The melee of Milan Fashion Week. Anna Dello Russo slings her Moschino McDonalds-logo bag over her shoulder, hoists her matching french fries phone-case aloft and mugs for the cameras. A street-style moment is captured. Meanwhile, my inner minimalist dies a little and wonders when luxury become so kitsch.
The answer? About five years ago, when a new, powerful consumer started to emerge – young, moneyed and pop-culture obsessed. These minted millennials from Russia, Korea, China and the United Arab Emirates are everywhere, and tapping into their playful mindset are the oldest and savviest of luxury brands. Of these, Chanel – under Karl Lagerfeld’s creative watch – is arguably the most influential.
My favourite part of last autumn’s Mademoiselle Privé exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery was a short film called Visite Nocturne. In it, the ghost of Coco Chanel has an argument with Karl Lagerfeld. “I turned in my grave,” complains Coco to Karl about how he has updated her couture house. “I’m keeping you alive! It’s very limited, what you left,” argues Karl. It’s a pointed reminder of Lagerfeld’s immense contribution to the enduring success of Chanel, in which he has elevated its relevance with his interpretations and subversions of the original house codes.
But more than that, in the 33 years since he arrived at Chanel, he has invigorated it with a sense of wit and joie de vivre that just keeps on giving.
“Every luxury brand of note seems hellbent on erecting monumental retail playgrounds to tell their story”
There’s a fine balance to be struck when a heritage house goes down the playful luxe route. There are plenty of pop cultural tropes – fast food, consumerism, smartphone culture, teen iconography – reimagined in the finest of leathers or handwrought textiles are plentiful, but the art lies in the execution. God forbid it should come across as predictable or gauche. And as much care should go into crafting something seemingly silly as something classic and revered. From 2013’s Boy Brick clutch to this year’s trainers embedded with LED lights, a certain finesse is a given.
And, of course, that goes not just for the product designs, but for the entire brand universe. Because every luxury brand of note seems hellbent on erecting monumental retail playgrounds to tell their story. Why have a shop, a show or an exhibition when you can have an “immersive” wonderland of delights in which the product is a treasured souvenir of the overall experience?
We’ve never seen quite this level of fashion-as-pop-culture-spectacle, but we’ve certainly been down the playful luxury road before. In 1930s Paris, Coco Chanel’s artist and designer contemporaries would collaborate on the most amusingly outre of creations. Elsa Schiaparelli rebelled against her very proper upbringing with her tongue-in-cheek lobster dress and upturned shoe-hat – both joint efforts with Salvador Dali. It was common for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar to enlist surrealist art stars – Dali among them – to imbue their covers with abstract whimsy. Much later, the stuffiness of 1980s Parisian fashion was shaken loose by Jean-Paul Gaultier’s punky youthquakers alongside Lagerfeld’s new vision at Chanel, in which miniskirted tweed suits upped the fun factor.
Today, the legacy of those spirited times recurs in the animations and short fashion films that translate so well to the attention span of our Instagram age. In 2011, Chanel installed Une Promenade at Harrods, an epic pop-up Chanel world demonstrating its inimitable craft via an army of Coco Chanel Bear Brick dolls, a room of Chanel No 5 pop art, and a video wall showing the making of a 2.55 bag. This was luxury as realised for the millennial era, wowing thousands of iPhone wielding shoppers from around the world.
Fast-forward five years and no self-respecting luxury house is without tech wizardry that passes seamlessly from store display to phone screen (preferably with a “buy” button embedded somewhere along the way). Burberry and its populist digital experiences lead with a social media audience of 30 million. Others are catching up rapidly. With Hermès and its Instagram animations, Smythson’s video collaborations with collage artist Quentin Jones, not to mention Dior’s and Louis Vuitton’s forays into Snapchat-land, the message is: “I’m into fine things but I’m not old-fashioned or elitist.” Where old luxury was reverent and precious, new luxury doesn’t take itself quite so seriously.
The future of fine goods then, lies in the lap of the next generation of global cash-rich customer. One who has grown up with the lighthearted luxury that infiltrates all aspects of their pop-tastic lifestyle – especially in Asia. Last year, management consultants Bain & Company calculated that Chinese shoppers accounted for 30 per cent of the world’s luxury consumers. Meanwhile, South Korea, land of Samsung superphones and kawaii-cute accessories, is considered the fastest-growing luxury goods market in the world behind India, China and Hong Kong. The smartest brands know this, hence their Asia-located fashion shows. Chanel showed in Shanghai way back in 2005, followed by Seoul for Cruise 2016 last year. And forget Rihanna, no Chanel front row is complete without its lineup of baby-faced K-pop influencers.
“Fendi bag-bug charms, designer trainers and novelty smartphone cases are all totems of today’s youthful luxurist. It’s agreed we’re all kidults at heart and we all love a bit of whimsy.”
Where yesteryear’s luxury was aimed at the over-forties, today’s brands actively target the young and young at heart. How else to explain the phenomenon of Anya Hindmarch leather stickers and Charlotte Olympia’s myriad Kitty flats? In fact, scratch that, we’re seeing entire new entry-point product categories emerging – the Fendi bag-bug charms, designer trainers and novelty smartphone cases are all totems of today’s youthful luxurist. It’s agreed we’re all kidults at heart and we all love a bit of whimsy.
As the decade hurtles on, and the high-low smartphone generation matures, we will see the paradox of the whimsical and the luxurious play out. If brands keep innovation high and maintain the high standards and magical quality of their brand experience, they’ll keep reaping the rewards. Kitsch can make them rich – jaded minimalists be damned!
Photography Ola Rindal (Adamsky), Styling Marcus Söder (LinkDetails), Model Sofia Fanego (Silent Models), Casting Jacob Mohr (Creatvt), Hair Olivier De Vriendt (ArtList), Make up Kathy Le Sant (Airport) using Chanel Cosmetics, Photography assistant Clemence Vaufrey, Styling assistant Ellen Pålsson Norberg.