Just as globalization and information combined to create what Thomas Friedman aptly coined the ‘flat world,’ these transformational forces are driving the democratization of luxury. Exclusivity has been replaced with near mass availability, anywhere and anytime. Technology and social media are potent forces in spreading the word and creating awareness that can turn into desire and demand — and ultimately sales and profits. But these new tools also undermine a core tenet of luxury: uniqueness or rareness. When luxury becomes ubiquitous, it migrates out of an exclusive arena into the everyday, everywhere streets of fashion. So, while opportunistic luxury brands can reap the benefits of democratization, without nimble brand management, they risk the underbelly of crass commercialism, which is guaranteed to destroy luxury’s allure.
Chanel’s Super Market
In Chanel’s fall 2014 fashion show at the Grand Palais (March 4, 2014) in Paris, Karl Lagerfeld playfully took the idea of luxury’s democratization to the extreme. Instead of transporting the viewer (those in attendance as well as the world of voyeurs watching from afar, thanks to YouTube and chanel.com) to the rarified world of haute couture, a lifestyle few women are able to participate in, Karl brought us to a world we know all too well, the big-box grocery section. He outfitted the interior of the Grand Palais into a tongue-in-cheek Chanel Super Market, replete with Chanel-branded corn flakes and dishwashing detergent. Models adorned with Chanel’s iconic pearls and tweeds wore that most democratic of footwear, sneakers. Everything in the Chanel Super Market was marked up a totally undemocratic price; in fact the signage conveyed +20%, +30%, +50%. Was Karl snickering at our mass consumption of luxury icons and the fact that Chanel has nearly doubled handbag prices in the past five years? Ha Ha — not!
Typical of Lagerfeld’s intellectual sensibility, the event was rich with layered meaning. Statements ranged from ‘if you have it, wear it’ even as you shop the grocery aisle, to a reflection of our society’s pragmatic, reverse-chic taste level — torn pink sweatpants and sneakers worn with a $5000 Chanel handbag. The show took a deep dive into high/low culture; mix your Chanel jacket with your Lululemon yoga pants (don’t you already?). And a multi-thousand-dollar Chanel handbag is the de rigueur accessory, anywhere and everywhere, all the time. Let’s face it, in NYC, the Chanel handbag is the luxury badge of choice as a statement of inclusiveness in a rarified club of women who can afford a $5000 handbag. The bag simply says, ‘I have the money to buy taste and style.’
But wait. Karl is creating a new demand: the next covetable item, Chanel trainers! Hip Hop world get ready!
When Karl used sneakers at the Chanel Spring couture show in January, he spoke of a new, modern, stripped-down attitude about couture: no jewelry — but lots of sneakers that totally change the way a woman moves and feels. For those of us who haven been weaned on 3-inch heels, there is a carefree element to walking in sneakers; finally we don’t have to worry about balance and precarious footing. The models bounced down the stairs, and in the more recent fall show, they danced to the music rather than restraining themselves to the traditional model slink-walk.
Casual is the new zeitgeist, from apparel to communication; denim and Birkenstocks to truncated tweets and text messages. Karl has his finger on the pulse of the times. He even created his own emotiKarl app for iphones and ipads with 30 animated emoticons to “Karlify” text messages.
Looking back, ever the iconoclast, Karl arrived at Chanel in the mid-80s and breathed life into the brand by taking the symbols Coco Chanel made famous — the Chanel suit, the pearls, logo, chains and tweeds — and making them relevant to a new generation. Using mockery and a deft fashion eye, Karl is at it again at the Chanel Super Market, dressed to the nines with crystal-embellished sneakers. If the Chanel Spring 2013 show asked, “Is fashion art?” with Karl’s collection displayed in a mock gallery exhibiting his own artwork (Renaissance man of our times, he’s an artist and photographer, too), the Fall 2014 show asks, “Is fashion commerce?”
The answer is yes to both.
At the other end of the consuming spectrum, products developed for the mass market are garnering fresh cache as they adopt the marketing/branding and retail techniques of luxury brands. Many mass brands are borrowing luxury designers for capsule collections. In fact, Karl Lagerfeld had one of the most successful co-branding collaborations with H&M in 2004, bringing fashion to the masses and driving a 12% quarterly same-store sales gain while selling out of most of the product in just hours. It’s a recurring theme to see designers work with mass retailers in an effort to get brand exposure to a new demographic; the late L’Wren Scott at Banana Republic, Missoni at Target, and Jil Sander at Uniqlo are recent examples. Adjacencies are also part of the strategy for elevating mass brands as they sit alongside luxury labels in magazines and shopping venues (think 5th Avenue and Champs Elysées with their H&Ms, Zaras, and Mossimo Duttis adjacent to Louis Vuitton and Cartier).
Mass fashion brands have benefited from these co-branding and co-habituating trends in terms of brand elevation and attracting new consumers. Luxury brands have been masstiqued, and have a broader product audience with mostly modest diminution of brand status. For luxury brands, democratization works both ways; broadening the client base through democratization is a plus as it potentially increases sales and profits, but a larger client base could undermine the luxury brand’s exclusivity. It’s a fine balance that Chanel does well, but not all luxury strategy implementations are as successful.
So is Lagerfeld the ultimate visionary, or the ultimate social observer and commercial genius?
The answer to both is yes!
If fashion is about change, imagination, and newness as much as it is about clothing, Karl is the consummate fashion designer. He reflects society’s transformations with reverence to Chanel iconography while delighting and surprising us with his unique imprint and playful interpretation of the ever-changing cultural shifts.