even in the darkest of times, the Middle Ages,» said Patrizio Bertelli, CEO of the Prada Group. «It is the sensibility of a country’s people and their culture and it evolves through history.» For Prada, history began in 1913, with the first shop opening in Milan’s city center. Today, the Prada Group’s path toward luxury supremacy includes its own Miu Miu line, the Helmut Lang label designed by Austrian modernist designer Helmut Lang, the Jil Sander label (without, however, the contribution of Jil Sander who left the company), traditional shoemaker Church’s and, more recently, the acquisition of Azzedine Alaia and Genny. Set to go public back on September 18, 2001, Bertelli postponed the IPO due to the tragic events of September 11 that year and plans to try again in 2005. From the Prada Group’s multibrands to Tod’s specialization in comfortable and top-quality shoes and leatherwear, Diego Della Valle, Tod’s CEO, gave an honest account of how the Italian company became so successful by stressing that it focus on making what it knows best. Yet a lack of product diversification, does not mean a lack of challenges. The company’s recent acquisition of Roger Vivier, the legendary shoemaking house, promises the revival of a legend and sexy luxurious shoes. The continuous revival of Lacoste is the business of Bernard Lacoste, who has been the company’s president since 1963. What began as a label for tennis lovers became a household name with 720 boutiques and 1,500 corners in department stores – as well as countless counterfeits. Up until last Friday afternoon, Vittorio Radice was the chief executive of Selfridges, the celebrated London department store. By Monday morning, however, he had defected to Marks & Spencer, as its new executive director for the home business. Speaking in Paris, he explained how he had transformed Selfridges into a store for the millennium generation. «Out with departments, in with brands,» he said. Laurence Danon agreed, adding only the word «luxury.» As Presidente du Directoire, France-Printemps, Danon was largely responsible for bringing to the landmark Parisian department store, Au Printemps, an entire floor dedicated to luxury brands, including Van Cleef & Arpels and Boucheron. For those who had attended the IHT conference last year, Michael Zaoui’s speech had been key to understanding how the luxury field operates on the corporate level. This year, Zaoui, managing director and head of the Mergers and Acquisitions Department of Morgan Stanley in Europe, told delegates that in the last three years alone 1,400 new luxury stores had flooded the global market and that advertising in the sector was as strong as ever. At the same time, however, Zaoui noted that today’s crisis is a prolonged one, compared with earlier ones, and that the recipe for success is still about focusing on building the brand. Eva Jeanbart-Lorenzotti, the founder and CEO of Vivre, the world’s first consumer-direct marketing vehicle for luxury brands, summed up consumer feelings in the last two decades: If in the 1990s the motto was «I shop, therefore, I am,» in 2002, the feeling is that «Time is my luxury.» Serge Weinberg, CEO of Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, who runs the Gucci Group among others, agreed. «The essence of luxury» he said, «remains scarcity.» The jewel in the crown: branding «What a year it has been,» said Suzy Menkes referring to a series of exciting changes in the jewelry market. Noting the arrival of young designers – such as Jade Jagger at Asprey – and that companies such as diamond traders De Beers are now developing partnerships with luxury houses such as Louis Vuitton, Menkes pointed to the emergence of branding in jewelry. It was Coco Chanel, she said, who was the first to understand the power of fashion jewelry, followed, much later, by houses such as Versace and Dior. Yet it is jewelry’s «moments of eternity» that give it its rightful place in the world. «Today, anything is possible with gold,» said Sarah DaVanzo, creative and strategic adviser of AngloGold, which works with companies to introduce the precious metal to brands. «You can shred it, beat it, even make a gold hologram.» Stephen Lussier, worldwide director for marketing of the Diamond Trading Company (part of the De Beers group and supplier of roughly two-thirds of the diamonds in the world), focused on the power of diamonds, both sentimental and financial. With an estimated 77 million pieces sold last year, Lussier referred to the «Diamond Dream:» its physical attributes, such as rarity and beauty, and its sentimental value, mixing tradition and history with romance and a touch of prestige and status. If delegates expected Francesco Trapani to talk about Lucea, the colorful, recent collection from the house of Bulgari, this CEO’s speech must have come as a surprise, for Trapani made his case for diversification. Bulgari is currently making a strategic move into the world of tourism and hotels, with a project that includes seven hotels in key cities around the world – the first one is scheduled to open in Milan in 2003. Few luxury brands can take such pride in their history as much as the jewelry houses of Asprey and Garrard, founded in 1781 and 1735, respectively. Asprey, for example, has gone from receiving the patronage of Queen Victoria to collaborating today with minimalist fashion designer Hussein Chalayan, while, for Garrard, caretaker of the British royal jewelry collection, the path has also been paved with tradition. For Gianluca Brozzetti, group chief executive officer of Asprey and Garrard, the challenge is to bring a new, hip lease on life to these two historical British brands. Citing other well-known British names, such as Aston Martin, Bentley and even the Tate, Brozzetti made his case for a general British brand revival.

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