Shaking Sameness: Luxury Goes Custom To Rev Up Consumers

PARIS — Luxury brands are out of control. That is, they are breaking out of the direct-control mantra that defined the Nineties.As companies...

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PARIS — Luxury brands are out of control. That is, they are breaking out of the direct-control mantra that defined the Nineties.

As companies rushed over the last five years to roll out their signature store concepts worldwide and increase direct control over every aspect of their labels, a worrisome side effect was a sameness in luxury shopping streets from Beijing to Beverly Hills. This coincided with the global luxury downturn that started just before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and has continued through the latest holiday shopping season. Luxury brands, and retailers, are now scrambling to fight consumer ennui and excite them with product differentiation and specialization.

So, the mantra of the luxury world has changed, from "all for one and one for all" to "one for one and just for you."

Luxury players are layering on initiatives to create a more diverse shopping experience. These include made-to-order products, from Gucci handbags to Burberry trenchcoats, special merchandise that is shipped to only a single location, and increasingly personalized service and styles. Gucci, for example, has seven styles of limited-edition, numbered handbags.

Perhaps the most common strategy is customizing the look and architecture of new stores, particularly flagships. Prada, for example, keen to break the monotony of its well-known lime green store format, enlisted architect Rem Koolhaus for its SoHo New York store and forthcoming San Francisco unit, and Herzog & De Meuron for its Tokyo flagship, bowing this year.

"At the beginning, many criticized us," said Prada chief executive Patrizio Bertelli. "They said that to differentiate the image of the stores would destabilize the concept of the label, but now many are following the same path. The brand can be expressed in different ways."

Not everyone agrees on which strategy is best, but many observers cite a need for diversity.

"In the Nineties, having a uniform image across the world was a key way in which brands built recognition and enabled consumers to understand what the brand lifestyle was all about," said Claire Kent, luxury analyst at Morgan Stanley in London. "But today, consumers sometimes complain that there’s not enough differentiation across cities to make shopping interesting."
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